What is biophilic design? And where’s the evidence?

At PassivPod, we talk a lot about biophilic design and its benefits. But what exactly is biophilic design? And where’s all the evidence that it actually makes a difference? We break down the industry jargon and point out the science:

 What is biophilic design? And where's the evidence?Research Blog

Biophilia (“love of life”) and biophilic design is an architectural and interior design style which incorporates and mimics nature. It’s based on the idea that humans have an innate affiliation with nature, due to our evolutionary history.

A lot of research has shown spending time in nature has positive psychological and physiological effects. These effects can be recreated with indoor environments which are rich in nature and nature-inspired features.

So far, research has suggested biophilic design benefits include making workers more productive, patients recover more quickly, shoppers buy more and students learn better.

Industry leader Human Spaces divides the key biophilic design principles into three core areas:

  • Nature in the space
    Such as sunlight, fresh air flow, pot plants, green walls, aquariums…
  • Natural analogues
    Such as shapes, patterns and colours reminiscent of natural forms, natural materials like timber and stone, nature photography and artwork…
  • Nature of the space
    Spatial configurations we are naturally drawn to, such as cosy secluded nooks, wide open expansive space, meandering corridors…

So where’s the evidence to back all this up? Here’s a small selection of the research that’s been conducted in this growing field.

Benefits of biophilic design: the evidence

    • A 2016 study in the Journal of Indoor Environment and Health on carbon dioxide and cognitive performance found that moderate amounts of stale air was linked with participants being drowsy and giving slower and fewer correct answers in cognitive tests.
    • A study in the US on workers in offices which had either the average level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and ventilation or the low level of VOCs and high level of ventilation (which is required by certified green buildings) found huge differences in cognitive performance. The participants in the green offices performed an astounding 101% better than the control group!
    • A study in the Journal of Environment and Behaviour found a group of children exposed to chronic low-level noise had significantly worse memory recognition scores than a control group.
    • The report Learning Spaces cites a year-long study of 2,000 classrooms by the Heschong Mahone Group, which found that: “Students in classrooms with daylight improved 20 percent faster in math scores and 26 percent in reading scores.”
    • A study by the American Society for Horticultural Science compared the students’ subjective evaluation in two otherwise identical classrooms, one of which included tropical plants. The students in the class with plants rated both their course and their lecturer more favourably and said they felt more engaged*.
    • A report by Human Spaces states: “Research shows that optimising exposure to daylight alone can improve school attendance by an average of 3.5 days/year and test scores by 5-14% while increasing the speed of learning by 20-26%. Trials have found that plants in classrooms can lead to improved performance in spelling, mathematics and science of 10-14%.”
    • A 2016 study carried out by the Harvard School of Public Health and the State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University found that those working in green-certified buildings had 26% higher cognitive function test scores than those in similarly high-performing buildings that were not green-certified. Moreover, green-certified building workers had 73% higher crisis-response scores; 44% higher applied activity levels and 38% higher focused activity level scores.
    • A review of patient records in the US showed those in a room with a view of a natural setting had shorter post-operative hospital stays, received fewer negative evaluative comments in nurses’ notes and took fewer analgesics than those whose view faced an urban setting.
    • A 2014 study researching Japanese ‘forest bathing’ revealed indoor stimulations of a natural environment decreased subjects’ blood pressure and pulse rate and induced a physiological relaxation effect. Researchers used olfactory, auditory and tactile stimulation to replicate a natural setting.
    •  A University of Illinois study found children with ADHD concentrated better after a 20-minute walk in a park compared with a 20-minute walk in a ‘well-kept urban setting.’
    • 1992 study from Sweden compared students in classrooms with windows and students studying under only florescent lights. They found that students without daylight produced less of a hormone that helps the body deal with stress and infection.

*And if you’re wondering how plants and natural views help cognition, the Attention Restoration Theory goes some way to explaining it. The 14 patterns of biophilic design report quotes researchers Lewis and Vessel (2012) in describing the physiological response of the eyes to screens and other tasks such as reading or writing:

“When sitting and staring at a computer screen or doing any task with a short visual focus, the eye’s lens becomes rounded with the contracting of the eye muscles. When these muscles stay contracted for an extended period, i.e., more than 20 minutes at a time, fatigue can occur, manifesting as eye strain, headaches and physical discomfort. A periodic, yet brief visual or auditory distraction that causes one to look up (for >20 seconds) and to a distance (of >20 feet) allows for short mental breaks during which the muscles relax and the lenses flatten.”  

So there you have it: research-backed evidence that design impacts not only our wellbeing, but our health, productivity and cognitive function.

More information relating specifically to the benefits of biophilic design in the education system can be accessed in Koru Architects’ Built to Learn report (PDF).


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