Biophilic Design Approaches for Health & Sustainability


How can spaces be deliberately designed to improve human health? One approach is to pursue a healthy building certification program, such as the WELL Building and Fitwel certification programs. Alternatively, a theory of design called biophilia presents a framework for informing design decisions, based on the premise that there is a natural human tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. Biophilia recognizes that as biological animals, humans have natural habitats analogous to that of other animals.

By understanding the types of environments that enable humans to thrive—and by incorporating these elements into building design—architects, engineers, developers, and sustainability consultants can actively seek to promote human health and well-being in the design of all types of spaces. This approach is particularly compelling because it explains why and how certain design elements affect human health. In addition to outlining a series of specific design interventions to improve the experience of a space, biophilia allows for a deeper understanding of the relationship between humans and our surroundings that can broadly inform building design and construction.

Terrapin Bright Green’s landmark report on biophilic design outlines 14 patterns that occur naturally in nature and which ones affect humans more positively. The patterns can be broken down into three main categories:

  1. Nature in the Space: Refers to the direct, physical presence of nature in a space—such as plant life, water features, animals, and the sounds, scents, and other sensory stimulants found in nature.
  2. Natural Analogues: Describes the metaphorical, material, and indirect evocations of nature in a space, such as hardwood floors or a painting of a natural landscape.
  3. Nature of the Space: Refers to the spatial configurations that mimic desirable settings for humans in nature—such as the human preference for spaces with a view.  

In practice, the implementation of biophilic design elements has had profound impacts on the overall health and wellness of building occupants in a variety of settings. According to The Economics of Biophilia: Why Designing with Nature in Mind Makes Financial Sense, 10 percent of employee absences can be attributed to architecture with no connection to nature.

The impact is no less striking in hospital settings. A 1984 study of hospital patients recovering from gallbladder surgery demonstrated that patients in rooms with window views of nature were released 8.5 percent sooner than those patients whose rooms overlooked a brick wall. And, “over 50 studies have been published that associate biophilic elements as primary influences for faster recovery rates for patients, decreased dependency on medication, reduced staff and family stress, and improved emotional wellness as a result of natural daylighting and views to nature.”

The positive impacts of biophilic design in educational settings are also profound. A study of 1,500 children ages 8 to 12 found that students who had spent additional time in nature, when compared to their peers, showed superior learning and development, greater physical strength and coordination, better self-esteem and self-confidence, enhanced ability to cope with challenges and adversity, and higher critical thinking, problem-solving, and creative abilities.

All of these results have major implications for affordable and supportive housing.

Biophilic design elements can reduce stress for children living in affordable housing, improve their ability to learn and retain new information, and improve their self-esteem and ability to concentrate. For individuals living in supportive housing who suffer from medical conditions, biophilic design elements can improve their ability to cope and speed up recovery times. And for all individuals living in affordable housing who suffer from socio-economic stress, biophilic design can reduce stress, improve mental health, and positively impact comfort, well-being, and happiness. These are just a few examples of the profound effects biophilia can have in an affordable housing development—and there are countless more. It’s clear that for a given resident population, mental, emotional, and physical health can be improved by incorporating biophilic design elements into a development or retrofit project.

Sustainability & Health: Designing for Both to Further Your Mission

How do biophilia and sustainability fit together? In a sense, they are two sides of the same coin. Biophilia asserts that humans intrinsically need nature in order to thrive. Sustainability aims to minimize resource consumption so that we are able to find balance within our ecological systems, and ensure the longevity of resources for future use. An integrated perspective that understands the human need for nature, actively seeks to incorporate biophilic design elements into a space, and recognizes the need for balanced resource consumption and environmental preservation could achieve both health and wellness goals for a given site.

Design Interventions That Support Both Sustainability and Health

Design Interventions That Support Both Sustainability and Health

It is clear that many design interventions can be a win-win for both sustainability and health. Building science can be used to support both for mutual benefit. Sustainability consultants are well positioned to contribute to this conversation based on our role in development projects. Typically, sustainability objectives are set for a given project—such as an energy performance threshold—and we work with the design team to optimize a design to meet these goals. Our intimate knowledge of building systems and our ability to optimize a design based on client goals is equally valuable when considering health objectives. And once construction is complete, we can help owners track energy performance through our utility bill benchmarking platform, EnergyScoreCards, or through real-time energy monitoring. A similar process could be used to identify and track key metrics relevant to occupant health, such as indoor air quality, temperature, or ventilation rates.

Bright Power is committed to understanding the leading edge of industry best practices and integrating new research and best practices into our client services. As a result of the recent research on cognitive neuroscience, situated cognition, biophilia, and the impact of architecture on the brain, we have developed additional ways to best serve our clients.

Here are some ways Bright Power can assist you in incorporating the above ideas into your next development or retrofit project:

    1. Facilitate a health and sustainability design charrette: During early pre-development we will identify project goals and key metrics to guide the development process.
    2. Develop Owner’s Project Requirements (OPR): In collaboration with your team, we will set standard best practices for rehabilitation and development projects based on cutting edge building science
    3. Assist with green project underwriting: Whether you’re interested in assessing the appropriate operations and maintenance assumptions for your project, exploring “green” financing opportunities that support sustainability or health measures, or collaborating on a grant application for gap financing, Bright Power is here to help.   
    4. Green Owner’s Rep Services: Interested in all of the above? We’re happy to work with you as a green owner’s rep to provide holistic project guidance on everything from underwriting for energy efficiency to applying for gap financing to fund sustainability or health-related measures.
    5. Benchmark your project’s progress: The best way to ensure a property is meeting the desired goals is to track its performance, analyze the data, and provide feedback to your team. Our team can help you determine which metrics and tracking options best fit your needs, and to put together a custom solution to suit your project.

Where do we go from here?

The growing focus on the intersection between health and housing is inspiring a wave of innovation in the design and construction of affordable housing. The industry is benefitting from new stakeholders, information, and conversations inspired by healthcare professionals and neuroscience research. From this confluence of interdisciplinary expertise, it’s becoming clear that an integrated design approach informed by biophilia and high-performance design techniques can achieve health, sustainability, and financial objectives for affordable housing projects. Whether your objectives are to improve resident health and well-being, reduce operating costs, or improve the outcomes of on-site social services, a holistic design approach centered on sustainability and health can help to achieve these goals.

Let us know how we can best assist you with your next project. Contact your Bright Power Account Manager today to learn more about how we can help you save money, achieve sustainability goals, and improve resident health in your next project.

Stay tuned for my next blog post on Green Financing Tools for Affordable Housing!