Before offices everywhere sent most of their employees home to work, there were ongoing conversations about how to make them happier in the office -- and biophilic design was one of a few ideas championed for its employee health implications as well as its eco-responsibility. Biophilic design is part of the green-building trend, and its basic premise is to connect the natural environment to the built environment through the use of natural materials, spatial design, and views or access points to nature. Furnishings made of natural materials, garden terraces in mixed-use high rises, and offices designed to maximize daylight are all examples of biophilic design in practice. Sometimes it's the core philosophy driving design of a space, and sometimes it's one of several influences.
Biophilic design inspirations and context
"Biophilic design is an area of study inspired by people's need to be closer to nature," says green-building expert Eric Corey Freed. As the author of Green Building for Dummies, Freed keeps busy consulting with office buildings and neighborhoods that want to work toward net-zero energy usage -- but his passion is for biophilic building.
Both biophilic design and net-zero energy fall under the larger umbrella of sustainable building. Net-zero energy is the term for buildings that consume only as much energy as they produce. Freed can explain many ways the two concepts are not only related but also symbiotic. For example, biophilic design incorporates practices such as increasing the natural light flowing through the building. Net-zero energy wants to take that natural light and use it instead of electric-powered light to lower a building's energy usage and associated costs. Biophilic design is very much centered on employee health and wellness in a way that net zero and most sustainable building practices are not.
Where has it been and where is it now?
The concept has evolved a lot since the 1980s, when it basically meant, "add a fountain to your building foyer." Anyone who has been in one of those eighties-style office building atriums can easily recall such an indoor fountain, probably landscaped with flaccid ground cover greenery and barely holding off mold in the still-pooled areas.
Modern biophilic design is decidedly not this style. For one thing, it's become more regionally inspired, in keeping with one of the key tenets of sustainability, which is the use of locally-sourced materials. For another, it relies more on elements like light and spatial design to create a feeling of connectivity with the outdoors. That is, rather than plunking down an outdoor thing on the inside, this is a more organic approach. It even focuses on the non-visual, such as improving air quality within a building in order to improve employee productivity.
The other key advancement is how high tech it's become. Not only is the architecture and design more subtle with biomimicry (imitation of nature), but the materials themselves are often designed to improve or enhance biophilic elements.
For example, sustainable building startup Sage Green Life is producing walls constructed of a special cement that can hold water, for easy installation of green walls. Sensors in the wall gauge how much water a wall is taking in and how much oxygen it's putting out. The smaller of these walls can be used to build cubicles or partitions in offices. The larger can be used as green walls in large office building atriums.
Why is biophilic design a trend?
While advancements in biophilic design are fascinating and often beautiful, putting the discipline front and center for new projects is not cheap. So why is it a growing trend in commercial real estate?
The main reason is the bright spotlight currently placed on employee mental health and wellbeing. Employers want to attract quality talent, and with mental wellness in the workplace being a major factor, Class A buildings are expected to have design features that support it -- from green garden spaces to welcoming, warmly-lit lobbies.
Biophilia is also a major trend in multifamily buildings, although the owners and managers of these really want their tenants to be happy and entertained, not necessarily productive.
Another reason for its popularity is that people really do have an increasing interest in dwelling in eco-friendly buildings. Few of them understand exactly what that concept entails, but elements like green roofs, outdoor event spaces and energy-efficient sensor-controlled lighting are handles that they can easily grab onto and be sure that the building meets some eco standards.
And on a related note, biophilic practices can often go hand in hand with long-term money savings, especially when they affect the lighting and heating bills.
Biophilic design and the future
At the moment, no one is sure what the future of office or retail is. But before 2020's various shakeups, many experts said that biophilic design was the way of the future -- a must to keep employees happy and buildings thriving. Now, of course, many folks are avoiding offices and shopping centers altogether. But no matter when they get back to regular life, or if they don't and the existing buildings are repurposed, a shift to biophilic design seems like a friendlier, more forward-thinking way to exist in large commercial spaces.