Green plants between escalators at One Central Park, Sydney. Credit: Carl Drury

+ Buildings like the shopping centre at One Central Park in Sydney, use biophilic design principles to connect occupants with the natural world.

Look around you. Besides some plants, if you are lucky, is there any evidence of nature in your environment right now? I think it’s time that designers learnt how to integrate nature into all our designs.

“Nowhere is the absence of sensory experience more vivid than in modern buildings that minimise contact with anything natural — whether it is air, daylight, views, green vegetation, materials, patterns, or colour. Our modern workplaces are seas of bland cubicles that isolate rather than integrate people — not unlike the cages in the old-style zoos”. 

Those words, first spoken by environmental psychologist Judith Heerwagen, and repeated by Yale ecologist, Stephen Kellert, have stayed with me since I first read them five years ago. Kellert and Heerwagen were pioneers in the development of biophilic design, a design philosophy that connects humans with the natural world by incorporating nature and natural processes into the built environment. This enables us to reap the benefits of contact with nature including reduced stress, improved creativity and attention. This suggests that designers have a responsibility to ensure that people are connected to nature. 

But what is biophilic design exactly? I’m being asked this question more and more often, particularly now that both the Living Building Challenge and the WELL Building Standard incorporate biophilic design. Using the natural world as inspiration, the built environment can incorporate and replicate features that have been shown to improve human wellbeing. This can be done by adding plants, natural materials, images of nature and water features, and by ensuring that occupants have access to natural light and views of nature. These are only some of the ways a project can become more biophilic.

My perspective on biophilic design is that integrating nature into the built environment gives us the opportunity to be our best selves and helps us maintain our crucial connection to the natural world. Biophilic design creates environments that help us live life to its fullest and recover from everyday stressors. 

Researchers have found that a green office environment, in this case one that included plants, produced higher levels of workplace satisfaction, performance, and concentration compared with those in a typical office environment. This type of evidence exists throughout academic literature and I think it’s up to us, as members of the built environment industry, to educate ourselves and come up with creative, environmentally sensitive solutions that are founded in nature-based thinking.

I challenge every one of you to look at your immediate surroundings and think of ways to improve the environment, using nature as your inspiration. Look at your screensaver or the wallpaper on your computer. Chances are many of you have consciously or subconsciously chosen an awe-inspiring image from nature.

Let’s do this. Together we can improve the health of both people and the planet by taking inspiration from nature.