Stemming for the Greek words for “life” (bio) and “love” (philia), biophilia is the theory that humans have an innate connection to nature. First introduced by psychologist Eric Fromm in 1964, the theory has been adopted by researchers in many fields—including architecture and interior design. Researchers find that connections with nature produce a range of health benefits, including reduced stress, increased energy levels, and improved cognitive function. The built environment, however, often disconnects people from nature.
For centuries, most of the world’s population lived in agrarian environments where nature was a part of daily life. Today, nearly 60% of the world’s population lives in cities, according to the United Nations. With this number only expected to rise, architects and interior designers are looking for ways to improve the quality of life in urban areas. Biophilia helps designers improve wellbeing, and biophilic design principles like daylighting, natural materials, and visual connections to nature are becoming popular architectural practices.
Biophilia at Neumann Monson
At Neumann Monson, biophilia continuously influences our design solutions. The Pearson headquarters renovation uses biophilia to improve occupant wellbeing during the workday. Before the renovation, the building’s large and deep footprint blocked access to daylight. In the renovation, we removed physical barriers, opened the floorplan to carry light throughout the space, and installed skylights in windowless areas. We also arranged the office into themed spaces inspired by the Iowa landscape and incorporated locally-sourced, natural materials. To create a visual connection to nature, we placed living wall planters and potted plants throughout the facility.
Our design for the Unitarian Universalist Society facility also incorporates biophilia. The property includes walking and biking trails and a natural playground, which features fallen trees, a mud kitchen, and a “skull cave” created from the bones of naturally deceased animals found on the property. The building itself is designed to maximize views of the surrounding woodland. The project team describes the design as a “tent on the savanna.” Its curved, glass pane structure provides uninterrupted views of the landscape, while its low entrance creates a feeling of refuge.
The Living Building Challenge
Looking to the future, biophilia continues to inspire our design choices, especially for projects seeking sustainable design certifications. The Stanley Center for Peace and Security seeks a Living Building Certification, the most rigorous standard for sustainable design. Living Building projects require architects and building owners to engage in an all-day exploration of biophilic design. When completed, the Center’s new headquarters will feature indoor foliage, living wall planters, and an outdoor courtyard complete with a community garden. Each office will feature operable windows that supply access to fresh air and daylight. By requiring biophilic design elements, the Living Building Challenge looks to improve the health of the building’s occupants, as well as the health of the planet.
Biophilia and the Future of Design
On average, people spend about 90% of their time indoors where they are disconnected from the natural world. Architects and interior designers have the opportunity to connect people to their evolutionary need for nature by bringing nature inside. Green-building initiatives like WELL and the Living Building Challenge formalize these efforts, making biophilic patterns increasingly common in new and renovated buildings. By designing for people and their “love (philia) of life (bio),” we can create empowering spaces that improve wellbeing.