A plant in Emily Henderson’s Mountain House Living Room, which features an A-frame wall of Marvin windows.
30 October 2020

Biophilia Explained: The Case for Bringing Nature Inside

What a science term has to do with some of the most fundamental aspects of good design.


Biophilia. Biomimicry. Biometrics. What do these words have in common other than being hard to pronounce? They start with “bio,” which means life, living things. In the architecture, design, and building world, biophilia is a science-y word for something we all innately understand – that views of nature, natural materials and shapes and textures that remind us of the natural world outside feel good inside our homes.


To shed a little bit of light on a concept that’s gaining popularity and relevance as the time we spend indoors increases, we dig into what biophilia is and how anyone can incorporate natural elements as an instant indoor mood booster.


What is biophilia, in simple terms?


Biophilia, in its simplest terms, means “love of life,” says Jaclyn Whitaker, Senior Vice President of the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI). The IWBI is leading a global movement to transform our buildings and communities in ways that help people thrive. People like Whitaker are experts in improving health and human experience through design.


“The term biophilia was coined in the mid-60s by a psychologist who referred to it as a ‘passionate love of all life.’ Biophilic design means incorporating natural materials, views, vegetation, or indirect representations of nature like photographs, art or color and pattern into the design of a space to simulate feelings of being outdoors,” Whitaker says.


What are the benefits of biophilia?


Humans are hardwired to crave nature, and studies have shown there’s a positive biological response that happens when we come into contact with nature – something that’s been ingrained in us since our earliest days living on the savanna.


“This response has been mapped onto our brains, that elements of nature will impact both productivity and happiness,” Whitaker says.


Specifically, exposure to natural elements is linked to lower blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and an increase in the ability to focus, recover from stress, and endure pain. If you find yourself gazing out of your window when trying to gather your thoughts, your brain might be seeking that sense of focus. If your stress melts away the minute you walk into a room with beautiful blue curtains and a carpet that reminds you of the ocean, the calming effect of biophilia is at work.


In an article for Dwell magazine, biophilia expert Bill Browning says, “Even looking at an image of nature for 40 seconds will switch the way your brain processes information. The prefrontal cortex quiets down as you expend less energy, and after you’ve had that view, you’ll be less stressed and you’ll have better cognitive capacity.”


How is biophilic design incorporated into spaces?


Biophilic design can be achieved in two ways: direct representation, like an actual living plant or a wood beam, or indirect representation, which can involve any items that mimic aspects of nature in color, texture, or pattern.


“You can get the benefits of biophilic design through imitations of nature. Certain carpeting gives the impression of water, art can bring nature images inside where there aren’t windows, textiles or wallpaper can have patterns that reproduce things you see in nature, even furniture can achieve “biomimicry” with different shapes that might mimic the curve of a wave or another natural element,” Whitaker says.


Whitaker assures that a space doesn’t need to have an indoor atrium or a fancy water feature to conjure positive associations with nature.


“There a lot of objects or design choices that people might not even be aware of that are drawing on the innate connection to nature,” she says.


Can urban dwellers capitalize on the mood boosting qualities of biophilia?


Now more than ever, we might all be craving a restorative trip to the mountains or a relaxing day spent at the beach. But what if you’re stuck at home – and home is in the middle of a bustling city with little greenspace or natural views? The beauty of biophilic design is that it can be incorporated into any space, regardless of your surroundings.


Bringing nature into a space could begin with sounds – a babbling brook or chirping birds that can affect your mood even if they’re just coming from a speaker in the corner of your living room. Look for ways to bring dynamic and diffuse light into a space, with varying intensities of light that change throughout your day. The built in LEDs of the new Marvin Awaken Skylight have been designed to replicate the temperature and intensity of natural light, helping to support your natural rhythm indoors.


A city view can also tap into some of the principles of biophilic design, including the concept of prospect and refuge - having an unimpeded view over a distance and a place for withdrawal or refuge, like a cozy nook or space in a home.


Can anyone dabble in biophilic design?


If you’ve recently impulse-purchased a succulent that you felt your heart needed, you can congratulate yourself for incorporating biophilic design into your home. If you took the plunge and ordered that floral wallpaper that draws you into the little half bath off of your kitchen, or opted for that jute rug that brings a sandy hue and grass-like texture to your living room, these are all elements of biophilic design that help contribute to the way you feel when you’re inside.


There are easy things we can all do to boost the nature quotient in our homes. Consider these five things you can do today:

  • Move your home office desk closer to a window that lets you soak in the natural light and gaze at your own unique outdoor view.
  • Buy that bouquet of flowers you keep eyeing while in the checkout line of the grocery store.
  • Create diversity in texture by replacing your standard throw blankets with ones that evoke colors, patterns, or textures of nature – think faux fur or flower prints.
  • Invest in a temporary, nature-inspired wallpaper for a space you spend a lot of time in.
  • Make small swaps to bring in more natural materials – like stone coasters and wood cutting boards.

If you’re looking for a more comprehensive, mood-boosting overhaul, a professional designer can help orchestrate a top-to-bottom calming environment that incorporates the kind of elements that will help keep your stress at bay and your productivity up.


Top photo by Sara Tramp