Biophilic Design in a Pandemic World

We live in interesting times.  Any global pandemic will put a dent in how we interact, how we work, and how we live.  Some of us may work remotely, commute less, eat out less, order more take-out, or simply get our groceries delivered through the numerous supermarket smartphone apps available to us. This forced shift to remote work has also led to growing interest in biophilic design and as more people seek more natural environments within their life both at home remotely and when at the office.  Life is ‘certainly easier’ but many have adapted to this new normal.  We don’t know if this will be temporary or have long-term effects which could change the way we do things permanently.

Table of Contents

  1. What is Biophilia?
    1. Who Coined the Term Biophilia?
    2. Why Biophilic Design is Important for a Remote Work Lifestyle
  2. How to Protect Our Mental and Physical Health
  3. Urban Biophilic Design Trends in Residential Homes
    1. The 14 Biophilic Patterns
  4. It’s Time for Biophilic Design in the Home

What is Biophilia?

In short, it’s a human tendency to closely associate with other forms of life in nature. It could be animals or it could be plant life. As we get older, we tend to gravitate slowly to the natural world vs the man-made world. As kids, we may have been more outdoorsy but in later life, maybe seem to associate more with urban activities whether it was sports, bars, or restaurants. It depends.

Today, most of us can’t wait to get out of the city and head for the hills! I simply love the sound and smell of autumn in natural forested areas. If you really pay attention during a typical hike or walk through a forest or other natural habitat, you can almost see the trees or foliage sway towards you in a natural, caring way. Ok, maybe that’s a bit deep but it’s certainly therapeutic! If you read the next paragraph, you will understand why it is.

Who Coined the Term Biophilia?

We’ll be honest with you. We didn’t even know the term but discovered that Biophilia was first coined by Erich Fromm, a German Jew, who fled the Nazi regime and became one of the founders of the William Alanson White Institute focused on psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and psychology.  Mr. Fromm used the term in the book, Anatomy of Human Destructive (1973), which described biophilia as the “passionate love of life and of all that is alive”, according to Britannica.  The term was used later by Edward. O. Wilson, an American biologist, in his written work Biophilia (1984) to suggests that humans tend to focus on and associate with nature and other life-forms on a genetic basis

Why Biophilic Design is Important for a Remote Work Lifestyle

Pandemics have changed our way of work! We consume more content digitally from our streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime and are going to theatres less.  We’re working in make-shift remote offices; and surprisingly, many organizations never really treated our access to technology and infrastructure for remote work seriously; a huge chunk of society (not all) are knowledge-type workers working in roles that require thinking/strategy and client interaction which, for the most part, can be easily achieved through traditional phone calls or the numerous collaboration tools available like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Amazon Chime, Google Meet and many other products available on the market now as a result of the pandemic.

Many of us have been forced to make accommodations in a difficult home environment where two parents or two room-mates have to share small spaces or re-model specific rooms (typically a storage room) to conduct virtual meetings and calls.  Certainly, these modifications have helped us in the short term but in the long term, your back, your focus, and your productivity may pay the price.  We need ergonomically designed chairs, functional desks, and clean or clear open spaces to be able to do our work; if it’s not set up properly, your productivity will decline quickly.

The natural world is the refuge of the spirit, remote, static, richer even than human imagination.

-- Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia

The news drones on daily about pandemic cases and safe protocols to protect ourselves. We are told to plan safely and consider limited or restricted travel. It’s hard on many people.  However, have we thought about everything else that affects our health – especially mental health? 

How to Protect Our Mental and Physical Health

Mold, dust, allergens, and other viral infections have always been a problem in the home.  More than ever, we need to double down on considering HEPA filtration systems to fight these risks as we spend significantly more time at home.

The pandemic has afforded us modern luxuries but also elevated stress with the constant state of connectedness we continue to face on a daily basis with our smartphones, tablets, laptops, and endless notifications.  In fact, this flood of information has overwhelmed our brains like no other time and this is causing us to wear down, get sick, and be more stressed.

Is it any wonder why more people are meditating, exercising, buying calm-inducing apps or albums to keep the built environment of modern life at a distance? 

A long time ago, our writing team used to work in open-concept offices and the new, emerging trends for the workplace incorporated new thinking around large open spaces. This included large windows to flood workspaces with natural light and green design that incorporated natural plants in the work environments.  Even so, many other workplaces still have sterile cubicle farms that must still make people think they’re in the Matrix.  

Even recent joint-research from Canadian universities, Carleton and Western, reveal that 57% of 25,000 surveyed full-time employees reported high levels of stress

All this relates to how work has changed with many of us clacking away on a keyboard longer and having technology invade our work and personal life without an off-switch. Workplace creep into our personal lives already began with early BlackBerry devices and proliferated with iPhone and Android smartphones. Recent reports suggest that workplace creep has already overwhelmed our remote work lifestyle, bleeding the line between work and personal time at home.

Before our last pandemic (COVID19), research by the U.S. Green Building Council confirmed a strong preference by employees for work environments that provide direct natural links through plants, water, light, and views. They also concluded that the indirect connection through natural materials, colors, and patterns (hello white!) is known to improve concentration, mood and reduce stress!

Not surprisingly, the same study found that when employees complete a computer task in a room with plants, they were shockingly 12% more productive compared to counterparts in a plant-free room!

Next time when you re-watch the Matrix, look at the sharp symbolism by the movie’s creators because they embedded a pale-looking Neo (Keanu Reeves) in a “barren” cubicle with no family photos, no plants (!), and a very empty computer workspace.  The scene bleeds like a pale green filter which indirectly implies the artificial environment that Neo is living in – he doesn’t know it but suspects it – and which is the Matrix. The green symbolizes the old green computer screens of the latter part of the 20th century.

Why are we telling you all this? Some studies suggest that humans spend 93% of their time indoors separated from natural elements. If we are connected to nature and life on a genetic basis, this is not healthy! Any pandemic will make it worse.

To help fight the challenges to our health and mental health, we’re seeking nature en masse.  Our own writing team has taken up trail hikes, mountain biking, beach crashing, and pumpkin patch trips to re-connect with nature and the organic life around us.

When you return home or to your remote office, this natural connection disappears quickly.  The iPhone notifications, chores, physical clutter, and other distractions simply overwhelm our brains and before you know it, you’re back to that tired, under-nourished soul. 

However, a few biophilic members of our team fought back long ago! Some of their homes are filled with plants and they treat them with love and care. They’ve also installed large, open windows to encourage bright, natural light. They’ve redesign home spaces into minimalist experimental labs to help recharge and refresh.

How many people have even considered nature and green design within their own homes?  We have no evidence to support this, but it is likely, people have not considered this design option when they were forced to live at home during the last pandemic.

If Biophilic design can help you reduce stress, improve your focus and clarity, drive creativity, nourish your soul and health to improve well-being, then why are more people not doing this? We will address this in coming articles but much of it has to do with priorities, perceptions on cost and complexity, and a general lack of awareness. 

According to key research from Hannah Ritchie (2018) in “Urbanization” and published online at OurWorldinData.org, 2007 was the first time more people lived in large urban versus rural areas.  This amounts to more than 4 billion people who now live in urban-built environments. 

The same study suggests that more than 7 billion people will live in urban environments by 2050.

In a 2014 study, Terrapin Bright Green, an environmental consulting and strategic planning firm, released a paper called the “14 Patterns of Biophilic Design” to improve health and well-being in a built environmentThe 65-page study (PDF) addresses the relationship between human biology, nature, and the built environment and how humanity can benefit from biophilia.

The 14 Biophilic Patterns

Nature in the Space PatternsNatural Analogues PatternsNature of the Space Patterns
Visual Connection with NatureBiomorphic Forms & Patterns Prospect 
Non-Visual Connection with Nature Material Connection with Nature Refuge 
Non-Rhythmic Sensory StimuliComplexity & OrderMystery 
Thermal & Airflow VariabilityRisk/Peril 
Presence of Water
Dynamic & Diffuse Light
Connection with Natural Systems
terrapinbrightgreen.com/report/14-patterns/(opens in a new tab)

Terrapin Bright Green was not the first to cover this subject, in my opinion. One of my favorite American architects, John Lautner, is an early strong example of what embedded natural environments look like into modern-style homes that bleed architectural innovation.  Look no further than the famous Elrod House which fused natural rock into its open, spacious design.  

This home was famous for a lot of celebrity parties long ago. A documentary on John Lautner was created by his family many years ago.  Called “Infinite Space”, you will learn about the Elrod House.

Sean Connery makes reference to it in the documentary for the 007 movies, Diamonds are Forever, when the Elrod House appears as the home to reclusive-billionaire Willard Whyte. Ironically, we wrote this article with reference to Sean Connery two days before his passing!

Rest in Peace Sir Connery.

Sean Connery Discusses the Elrod House in the John Lautner Documentary: Infinite Space

It’s Time for Biophilic Design in the Home

For introverts, the pandemic must feel like a lottery jackpot. Although some of us may be extroverted, many are able to work from a remote office, focus on projects, and maintain productivity with tools like Trello, Pomodoro, and may have already developed a natural remote work ethic. 

For others, like parents with children, the pandemic has created a stage 5 hurricane where everyone is fighting for remote office spaces, child care (schooling, no schooling), cooking, and other chores. Obviously, this is also creating an unhealthy work-life situation.

Studies have shown that women report higher perceived stress levels than men but shockingly, are less likely to use available natural outdoor space during the workday at the office!  Some of us worked in a corporate office, but we would always find the time to discuss work or non-work matters over lunch-time walks or sit-downs in urban parkettes.

According to Attention Restoration Theory, light breezes and other natural movements can improve concentration (Heerwagen and Gregory, 2008)

At home, males are playing a greater role with parenting and home-related responsibilities, I still believe the burden of this falls on women which can certainly magnify the mental distress many might be facing if there is no “clean room” or “retreat room” for work and meditation.

It really is time to re-think how your home is designed for remote work and for any future pandemic if corporate life and work shift to a hybrid work model.

Start looking at your home as a green space and begin to analyze what could be changed.  Simple things like bringing more plants into common living areas or workspaces can help.  Some of our common areas may feel like a “jungle” to visitors but this isn’t the case. They are living, breathing allies that help feed us with oxygen and presence that cannot be replicated with material objects in the same manner. 

Learn more about Respira, a new Canadian company that has released a new product that makes biophilic design accessible to everyone without the complex installation and maintenance required with living wall systems.

From a home perspective, data is already showing that people are spending more money on real estate that provides a view of nature and has excellent landscaping.

This same data shows that 58% more is spent on properties that overlook water and a shocking 127% more that are near the waterfront. 

If you pay careful attention, Apple’s new “Spaceship” headquarters in Cupertino, California implements many aspects of biophilic design.  Dubbed “Apple Park”, it is located on an urban site totalling 175 acres (71 hectares) where 80% of the site consists of green space planted with drought-resistant trees and plants common to the Cupertino area while the center courtyard features an artificial pond.   It is situated 1.2 miles east of the original Apple Campus.

There are 9,000 trees planted on the campus with 309 varieties of indigenous species.  The trees include Oak Savanna, Oak wood, and fruit trees like apricot, plum, apple, cherry and persimmon.  There’s even a herb garden!  An extra 15 hectares are used for native California grassland and not surprisingly,  includes Apple varieties such as Pink Lady, Golden Delicious, Gravenstein, and Granny Smith.  Shockingly absent is the McIntosh apple. 😀

Steve Jobs and Jony Ive were the brainchilds for the “Spaceship” and much kudos to their visionary thinking around green, clean, biophilic design.  It’s no wonder why they’re the world’s large company in the world by market capitalization at the time of this writing?