Biophilia and Benefits of Biophilic Design

Growing up in Canada, natural beauty is abundant and never far away. Weekends are spent hiking up mountains flush with foliage and critters, or swimming in lakes and rivers to discover new vegetation that could never be found on land. Being so close to so many untouched stretches of land, and the serenity that comes with the surroundings, it’s hard not to be reminded of how peaceful the wild can really make us feel. There’s a reason that the imagery and sounds of the forest are used in meditation, massages, and yoga; we come from nature, and so we crave to be back with it. 

Beautiful Canadian Rockies landscape

This magnetism is no mystery. Multitudes of studies have been conducted to find out what draws us in when we are faced with a natural environment. Contact with nature, even just on a visual level, has been proven to reduce stress, improve attention and task performance, as well as having a positive effect on mental restoration. For example, a study completed in 2009 showed that in the presence of greenery, patients recovering from surgery reported a general higher satisfaction, lower blood pressure, as well as lower ratings of pain, anxiety, and fatigue in comparison to their non-plant counterparts. The feeling of restoration and rejuvenation when we inhale freshly cut grass, or gaze out onto a full, lively garden is no illusion; plants help us to heal.

Similarly, a study involving students in grades seven to nine heavily suggested an improvement to focus and attention. Students placed in rooms with plants and flowers during math and spelling tests received a 10% to 14% increase in their grades than when faced with a lifeless room. Urban workplaces reported a parallel improvement to productivity and overall satisfaction from employees when given a more scenic and green landscape. These connections between wellbeing and biophilic design are being recognized by many large urban centers globally. Places like Singapore, Barcelona, and Panama City are integrating plant life directly into their buildings and businesses, making a city-wide biophilic connection. The centers are seeing an impact in which the human mind feels more at peace, more at home instinctually, and environmentally a positive benefit to our planet.

Biophilia In Depth

One of the key characteristics of biophilia is leveraging nature in all aspects. Biophilia's beginning can be attributed to a biologist by the name of Edward O. Wilson. Wilson spent his studies in the Amazon, studying animals on the smallest scale: ants. Focusing on the small did not hinder his focus to the large, however. Being a man from Alabama in the 1970s, such undisturbed wilderness offered Wilson a look into how our environments can affect us firsthand. 

People immersing themselves in a man-made nature environment

At a time when Wilson was publishing books more for large-scale scientific advances, he released a book that was more personal for him to write, titled “Biophilia”. Wilson is credited with introducing the term biophilia, defining it as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. Wilson dedicated an entire chapter to the importance of biodiversity in places like the rainforest. His logic focused on not being limited to a focus on just plant-life, but to all life. This belief was supported by the ecosystems he studied in which the existence of hundreds of organisms can rely entirely on the existence of one. Even on a minor scale, biophilia can be expressed through any mutualistic symbiotic relationship, just like the bee and the flower. According to Wilson, our desire for other life is something that is built into us, as babies, we have to learn to “distinguish life from the inanimate” as life is where we’d find love, care, and food. The craving for nature is a biological response, a survival tactic, one that hasn’t been phased out by evolution, but has been phased out by the urban development of society. 

In our battle with urban development and in turn climate change, we have learned that there’s no better pollution control than the one that Earth is supplying itself. The most impressive feat for control is flora, nature’s tool for air purification. With the advent of urbanization, society has increased levels of different pollutants in the air. This problem is not only a global issue but a personal and individual issue since our wellbeing and health are directly affected. Biophilia in its base form provides a solution by utilizing nature’s tools and our craving for nature to help improve our urban situation through urban design. In addition, since our homes are not immune to the outdoor pollution that can seep through doors and windows. The air pollution in our own homes is worse than one might expect, especially when indoor air pollutants aren’t a widely covered topic. 

Impact on Indoor Air Quality

Open concept home with nature inspire design

Indoor pollutants are not only those that are created by industrial processes but also those found from household materials that are already present. Indoor pollutants cover a variety of sources including pets, rodents, bugs, and molds from a biological perspective, and a variety of materials that emit volatile organic compounds. Simple household products such as paints, varnishes, cleaners, and building materials can emit harmful air pollutants ie volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These volatile organic compounds, like benzene and formaldehyde, are linked to respiratory problems such as asthma and pneumonia. Their impact is not only limited to the respiratory system but can also damage the reproductive and endocrine systems, some cases even causing cancer. A study done in 2009 proved once again that our green friends can help us in more ways than we thought. Certain VOCs such as benzene, toluene, and octane, considered “important” because of their toxicity, as well as their commonality in the average home was put up against twenty-eight different species of popular house plants. The study found that certain plants performed better at removing certain volatile organic compounds. For instance, the house plant Hemigraphis Alternata, commonly referred to as the purple waffle plant, was found to decrease all volatile organic compounds tested dramatically. Even in plants that were classified under “poor VOC removal” had significant improvement from at least one volatile organic compound tested. The plant that was deemed the least effective, the sweet-scented geranium, still showed a noticeable difference in air quality in reference to toluene, TCE, and α-pinene, all volatile organic compounds that have been found to be hazardous. As can be seen, leveraging the biophilic design and introducing nature indoors creates a net positive effect and benefit.

It’s not a secret that we are drawn to the green that surrounds us, or why we are so magnetized, but we can always ask how we can use this information. The possibilities of biophilic design are ever-expanding, as is the science behind it. The more we learn about our plant friends, the more they can help us, and vice versa. To quote Edward O. Wilson again, “To the degree that we come to understand other organisms, we will place a greater value on them, and on ourselves.”