Biophilic design – for what and whom?

A trend is taking root in the worlds of architecture and interior design based on using natural materials and living plants to better connect people with the outdoors. Introduced in the 1980s by American scientist Edward O. Wilson – and known today as biophilic design – the concept is not however new, as the modernist movement also advocated for designing spaces around fresh air and natural light. Recently though many studies have proven that integrating biophilic design principles in places that we live and work can improve our well-being, especially as we spend more time inside and connected in the virtual world rather than the natural world.

This negative impact of not being close to nature is becoming a key concern for architects and designers. Examples of biophilic designs range from a wall covered with ferns to cladding with thermally treated timber and using engineered wood. Such advancements in technology and building materials enable us to harness nature’s beneficial qualities even more.

A variety of small and large-scale projects are designed with biophilic principles, started with a house in Estonia, Maidla Nature Resort , whose dark exterior siding of Thermory ash boards have been made more durable and weather-resistant by modifying the timber with heat and steam. The cladding also makes the building blend in with the dark trees of the forested site.

Maidla Nature Resort
Photo: Elvo Jakobson

The prefabricated cabins of ÖÖD house also pair large portions of glass with thermally treated panels to incorporate biophilic design.

oodhouse.comPhoto: Oodhouse.com

Larger, well-known projects are Grimshaw’s The Eden Project, which is an ecological park in Cornwall, England that has nature-focused attractions and Singapore’s skyscrapers that are overflowing with plants.

Eden Project in Devon, South West England
Images by Penstones from Pixabay 

Moshe Safdie’s firm Safdie Architects has designed many notable projects in the Asian city to connect people with the outdoors – a novel concept for such a congested metropolis that is very hot year-round – such as the infinity pool on the roof of Marina Bay Sands and Jewel at Changi International Airport with its massive greenhouse and indoor waterfall made by recycling rainwater.

Infinity pool on the roof of Marina Bay Sands
Photo by Will Truettner on Unsplash

Jewel at Changi International Airport
Photo by Peerapon Chantharainthron on Unsplash

For biophilic interior design projects, Thermory’s office and showroom in Tallinn’s Ülemiste district are also centred around using many natural materials while still being a traditional workplace. Many of the floors, walls and ceilings feature Thermory thermo-wood, in addition to custom-made furniture. The office was designed by local studio KAMP Architects , who is part of a number of studios focused on using natural materials to improve the way we live. “More and more in designers are trying to use natural materials as it is important to create space for people which is human friendly and healthy,” the studio said. “We are surrounded by a massive amount of synthetic materials. If we can as architects help in this matter to bring back a natural atmosphere around us, we are happily ready to do this.” The benefits of using wood and plants are not just for a pretty experience but help make people feel calm and focused.

Thermory showroom
Design: KAMP Architects

Wood is often critical for biophilic design projects, and although it is a traditional building material that has been used for centuries, recent advancements have greatly improved its durability. “Estonians love to use wood in architecture,” said KAMP Architects. “Using wood in building industry gives the longest lifespan to wood after taking a tree down. Making paper from it or even using it for heating does not carry a sufficient enough framework of using the natural material.”

Thermory Thermo-AshNOA restaurant in Tallinn, Estonia
Design: KAMP Architects
Photo: Elvo Jakobson

Engineered wood is another example of harnessing the benefits of wood and improving it. Cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels are made from layers of timber glued together and enable a building to be built quickly and easily. The material is celebrated for its smaller ecological footprint and lower embodied carbon footprint as compared to concrete or steel, which are non-renewable and energy-intensive materials to produce.

Like the thermally treated wood that Thermory adopted from the knowledge of the Vikings and advancements in Finland in the 1990s, CLT was developed in Germany around the same time. Both allow timber to be more resistant to water damage, more sturdy and more insulated. Thermory’s products, in particular, only use wood from well-managed forests that are renewing constantly instead of from endangered forests or rainforests. Thermally treated timber, plants and natural materials like clay and stone are great ways to incorporate nature in a space or building, which is a key tenet of biophilic design.