What is biophilia (and what does it mean for the built environment)?

Posted on: 28 August, 2023

When coupled with sustainable development, biophilic design can offer significant benefits for the built environment.

As an industry currently responsible for 39% of global energy-related carbon emissions, the built environment has an important role to play in fulfilling the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through embracing new technologies, adopting new construction methods, improving education on sustainability and championing processes like retrofitting, work is being done to address the industry’s impact by the UN’s 2050 deadline.

Learn more: ‘Breathing new life into old walls’

One concept that has often been cited in the drive to improve the industry’s approach to sustainability is biophilia. But what exactly is biophilia? How does it translate to architecture and design? And what does it mean for the built environment?

What is biophilia?

Biophilia, as coined by psychologist Erich Fromm and popularised by biologist E. O. Wilson in the 1980s, is defined as ‘the urge to affiliate with other forms of life’. Originating from Greek, it translates literally as ‘love of life’.

In a design context, biophilia refers to architecture and urban planning that integrates nature to enhance and improve well-being. While this concept has been around for a long time, its popularity has grown in recent years, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased emphasis on mental health and workplace ergonomics.

Learn more: 10 examples of biophilic architecture and design

How does biophilic design impact health and well-being?

There’s been plenty of research into the impact of biophilia on physical and mental health. According to research by Human Spaces, offices with ‘natural’ elements such as sunlight and vegetation are 6% more productive, 15% more creative, and have a 15% higher level of well-being than their counterparts.

Similarly, another survey, which asked respondents to name the top three most wanted elements in the workplace, produced three results relating to biophilia – natural light (44%), indoor plants (20%), and a view of the sea (17%).

With mental health challenges costing the UK economy at least £117.9 billion annually, more and more businesses are adopting biophilic design principles into their offices in an attempt to improve the well-being of their staff.

Outside of businesses, awareness and demand for biophilic environments is rising – in the hotel industry, guests are willing to pay 23% more for rooms with views of biophilic elements. Most interestingly, the healthcare industry look set to particularly benefit from biophilic design, with research finding it can reduce post-operative recovery times by 8.5% and the need for pain medication by 22%.

What does biophilia mean for sustainability?

To create biophilic environments, you need to incorporate natural elements and materials, meaning there’s a crossover between biophilic design and sustainability.

When embraced from the beginning of construction projects, biophilia can support sustainability. The benefits of biophilic design, such as greater air quality, optimised thermal comfort, improved water management, and increased building lifespans, to name a few, align with the SDGs set by the UN in 2015.

Furthermore, without actively incorporating sustainability into your biophilic architecture, you’ll likely be found guilty of greenwashing – attempting to camouflage and remarket your operations as being more environmentally-friendly than they actually are.

Learn more: What is greenwashing (and how does it impact the built environment)?

As Dr. Graeme Larsen, Associate Dean (Sustainability) at UCEM said:

“Biophilia is a powerful concept for helping us understand and enact sustainability and sustainability development. Biophilia is embedded in, and resonates strongly with, the emerging ecocentric perspective of sustainability. Concepts like biophilia help us move the beyond the traditional egocentric perspectives that have shaped the world of today and contributed to many of the challenges we now face.”

Sustainability isn’t a passing trend – it’s here to stay and is constantly evolving. If you want to inspire and action change in your career, UCEM’s MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments will give you the skills you need, both now and in the future.

Find out more: MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments – University College of Estate Management