Biophilia: if you’re unfamiliar with the term, it might sound like a cross between a new-age fad and an obscure fetish—but if you’ve ever bought a sheepskin rug at IKEA, birch print wallpaper, or a hanging plant for your window, chances are it’s already a part of your life. A scientific study of the ways that connecting to nature can help humans thrive, the term has been around since the 1960s, but has exploded lately as a focus of healthy, sustainable architecture and design, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the forefront of the field is Terrapin Bright Green, a NYC-based firm dedicated to green-building research and consulting. Catie Ryan is the Director of Projects at Terrapin and, along with partner Bill Browning, the author of the recently released book Nature Inside: A Biophilic Design Guide. In hopes of better understanding what it all means—and just how many succulents is enough for one home—we caught up with Ryan recently, and asked her to give us a little biophilic primer. Here’s what she had to say.
What is “biophilia” anyway? Can you explain a little more about how the concept originated?
Basically, biophilia and biophilic design are about the idea that just by incorporating natural elements into human and built environments we can improve cognitive function, foster creativity, reduce stress, and just generally improve our health and well being. It’s a little complicated, but most people agree that the term—which literally means bio‒ (life) and ‒philia (to love)—was coined in 1964 by the social psychologist Erich Fromm. But as a larger scientific concept, biophilia didn’t really gain traction until the 1980s, when the Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote a book called Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species. That’s when it was popularized among researchers and began to be talked about more in relation to architecture and design. Of course, before it became an official research field, people had been thinking about lots of these ideas for years—they just didn’t call it biophilia. But it all arrived at the same point: We’re intrinsically drawn to nature and living things. Biophilia is just a way of delving deeper into ourselves and the science of our emotional responses to the natural world.
When you talk about incorporating natural elements, you don’t just mean buying more houseplants, right?
Right. Plants are definitely a part of it—but biophilic design is about much more than just adding greenery. It can touch on all kinds of aspects of architecture and interiors. At home it might include anything from installing a shower head that mimics the feel of rain to choosing furniture with biomorphic shapes or patterns or installing window treatments that let you see the sky change throughout the day.
Some of this sounds a little like the Chinese concept of feng shui. Are they related?
I think there’s overlap, but people have generally shied away from trying to make too many connections between the two because biophilia is heavily based in scientific research, whereas feng shui is more of a philosophical concept. The two disciplines approach many of the same ideas, but fundamentally from different starting places. But they can absolutely support each other.
What are some design elements that are classically biophilic? And what are the benefits?
Biophilic design might be as simple as paying attention to the texture of a rug. For instance, if you go barefoot a lot in your house, try choosing a rug or rugs with lots of texture, so every time you walk on them you are connecting to the ground. Because in nature you don’t have smooth surfaces. You have to consider the rug as a tactile experience as well as visual one.
Curtains can be another fun way to add biophilic experience to a space, either literally with a floral or organic patterned fabric, or just by how the drapery allows light into space. Does the fabric reflect shadows onto the floor or ceiling that change as the sun moves throughout the day? That gives you a connection to the natural systems, as we call it—it helps tune you into the rhythm of nature.
Another elemental idea in biophilic design is this idea of creating a “refuge”—basically a space that’s dedicated to getting away from the rest of your space. It could be a cozy corner, or a window seat, or even just a high backed chair where you can curl up. The key is that the space feels a little protected and separate. If you were out in nature, if you wanted protection from rain or sun, you might lean against the trunk of a tree—so you are protected and a little enclosed, but can still see outwards to what is going on around you. That’s the feeling you want to get. That impulse is actually the reason why booths are always the first seats to be snagged at restaurants.
I imagine the potential benefits of biophilia have started to feel more essential than ever over the past year, as people have been spending so much more time at home and inside. Have you seen an increased interest in the conversation?
Absolutely. In the past year, biophilic design has really moved from being seen as an amenity to becoming a critical strategy, both at home and the workplace and in public spaces like airports and hospitals. “Healthy” design has started to mean a whole new thing.
What’s one of the smallest changes people can make that will have the biggest impact on their lived experience these days?
With so many people working from home right now, having a healthy desk setup is really important. Case in point: many people position their desks facing a wall, with their computer monitor right in front of it. But for good eye health, we really need a depth of view and to be able to look up and out occasionally—research shows it not only reduces eye strain and headaches but also supports decision making and helps build a feeling of connection to place. So, especially in a smaller home or apartment, where you don’t have 100 feet to spare, that’s a great reason to put your desk in front of the window.
We’ve established that biophilia isn’t just about collecting houseplants—but that doesn’t mean that gardens or growing things don’t play a role in it. What are some “naturing” strategies you can use at home if you don’t have outdoor space—or a green thumb for that matter?
When it comes to adding plants to the home, it’s less about the number than it is some sort of biodiversity. Think about creating a mini habitat. If you can only have 3 plants, have 3 different kinds—not just succulents or pothos. Terrariums are a great way to do it and so are fish tanks—the movement, the ripple of the light, the water. And make sure to put them in a place where you can see them regularly, not tucked away.