Biophilic design and flooring: Nurturing a connection to nature

by Amy Costello, PE, LEED AP, WELL AP

Photos courtesy Armstrong Flooring
Photos courtesy Armstrong Flooring

When asked about their favourite spaces, the majority would reply with someplace outdoors. Yet, many people spend most of their time inside. So, it is no wonder there is a growing emphasis on biophilic design that strives to connect the indoors with nature and the outdoor environment. Along with other components of construction and interior design, flooring can play an integral role in building connections between indoor spaces and the natural world, thereby supporting the well-being of those inside.

The idea of being one with nature is not new, but recognizing and quantifying benefits associated with being connected to it is an evolving concept. The influences and appreciation of nature span the centuries from great civilizations like the Inca Empire, whose artistic forms mimicked nature, to the Egyptians whose art valued and reflected nature. Today, biophilia can be viewed as a complement to sustainable architecture, which decreases the environmental impact of the built world but does not address human reconnection with the natural world.

The term ‘biophilia’ is derived from Greek and means love of life, but it was not until 1984 when Harvard University ecologist Edward O. Wilson penned Biophilia, the term began to be commonly used to express the innate tendency of humans to seek connections with nature (Read Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species, published in 1984 by the Harvard University Press.). Wilson once said, “Nature holds the key to our esthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual satisfaction. So, the more direct connections people have with nature, the better.”

Many may contend good designers and architects mimic nature intuitively. For example, early 20th century architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed structures that were in harmony with humanity and the environment, a philosophy he called organic architecture (Read An Organic Architecture: Architecture of Democracy (1939) by Frank Lloyd Wright.). He intuitively incorporated nature in his designs such as Fallingwater, a home built over a waterfall in western Pennsylvania in 1935. By entwining the home’s design so closely with the waterfall and surrounding landscape, Wright included one of three concepts of biophilic design: nature in space (Consult 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design (2014) by W.D. Browning, C.O. Ryan, and J.O. Clancy, published by Terrapin Bright Green, LLC.). The other two concepts are nature of space and nature equivalents.

Nature in space

Nature in space introduces visual and/or non-visual natural elements into the built environment. Examples of natural elements include air, light, sounds, water, and vegetation. Some elements, such as water, can be both visual and non-visual, as the sight and sounds of water can invoke feelings of relaxation. Flooring can help bring elements of nature into a space in a variety of ways from providing the look of wood or stone to reflecting sunlight.

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