Biophilia, a science for interior design

More and more often, the term biophilia comes into play. And we are noticing the trend towards surrounding spaces, also in the workplace, with plants and green installations. But there is more to biophilia that plantings. The term coined by biologist Edward Osborne Wilson (Biophilia, 1984) indicates the inborn human tendency to focus interest on life and vital processes. This leaning towards the living world becomes a design strategy that can be applied on various scales: starting with urban planning, which seeks a new relationship between public spaces and greenery, not just in parks and gardens but also in true reforestation or reinsertion of fauna in the city. In this sense, the network Biophilic Cities acts as a reservoir of virtuous examples around the world.

The biophilic trend also enters the domestic sphere, generating new themes of awareness, as in the case of the English designer Oliver Heath who has created true handbooks with practical tips on various levels. Underlining the fact that biophilic design is a strategy that involves precise neurological responses: if an environment has specific conditions and a certain type of habitat, we can reduce stress. Contact with nature slows the heartbeat and triggers production of compensating hormones that stimulate interconnection and cooperation. The ingredients of biophilic design, Heath explains (in an interview published in Interni), are both direct elements – plants, water, sounds – and indirect ones, such as materials and colors that remind us of natural habitats, and a spatial composition that is as roomy as possible, for circular viewing. This design approach returns the focus to the wellbeing of people.

From left, Tessa Duste and Nina Sickenga, founders of Moss; Bettina BoltenìFrom left, Tessa Duste and Nina Sickenga, founders of Moss; Bettina Bolten

On a wider scale, what does a biophilic approach to design imply? And what forms of expertise are needed? Biophilia is an applied science that is producing new professional figures, such as the biophilic design consultant, or a precise category of greenery designers. We spoke about this with Bettina Bolten, who has concentrated for over six years on research and information about the concepts of biophilia, helping companies and professionals to incorporate biophilic design and sustainability in works of architecture and interiors. We also conversed with Nina Sickenga, co-founder with Tessa Duste of Moss, an Amsterdam-based studio specialized in green design: from indoor gardens to intensive green rooftops and projects of urban agriculture.

“Biophilic design,” Bettina Bolten explains, “creates shared and unique experiences for today’s living in relation to the psychophysical wellbeing and health of users. With respect to a normal design approach, biophilic design scientifically coordinates disciplines that can be very different from one another, but are also complementary. This is not a trend towards the greening of buildings; it is an applied science that utilizes the discoveries on the affinities of human beings and nature in the design of artificial environments. Direct contact with plants is just one of the various themes.”

Chart on the scientific and interdisciplinary approach of biophilic design, by Bettina BoltenChart on the scientific and interdisciplinary approach of biophilic design, by Bettina Bolten

“These affinities have to do with thousands of years of our evolutionary history. For 99.9%  of that time, we have lived in close contact with natural contexts. Our adaptations to those contexts have been encoded in our genetic background, prompting our tendency to be in tune with nature. Experimental studies have contributed to define two scientific constructs that form the basis of biophilia: the fascination with nature that facilitates regeneration of cognitive capacities after mental fatigue, and the feeling of affiliation with nature, which helps us to reduce stress. While ecology is the science of relations, usually of a physical character, established in an ecosystem, ‘affective ecology’ examines psychological, emotional and cognitive relations that we establish with nature as human beings.” This is the sphere of activity of biophilic design.

The Core, an office in a former garage from the 1950s in Amsterdam, designed by CBRE, with green design by Moss. Arper has supplied: Cross, Kinesit, PixThe Core, an office in a former garage from the 1950s in Amsterdam, designed by CBRE, with green design by Moss. Arper has supplied: Cross, Kinesit, Pix

“Designing with biophilia,” says Nina Sickenga, “is indeed much wider than only adding green. For example, think about the 14 patterns of biophilic design of Terrapin, divided into three categories: nature into space, regarding the direct connection with nature, through light, airflow, non-rhythmic sensory stimuli, and so on; the 'natural analogues' such as biomorphic forms and models, making use of materials that have a direct connection to nature; the nature of a space, creating places that have perspective, a sense of shelter, mystery or the unexpected. We have to revitalize our relationship with the natural environment, which we have developed for millions of years. Today, 80% of our population lives in an urban environment, and they spend almost 90% of their time indoors, totally losing the connection with nature.”

The tropical garden inside Central Park in Utrecht, a project by GroupA, green design by Moss, photo Jordi HuismanThe tropical garden inside Central Park in Utrecht, a project by GroupA, green design by Moss, photo Jordi Huisman

“If large areas are covered with plants,” Sickenga continues, “this can reduce noise in the space, making open-plan offices more comfortable and conducive to productive work. The botanical factors that influence sound absorption are quantity and density of plantings, the size of the plants and their leaf surfaces, to reduce reverberation and augment wave refractions in the space. Where climate comfort is concerned, research conducted at Wageningen University shows that the relative humidity of spaces with plants is 5% higher on average than in areas without plants, a percentage that then improves in the winter. The inhabitants are less likely to perceive the temperature of a space as too hot or too cold, so the result is better thermal comfort.”

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