Biophilic design

Improving Informal Learning Spaces through Biophilic Design

By , AIA, ALEP, LEED AP, BD+C September 17, 2018 Biophilic design, Learning Environments, School Design, Trends

Learning environments should be nurturing, inspiring and motivating, while also providing an appropriate backdrop for learning; however, this may not always be the case as some learning activities may be stressful for students. In addition, learning spaces are not always designed to make students feel comfortable.

In this age of “anywhere, anytime” learning, locker-lined hallways are learning deterrents, and the desire for more collaborative learning experiences is creating the need for open areas where students feel safe, supported, inspired and motivated.

Biophilic design can bring informal learning spaces to life by connecting buildings to nature. Studies have shown that human beings have a preference for environments that have a connection with nature can help decrease stress levels and increase attentiveness.

Biologist Edward Wilson first coined the term “biophilia” in 1984. According to New York-based sustainability consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green, biophilia is “humankind’s innate biological connection with nature.” This explains why humans are drawn to outdoor settings and are fascinated with sights and sounds such as waterfalls and rustling leaves.

Biophilic design leverages this need to connect with nature by creating buildings inspired by nature. Fourteen major patterns are found in biophilic design that designers can use when planning learning spaces. The flexibility of these patterns allows designers to interpret them according to project goals. For example, one pattern, “dynamic and diffuse light,” can be accomplished by diffusing light on vertical and horizontal surfaces, as subtle light can create a feeling of calmness, similar to that experienced under the shade of a tree. In addition, dynamic lighting can be added at entry points to delineate a perimeter and signify a change in activity.

When designing using a “material connection with nature” pattern, the end result is rich, warm space that is inviting and comforting. Incorporating natural textures, patterns, materials and evoking a feeling of movement like that of waterfalls. Water has multi-sensory attributes that can create a soothing, contemplative feeling in building users.

Many studies support the benefits of biophilic design. Research by biophilic design website Human Spaces has shown that “providing people with symbolic connections to nature can produce almost as great an impact on outcomes as the real thing.” Other noted benefits include stress reduction, improved cognitive performance and overall positive affect on emotions and mood.

Some biophilic patterns, such as visual connection with nature, can elicit even more significant responses. Classrooms with views to the exterior, preferably to gardens and vegetation, help reinvigorate students, as they are able to shift focus between the outdoors and class activities.

While most new learning environments are being designed with windows in every classroom, classrooms in many older schools lack windows or exterior views. It is imperative that nature be introduced in these facilities through artwork or graphics depicting natural scenes, or through video or digital depictions. Images of nature make spaces feel more fun, positively impacting students’ moods and interest in learning. Using the color green has been shown to increase motivation, productivity, happiness, creativity and enthusiasm.

As biophilic design patterns are incorporated into the design of informal learning spaces, it is imperative that the goals of the spaces are studied first; for example, casual spaces that allow students to work individually may not benefit from large expanses of glass and an open floor plan. A better-suited pattern may be “refuge,” which may include lower ceiling heights and mellowed brightness and colors.

However, there is inherent flexibility in the biophilic patterns. Given the wealth of benefits of biophilic design, the research that supports its positive impact, and the ease of integration, this approach should be a must in designing spaces to support and improve all learning environments.


Nature in the Space

  • Visual Connection with Nature
  • Non-Visual Connection with Nature
  • Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli
  • Airflow Variability
  • Presence of Water
  • Diffuse Light
  • Connection with Natural Systems

Natural Analogues

  • Biomorphic Forms and Patterns
  • Material Connection with Nature
  • Complexity and Order

Nature of the Space

  • Prospect
  • Refuge
  • Mystery
  • Risk/Peril
By , AIA, ALEP, LEED AP, BD+C September 17, 2018 Biophilic design, Learning Environments, School Design, Trends

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