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What Is Biophilia – And Why Is It Trending? – an interview with Oliver Heath

Written by Rachel Forster

On March 8, 2021

Biophilic design has become a talking point for anyone interested in the future of the workplace. But what is it and why all the interest? I asked biophilic design expert Oliver Heath, founder of sustainable architecture and interior design practice Oliver Health Design, to explain.

Oliver, can you tell us what is biophilia?

Biophilia explains humans’ innate attraction to nature and natural processes. It means love of nature. The term was invented in the 1980s and popularised by the biologist Edward O. Wilson when he recognised society’s departure from rural dwellings and into city centres and the many physiological and psychological problems that came from it.

It explains why, when we go on holiday, we choose beaches, mountains and forests. Biophilia has an incredible ability to aid mental stress and physical recovery. We know that inherently.

And what is biophilic design?

Biophilic design is a set of design principles that allows us to bring a deeper connection to nature into buildings and the built environment as a means to reduce stress and aid recuperation.

It’s about enhancing a building’s function and intended function and reducing negative aspects like stress, absenteeism and staff turnover.

There are three core concepts to it:

1. A direct connection to nature. How you enhance your link to real and sensory forms of nature and bring plants and trees but also natural light, fresh air and acoustics into spaces.
2. Indirect connections to nature. How we evoke or mimic a sense of nature in spaces, using natural materials, colours, textures, patterns, and even technologies.
3. The human spatial response. How we create energising spaces, exciting and stimulating and recognising that as human beings, we get tired after an hour or two of intense focus. We need spaces to sit and relax and recuperate and regain our mental, physical and cognitive focus.

Then there are 14 patterns of biophilic design, which are 14 ways to enhance that nature connection in buildings.

You can download our white paper written with our partners Interface Flooring on Creating Positive Spaces Using Biophilic Design for free. We looked at them across a range of different budgets – low to medium to high. It’s about using creativity to recognise the opportunities in a site and the opportunity to connect with nature around the building or the natural elements that fall into it or can be seen from it.

 

As a designer, I’m reading a lot more about the subject. Is interest in biophilic design increasing?

There’s been something of a resurgence. The office is under constant development and change, and designers are increasingly being asked to show evidence for their choices.

Instead of design just being used as a vehicle to express identity – be that power or wealth or stature – now those ideas are being turned around with the realisation that design can be used as a force for good and taken in a more intrinsic approach.

Biophilic design is an evidence-based system. Statistics and studies show design can help boost productivity, creativity, engage with people, get them to mix, mingle and talk, and reduce negative aspects like absenteeism, staff turnover, and attract staff.

With the advent of pre and post-occupancy evaluations, we’re getting to a greater level of understanding about the potential for design and how it should be harnessed and not just used to express corporate identity.

Do you think Covid has had a part to play in biophilic design as a trend?

We’re expecting more of the workplace to support us physically and mentally. Before Covid, we expected employers to take responsibility to make sure we were working in healthy environments.

Since Covid, we’re recognising it’s not just our employer’s responsibility but also something we should be looking after ourselves. So, as we moved from working in the office to working from home during the lockdown, people turned to nature as the closest, most convenient and beneficial way of relaxing and recuperating. We can do nothing else.

I think as we return to work, we’re going to see some of the legacies of Covid. Theoretically, some post-traumatic stress levels and the need for wellness rooms and quiet recuperative spaces will become more critical than ever.

We’ve talked about our experience of biophilic design in commercial spaces but now we’re taking it into the domestic space. It’s become more important to people, so in February we launched a new online course on How to implement a biophilic design in the home. It explains biophilic design, the core concepts and 14 patterns, and how to interpret those 14 patterns into the home.

Thank you, Oliver.

• Curious to know more? Read my second interview with Oliver on How businesses can benefit from biophilic design and his views on visual and sensory cues.

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