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Biophilic design – health and wellbeing in buildings

How we bring biophilic design into buildings and use it to enhance people’s lives is one of today’s most exciting building design challenges, and one that offers huge opportunities. Oliver Heath, Oliver Heath Design

Our built environment is often designed in ways that both degrade the environment and separate us from nature. The recent focus on sustainability has started to reduce the environmental impacts of urban development, but achievements such as greater energy efficiency in buildings have generally done little to reconnect us with the natural world.

It is this missing element of sustainable development that is of particular interest to Oliver Heath, the Director of Oliver Heath Design, an architectural and interior design practice specialising in implementing health and wellbeing – and in particular biophilic design.

“Biophilia (meaning love of nature) focuses on humans’ innate attraction to nature and natural processes,” says Oliver Heath. “It suggests that we all have a genetic connection to the natural world built up through hundreds of thousands of years of living in agrarian settings. Biophilic design uses these ideas as principles to create a human-centred approach to the spaces that we live and work in today.”

Over the last 30 years or so, research evidence for the numerous benefits to our health and well-being of closer connections to nature – particularly in reducing stress and aiding recuperation – has been growing. Oliver’s interest has been in implementing these research findings in real buildings.

“Biophilic design has been refined and enhanced in recent years, and we are now starting to see it being applied,” he says, “but it’s still a relatively new concept. How we bring biophilic design into buildings and use it to enhance people’s lives is one of today’s most exciting building design challenges, and one that offers huge opportunities. Our job is to translate the growing body of biophilic research evidence into better buildings, using the appropriate materials, colours, textures, spatial organisation, technologies and much besides.”

Accessible to all

Part of this involves ensuring that aspects of biophilic design can be made available to all, no matter the size of the budget.

“We’ve been looking at how biophilic design can be implemented with low, medium and high cost strategies,” says Oliver, “and how it can be integrated into the overall design process in a way that enhances accessibility and affordability. We want options that allow those with larger budgets to take the biophilic approach forward, and those who want a simpler, low cost approach to be able to benefit from biophilic design.”

“We’ve also been looking at how biophilic design can enhance a sense of community in a building – how a shared connection with nature can bring people together and help them to mix, talk and start to innovate. The great thing about biophilic design is that it’s not just about putting plants into buildings – that in itself will not change the world – it’s about the way we live and work together in buildings that are happier, healthier and more productive places.”

Enormous numbers of existing buildings

While the construction of new buildings offers opportunities for incorporating biophilic design, a much greater issue is what to do about the enormous numbers of existing buildings – how are they going to be made better places in which to live and work?

“We need to find effective ways of both bringing real forms of nature into existing buildings, for example with green wall systems, and using materials and technologies that mimic the natural environment. These can range from products as simple as carpet tiles that mimic the forest floor, to more complex lighting systems that provide the appearance and ‘feel’ of natural light.”

Biophilic Office project

Oliver and his team are currently playing a leading role in a major research project to test the effectiveness of a range biophilic strategies in a refurbished building. A suite of offices occupying one floor of a typical 1980s office building on BRE’s Watford campus – and its 40 occupants – are being extensively researched for a year before, and then a year after, the offices are refurbished with a range of biophilic design elements.

“We are working with an incredible group of manufacturing and other partners on the BRE Biophilic Office project,” says Oliver. “They are supplying an exciting range of biophilic products and systems – along with expertise – which will be installed as part of the refurbishment, and their impacts on the people and conditions in the building investigated. It’s going to be fascinating to see the results of this project, and to apply them to future biophilic designs.”

Wellness and Biophilia Symposium

Oliver Heath will be giving a keynote speech, on Biophilic Design – Our Intrinsic Connection to Nature, and participating in workshop and panel discussions during the Wellness & Biophilia Symposium on using nature-inspired design to foster workplace wellness. The symposium is at BRE Watford on 6-7 June 2019.

Full details are available at

Full interview available at

Source: Tom Harvey, Communications Consultant, BRE Trust