Have you heard of biophilic design? Find out how to bring nature indoors

written by Linda Moon

Have you heard of biophilic design? Find out how to bring nature indoors

Credit: Andre Gorham

In the developed world we spend most of our lives within human-made environments. Artificially lit and air-conditioned, and furnished with synthetic mass-produced products, the modern habitats of our homes and workplacesuns are far from what we evolved within. While few of us would challenge such a way of life, a growing body of evidence suggests deprivation from the natural environment has negative consequences for our health and wellbeing. In fact, many researchers believe a lot of modern stress derives from our not being adapted to live in urban environments.

A report commissioned by Beyondblue (Beyond Blue to Green: The Benefits of Contact With Nature For Mental Health and Well-being) found contact with nature, including merely viewing a garden through a window, can enhance our health. As well as invigorating and rejuvenating us, nature can reduce stress, depression, anger and frustration, improve our mood and physical health, enhance focus and clarity, and promote a sense of belonging, calm and acceptance.

... biophilic design is simply “bringing a sense of the natural world into our built environment”.

Evolving out of this growing recognition (a field known as eco-psychology), the concept of biophilia (our innate affinity for nature) has been embraced by some architects and designers. Holistic architect and interior designer Anthony Ashworth explains that biophilic design is simply “bringing a sense of the natural world into our built environment”. While it’s a new word, “We’ve been doing biophilic design since we could pick up charcoal and draw on a wall,” he says. “It’s been given a category and an awareness now, but we’ve always kind of done it.”

Not everything natural is necessarily biophilic. For example, deep-sea habitats, volcanoes, outer space, deserts, poisonous snakes and micro-organisms, though natural, are not biophilic. Biophilic design centres around natural ecosystems and phenomena with an evolutionary history of benefit to human wellbeing.

Key benefits

Ashworth, who taught feng shui, vastu and Zen interior design concepts within architecture subjects at the University of Technology, Sydney, has helped many clients incorporate biophilic design into their homes. “Good biophilic design can absolutely revolutionise an environment and make a big difference,” he says.

“We have evolved over millions of years to be in nature. We have only retreated indoors in the last few hundred years and now substantially more so in the last few decades. I have had clients who live in a hermetically sealed, air-conditioned apartment, who then leave to go to work via the underground garage in an air-conditioned car. They may not feel sunshine or natural fresh air or the smell of grass and trees for five days at a time.”

Bringing nature into our spaces can promote a greater sense of belonging and connection to our spirituality, Ashworth says. “We feel connected back to where we evolved from, connected with other life forms, a sense of home. Nature is what formed and raised us, the ancient, literal mother we come out of and from.”

However, while we might intuitively feel better around nature, Ashworth says, “It’s been a slow and progressive move away from the environment over time.” Thus, it requires conscious awareness and effort to bring nature back into our homes and workplaces.

Bring nature into your space

Ideally, our homes would be constructed with and filled with natural materials. Short of rebuilding, we can incorporate biophilic design by bringing nature indoors in the way we furnish and decorate our spaces. Ashworth defines natural materials as anything found in nature with little alteration from its natural state.

“The more a material undergoes processing the less natural it is and therefore the less the biophilic effect.” Examples include indoor plants, flowers, stone, timber, twigs, earth, mud, hemp, clay, wool, bamboo, paper, hemp, sisal, seagrass and jute. “Cardboard is quite natural; so is cork,” he says. Cane (made from rattan) and wicker (from vines) can also be used.

As well as bringing nature in, biophilic design aims to create zones that interface our interiors with nature outside.

Consumer awareness about toxic substances (such as glues, pesticides and finishes) that materials may have been treated with is important. “There’s no point in using a natural material, like a timber floor, then putting a toxic varnish on it,” Ashworth explains. “There’s lots of lovely natural finishes — tung oil, beeswax, shellac and other finishes you can use.”

A key advantage of using natural materials is that they don’t off-gas toxic chemicals. A 2010 study of 40 typical homes in Melbourne, found concentrations of many airborne toxins, including formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, benzene, toluene, pesticides and volatile organic compounds (from furnishings, building materials, household products, plastics, heating and cooking appliances and chemical sprays) were higher indoors than in the outside air. With the average Australian urbanite spending over 90 per cent of their time inside, indoor air remains a significant source of toxic exposure.

Testament to the power of nature, one medium-sized indoor plant per 2.2 square metres will remove most indoor pollution, according to new research by the University of Melbourne and RMIT. Surprisingly, it’s bacteria in the roots that does most of the work, so the bigger your pot the better. 

Connect with nature outside

As well as bringing nature in, biophilic design aims to create zones that interface our interiors with nature outside. “One of the intuitive responses to the modern home is the outdoor room or alfresco space, places that interface the inside and outside of the home,” Ashworth says. This might be a patio or terrace, garden room, gazebo, or balcony in a unit. Vistas of trees or the garden through windows and glass doors also create connection to nature.

“Another way is having a garden or looking after it,” he says. “People are so time poor now they don’t have time to work in their gardens, so we disconnect with nature.” Those living in the city without a garden can bypass unattractive outlooks with higher windows or skylights, Ashworth suggests. And, regardless of where you live, it’s possible to tweak your indoor environment to recreate the images, scents, sounds and textures of nature.

Imitate nature

Replicas of nature can also have a biophilic effect. For example, multiple studies, including one published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2015), prove that pictures of nature can reduce stress. “The brain is easily tricked,” Ashworth says. “If we simply close our eyes and imagine being in nature, our pulse may drop, our breathing slow and positive hormones release. Even if it’s not real it can have an associated effect.”

Along with images of nature, he suggests nature-identical designs, prints and colours on fabrics, walls and floors. “It’s best to reference nature objects rather than fake and pretend, such as fake plastic greenery or fake timber laminate floors,” he says. “This may create a false reality that disquiets.” He says photographs of nature have a greater effect if they’re large; however, avoid the giant whole-wall mural. “That can be a bit disconcerting psychologically,” he says. “Ideally, they may be of places that remind you of a place you’ve been and can fill you up with positive associations.”

Invigorate the senses

Texture is a sensual aspect often overlooked, Ashworth says. “We mostly live in a ‘smooth’ world. Smooth occurs in nature, but not that often.” He suggests adding texture and flow to our artificially smooth, shiny, hard and square environments with things like crocheted wool blankets, rounded furniture, curtains and fluffy rugs.

“Texture may imbue a feeling of comfort and connection. A variety of textures is the key.” As well as stimulating our tactile sense, texture stimulates our eyes. “Our minds’ sensory input becomes bored with the same textures. We tend to shut down and get depressed and anxious. Nature is always changing. It keeps us feeling alive yet restful.”

“Texture may imbue a feeling of comfort and connection. A variety of textures is the key.”

Modern materials can fill the home with unnatural smells that make us feel physically and mentally unwell. “Smell affects us deeply on a subconscious level,” Ashworth says. He suggests fresh old-world flowers with a strong scent, or essential plant oils to bring in the fragrance of nature — but avoid synthetic fragrant oils and use only proper essential oil extracted from a plant.

Sound is another sense to consider in our built environments. “The sounds of the unnatural world are overly high or deep and low, like the hum of the air-conditioning or refrigerators,” Ashworth says. This can cause unease and low-level stress. Installing a water feature or playing a track of nature sounds can mask the unpleasant noises of traffic, technology and appliances.

Let there be light

Related to our senses is light, one of the most fundamental elements of the natural world and key to human health. “We in the modern world are so far away from a natural relationship with light,” Ashworth says. “When we change the quality of natural light in a room or home it can radically change the way we feel about life and our home. Natural light is essential for good physical and mental health; it affects levels of hormones and patterns of sleep.”

Bring in the light with skylights and solar tubes (pipes that run through the ceiling of your roof and catch and reflect sunlight into the room). “The ancient homes were mostly courtyard buildings,” Ashworth says. “They brought light right down the middle. We’ve done away with that and instead have massive buildings that are internalised, with tiny windows on the outside.

“It’s about where we spend time in the day. Then, look at what’s precluding light from coming in.” Translucent curtains and venetian blinds in light colours will let in more light. Those who can’t access natural light should emulate it as closely as possible with a full-spectrum light source, he says.

As well as light, we need natural dark. “It’s important we sleep in as close to absolute darkness as we can,” he says. “Otherwise we’re stopping serotonin (a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep) and that’s really cancer-producing and ageing. Thus, bedrooms should have light-blocking blinds or curtains. “Night lights in bedrooms should be warm reds, like salt lamps.” Warm-coloured light contains less of the blue-light spectrum associated with daylight and waking.

Vary the air

“We tend to want to create perpetual spring,” Ashworth says. “but life and nature represent the full spectrum of temperature.” He advocates overhead fans in preference to air-conditioning, and natural ventilation to better connect us to the natural flow of temperatures. “Open the windows. Encourage a breeze, be that a little brisk or a little warm. If too hot or too cold, dress more or dress less.”

Ashworth also believes a regular experience of temperature variation can help foster resilience in both adults and children. “I believe part of the problem is our inability to adapt and the need to feel constantly comfortable, physically.”

Biophilic design for children

Writers such as Richard Louv, author of Last Child In the Woods (2005), go a step further and suggest that today’s generation of indoor children suffer from “nature deficit disorder”, a syndrome characterised by a range of emotional, behavioural and attention problems caused by lack of contact with nature.

Ashworth says biophilic design can help children with ADD, sleeping problems and anxiety. “When kids can’t get out into nature, bring that element of nature into the home.” He suggests encouraging them to collect autumn leaves and other emblems of the seasons, and to add posters of natural landscapes. “These shouldn’t be scary forests that a bear might come out of, but friendly-looking, appropriate designs.”

What’s more, the primary colours that characterise most modern children’s bedrooms could be doing them a disservice. “A bright room can wind them up,” he says. “Children’s bedrooms should be natural, earthy and quite dull so they get deep sleep.”

Additionally, biophilic design can absorb more mess than the smooth, sparse interiors that dominate home magazines. “More earthy homes entertain chaos better,” he concludes. “We’re craving it as an antidote to minimal, modernistic living.”

How to incorporate biophilic design


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Linda Moon

Linda Moon is a freelance feature writer reporting on health, travel, food and local producers, work, parenting, relationships and other lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared in International Traveller, Voyeur (Virgin Airlines magazine), Jetstar Asia, Slow Living, Traveller, Domain, My Career, Life & Style and Sunday Life (Sydney Morning Herald), Sprout, NZ Journal of Natural Medicine, Nature & Health, Australian Natural Health, Fernwood Fitness, The New Daily, SBS, Essential Kids, Australian Family, Weekend Notes, The Big Bus Tour & Travel Guide and more.

Based in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, Linda is a qualified and experienced naturopath, spa and massage therapist and a partly trained social worker.

Her writing interests focus on health, responsible consumerism, exploring beautiful places and the quest for a fairer, healthier and happier world for all.