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Biophilic Design: Integrating Nature Into Modern Interiors

Biophilic design represents the future of architecture and interior design. Meant to promote greater harmony with nature, this movement provides actionable strategies for bringing the beauty and serenity of the outdoor world into our built environments.

The implications can be powerful, but challenges are to be expected along the way. Below, we will explore the most powerful opportunities as we reveal today’s compelling biophilic design trends.

The Principles of Biophilic Design

Biophilic design aims to turn every interior space into a true oasis. This practice is backed by plenty of research. This research indicates that while more time outside is always better, we can recreate many benefits of the outdoors by enhancing our exposure to natural elements.

Core Concepts of Biophilic Design

At its most basic level, biophilic design aims to improve humans’ connection to the natural world, especially for those confined to built environments. This is achieved through emphasizing a few core concepts:

  • Prioritizing natural elements – From organic materials to sunlight and even water features, biophilic designers opt for natural elements whenever possible. These elements prompt a soothing emotional response that mimics the calming effects of outdoor environments.
  • Prospect and refuge – From an evolutionary perspective, humans have adapted a need for both prospect (expansive spaces with open views) and refuge (shelter). The ideal biophilic space will strike an ideal balance between these priorities to help occupants feel safe, comfortable and inspired.
  • Engaging the senses – Biophilic spaces should offer multi-sensory experiences rather than deferring exclusively to the sense of sight. Aromatic plants, soothing water-based sounds and tactile experiences can enhance our connection to the outside world.

Psychological and Health Benefits

growing body of research reveals that while time spent outside is critical for our health and well-being, we can bridge the gap. This is achieved by incorporating the best of the natural world in our built environments.

For example, multiple studies show that humans enjoy reduced stress levels and even lower blood pressure while in the presence of houseplants. Similarly, natural lighting has a documented impact on our mood. Even the sound of water is thought to reduce anxiety!

Elements of Biophilic Design

There is no one perfect way to achieve the principles of biophilic design. Constraints are to be expected, after all, and different strategies may be effective in specific indoor environments. When possible, these elements should be leveraged to improve occupants’ state of mind:

Incorporating Natural Light

Many architectural and design mechanisms can improve access to natural light or, at least, the perception thereof. Because these features are often structural, they must be carefully planned.

  • Open floor plans – Long a top trend in architectural and interior design, the open floor plan avoids small, enclosed rooms. When interior spaces have fewer partitions, light can flow freely and extend throughout the entire structure.
  • Large windows – One of the simplest and most impactful solutions for improving natural light? Opting for large windows whenever possible. Skylights can achieve a similar effect without compromising the perception of privacy. These options produce not only visually pleasing interior spaces, but also limit our reliance on artificial lighting and can therefore contribute to sustainable interior design.
  • Dynamic lighting – There is a lot to love about natural lighting, but most homes and businesses call for artificial options at times.Automated systems bring extra nuance to artificial lighting, optimizing qualities such as warmth and intensity to align with our circadian rhythms. This can also make interior environments feel more engaging.

Using Water Features

The soothing sound of water can deliver a much-needed sense of calmness, but this can be difficult to achieve inside (and outside in some geographic regions). Options worth implementing include:

  • Water walls – As vertical features that capture the visual appeal of falling water, water walls are designed to mimic the effect of waterfalls but can be customized to create both desired background noise and to achieve specific visual effects.
  • Fountains – Featuring pumps that pull water from receiving reservoirs, fountains rely on gravity to promote the tranquil flow of water within an indoor environment. Often featuring gorgeous sculptures or even built into indoor gardens, these water features are beautiful to behold and have long been a centerpiece of water-driven biophilic design.

Choosing Natural Materials

Capable of triggering a powerful biophilic response, natural materials deepen our connection with nature and are important from a sustainability standpoint. Favorites include:

  • Hardwood – Versatile, durable, and stunning to behold, hardwood has long been one of the most popular options for cabinets, paneling, furniture and more. From maple to oak and even alder, a range of options promises to accommodate all budgets and aesthetics.
  • Stone –  Ideal for flooring, countertops and backsplash, natural stone conveys sophistication but is also highly practical. Different types of stone can facilitate unique tactile experiences. For instance, smooth marble and rough slate are appealing for decidedly different reasons.

Integrating Plant Life Into Interiors

As one of the simplest and most straightforward options for expanding natural connections, indoor plants are both beautiful and calming. Potted house plants are appealing, of course, but the best biophilic spaces go above and beyond with these features:

Indoor Gardens and Living Walls

As vertical vegetated structures, living walls draw on the power of hydroponics to allow plant life to grow in panels or modules. This can be a great option when limited space makes it difficult to bring lush plant life indoors.

While these features are gorgeous, the benefits extend beyond aesthetics alone. They also function as natural filters, removing toxins from indoor environments. Furthermore, their natural insulation can limit the potential for heat island effects in urban areas.

The Role of Plants in Air Purification

A powerful process known as phytoremediation allows indoor gardens and living walls to absorb volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other harmful compounds from the air. Meanwhile, photosynthesis allows indoor plants to take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Increased oxygen levels can promote many health benefits.

Design Strategies for Biophilic Interiors

The techniques described above can make any more space feel more welcoming while also enhancing sustainability. Ideally, these options will not be incorporated in a slap-dash manner. Instead, the role of the eco-conscious architect or interior designer is to work closely with clients to assess specific needs and goals. From there, they can determine which biophilic strategies are most capable of delivering desired benefits while remaining realistic from a budgetary or timing standpoint.

Spatial Configuration

The full potential of biophilic design cannot be reached unless spaces are strategically planned to enhance our connection with nature. We have already highlighted the value of the open concept design for improving the flow of natural light, but this is just one possible approach to space planning. Generally, spaces must remain highly functional even as they incorporate biophilic elements. This is where biophilic architecture comes into play.

Restrictions must be assessed, along with pathways that promote a natural flow. This is crucial for maintaining the benefits of biophilic design. If spaces feel awkward to navigate, no amount of natural light or plant life will overcome central obstacles. Still, the principles of biophilic design can be incorporated into spatial planning initiatives. The ideal layouts and features will promote both functionality and a powerful connection with the natural world.

Color Schemes Inspired by Nature

Color theory indicates that the right color harmonizations can have a huge impact on our state of mind. Specific color combinations create desired moods or atmospheres. If the goal is to bring the outside in, it stands to reason that nature-inspired colors are a necessity.

To add, soothing shades of blue and green bring a sense of calm to any space, while richer tans and browns reflect an earthier, more grounded type of beauty. Flowers and plants add real-world bursts of color and are also the most eco-friendly solutions for making spaces appear more vibrant or dynamic.

Case Studies and Successful Examples

Numerous biophilic design case studies reveal the exciting potential of the green movement. Examples are now present across the globe and in a wide range of residential, commercial and industrial locations. We’ve highlighted a few of the most exciting examples below:

Residential Projects

From apartment buildings to single-family homes, many projects reveal how biophilic design can enhance living spaces and thereby improve residents’ health and well-being. Powerful examples include:

  • Bosco Verticale – Designed by Boeri Studio, Milan’s Bosco Verticale was originally meant to be a “house for trees inhabited by humans.” This innovative structure comprises two residential towers that house more than 900 trees, 5,000 shrubs, and 11,000 perennial plants. The greenery helps mitigate smog and produce oxygen, improving the urban environment. The building also leverages heat pump technology to reduce heating and cooling costs, revealing that humans and nature can co-exist in a high-rise environment. Furthermore, the vegetation provides a microclimate and filters dust particles, contributing to the well-being of its residents and the city.
  • One River North – Situated in a trendy Denver neighborhood, the cutting-edge One River North apartment building features a multi-story “canyon” and a trail-like walkway. Species native to Colorado are heavily featured and were selected, in part, due to their ability to withstand often harsh conditions.

Commercial Spaces

The tech industry has been a clear leader in the drive to promote biophilic spaces, and the impulse is understandable. Employees consistently immersed in the digital landscape need to feel grounded by nature-inspired elements to achieve a sense of balance and long-term well-being. Commercial successes that exemplify the benefits of biophilic design include:

  • St. John’s Terminal – Constructed atop a 1930s rail terminal, this structure pays homage to a rich local history while also offering a nod to the future via “sustainable design and innovative workspaces.” Boasting 1.5 acres of vegetation, Google’s St. John’s Terminal also makes the most of reclaimed wood and solar panels.
  • The Ring – Offering wellness-centered workspaces, The Ring aims to “optimize human potential within the built environment,” with the simple understanding that professionals can accomplish great things when they feel great. Highlights of this amazing space (located in Clearwater, Florida) include gorgeous tables constructed from reclaimed wood, along with glass walls that enhance natural lighting.

Challenges and Considerations in Biophilic Design

Biophilic design promises to improve our well-being and even promote sustainability, but there are a few challenges worth considering. Many of these relate to necessary investments of time and money, which can sometimes be considerable. Such obstacles should not keep clients or designers from embracing biophilic design principles, and with careful planning, these issues can often be overcome.

Maintenance of Natural Elements

Biophilic design is at its best when the result feels effortless. Still, maintenance is a must. With some biophilic solutions, maintenance requirements involve a steep learning curve and a significant time commitment.

Plant life, in particular, may require a lot of attention. Without proper watering, pruning or sunlight, gorgeous plants may wilt or even die. Other elements also present maintenance complications. To illustrate, natural stone needs to be sealed and may also require cleaning with specialized, stone-safe products. Some hardwoods are vulnerable to scratches and dents, and, depending on the climate, could potentially warp if exposed to moisture.

Cost and Space Constraints

From a long-term perspective, biophilic design can be highly cost-effective. This aims to reduce operational expenses associated with lighting, heating, cooling and more. That said, the upfront expenses may be considerable, and not everyone will believe the advantages are compelling enough to overcome these seemingly higher expenses.

Space constraints must also be considered. Although biophilic features can work wonders in small spaces, some elements may be difficult to implement if sizable surfaces are unavailable. Creative solutions such as plant walls may be needed to make the most of limited square footage.

Future Trends in Biophilic Design

The future of biophilia design is bright, especially as this practice attracts more attention and is backed by exciting research. Moving forward, designers may take a more data-driven approach while continuing to emphasize the harmony and tranquility made possible by natural elements. The goal is to overcome the challenges highlighted above while remaining true to biophilic design principles.

Innovations and Evolving Techniques

Emerging technologies promise to deliver a whole new era for biophilia in architecture and interior design. Technological advances have taken center stage and disrupted traditional interior design, giving rise to new and innovative approaches to domestic efficiency and circularity. The Internet of Things (IoT), for example, can help optimize everything from natural lighting to water elements and even plant care by using sensors to gather details on light levels, air quality, and even occupant behavior. Home automation technologies, coupled with IoT, facilitate a circular economy by promoting efficient resource use and reducing environmental impact. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence algorithms promise to optimize light and airflow and may even drive simulations so that architects and designers can see how various configurations may play out. AI can also be integrated into architectural design, enhancing visualization and customization of spaces through virtual tools. If integrated with smart building systems, biophilic strategies can optimize the management of eco-oriented built environments. The assimilation of these tools enables design to adapt dynamically, supporting remote living and creating transformative spaces that evolve over time.

Sustainability and Biophilic Design

While the central goal of biophilic design is to improve our connection to nature, such concepts must be considered with green interior design top of mind. After all, we cannot truly feel connected to the natural world unless we strive to limit our environmental footprint.

Thankfully, many of the strategies highlighted above align sustainable interior design with biophilic principles. To demonstrate, biophilic designers prefer to use renewable materials that limit the generation of pollution or waste. Furthermore, by promoting natural lighting and airflow, biophilia designs limit our reliance on energy-intensive heating, cooling and lighting.

Embrace the Future of Biophilic Design With RMCAD

Are you passionate about biophilic design and eager to incorporate it into your work as an interior designer? Look to Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design (RMCAD) for inspiration.

Available online or in-person, our Bachelor of Fine Arts in Interior Design is accredited by the esteemed Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA). Get in touch to learn more about this exciting opportunity.


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