Biophilia – from Greek bio (life) and philia (love) – is a word coined by German psychologist, Erich Fromm.
In his 1964 book, The Heart of Man, Fromm described the psychological orientation of being attracted to life and vitality. American biologist, Edward Osborne Wilson, defined biophilia (in Biophilia, 1984) as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”.
The concept of biophilia has been hypothesised as a product of evolution. The irresistible cross-species appeal of baby mammals contributes to survival rates, and the tendency for humans to surround themselves with plants is conducive to the sustainability of many plant species. The association of flowering plants with future food sources could be a biological driver behind our relationship with flowers.
However, our deep-rooted attraction to the natural world goes beyond the organic (the bio). A desire for fresh air, natural light, views of the outdoors, and the joy of a natural soundscape (running water, birdsong, moving leaves) are all part of the modern definition of biophilia. For many, the ideal holiday is spent at a beach, on a mountain, or in woodland; and when it comes to views, house prices reflect our preferences.
Over the last 50 years or so, biophilia has played an important role in architectural design. Huge expanses of glass in the structure of schools and hospitals have shed light and air into institutions that used to be dark and stuffy. In schools, windows are no longer high up, but low down, providing views of the outdoors.
But any existing space can be adapted to the principles of biophilia.
Windows are arguably the most important aspect of the office when it comes to meeting the human need to be in touch with the natural environment. From the window, we get natural light, and we can see what the weather is doing. Having a view of the outdoors – of foliage, sky, and other members of our species – we get the feeling of being a part of the world.
Through windows – even closed windows – we’re exposed to natural sounds, like rain, hail, wind, barking dogs, birdsong, and human voices.
The great thing about windows is that they can be opened. An open window provides the stimulating touch of cool air on skin; and fresh air restores the balance of oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air. Natural smells from outside – mown grass, wet earth, dry earth, sea air, wet wood, flowering plants, etc – are powerful stimulants, satisfying our desire to engage with nature.
We’ve all seen aquariums in doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries, classrooms, waiting rooms, and foyers. Extensive research has shown that a tank of fish has a calming effect, contributing directly to a lowering of blood pressure and heart rate. The movement, colour, and vitality of the fish, the sound of moving water, and the plant and mineral backdrop all combine to create rich, natural diversity.
In a garden or patio area, trees, shrubs, and flowers add a feel-good quality to the work environment. To be able to see foliage from the window has a positive effect on wellbeing (studies have shown a quicker rate of recovery in hospital patients exposed to views of nature, opposed to patients stuck with views of brick walls), and these outdoor areas present as pleasant alternatives to meeting rooms and break rooms.
Indoor greenery is very popular in the modern office, and with good reason.
The process of photosynthesis produces oxygen, and in a natural environment, there’s a healthy balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, a group of people shut up in a building for hours at a time, breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide, is somewhat one-sided. Plant life brings balance to the atmosphere, restoring the oxygen that’s vital for every function of the body.
Nature can be represented in paintings, photographs, sculptures, furniture, music, and video. Natural geometrics, such as the honeycomb pattern, can be incorporated into screens or partition walls. The ripple effect of water might be suggested in wall art.
Soundtracks of birdsong, whale song, or the jungle can inspire calmness, concentration, and creativity.
Sculpture not only evokes the visual form of a subject, but it also has a tactile appeal. Wood, metal, stone, or clay sculptures beg to be touched, and we experience pleasure in the material itself. Leather upholstery, wooden furniture, ornamental beach pebbles, and stone paperweights … they all bring nature into the office.
The essence of all life is water. Pure drinking water, on tap, is the most vital ingredient in a biophilic office!