Biophilic Design: Our Future Is Our Past

By Jasmine St. Clair Vice President of Design & Construction, Prism Hotels & Resorts | November 17, 2019

Biophilic design begins with a very straightforward idea: that for the vast majority of human existence, there was no design. Humanity evolved in a world where vast forests met expansive savannahs, and the soaring arc of a baobab tree was as familiar as the texture of the dirt and grass beneath our feet.

To a large extent, we have lost that organic connection. The modern world is a place of slabs and angles-chrome and glass. The warmth of wood and sun is often absent, and the sounds of wind and water are frequently muted.

But the textures and contours of the natural world are indelibly familiar to us. We have an instinctive affinity for natural elements. There is even some compelling evidence that much of our admiration for historical architecture stems from their biophilic qualities. As a species, the places and spaces where we became human are imprinted on both our collective conscious and on our genetic identity. On quite literally a cellular level, humans are in tune with the natural world. We could not and would not have survived and thrived if that was not the case.

With that in mind, the underlying premise of biophilic design is that places and spaces that feature natural elements and designs are good for us: that natural materials and environments are actually beneficial to our mental and physical health and our overall wellbeing. There is a growing body of scientific and medical evidence to support that conclusion. Biophilia is a school of design that not only recognizes our deep and inherent connection to nature, but seeks to capitalize on that connection by introducing natural elements into what have, until recently, often become sterile, linear, unnatural built environments.

More specifically, what does biophilic design look like? What does it feel like? Where is biophilic design most prevalent, how is it deployed, and what are the potential benefits of a well-executed biophilic design scheme?

Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, Yishun, Singapore

The New Habitat

The phrase "natural habitat" conjures up images of animals in specific outdoor settings. The alligator drifting through a swamp. A group of deer quietly moving through a leafy glade. Which is why it's such a jarring idea to reconcile those natural environments with what has become the (un)natural habitat for most humans in today's world: the built environment. Today, humanity spends almost all of its time moving across paved or engineered surfaces, living under roofs and between walls. According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans spend an average of 93% of their life indoors.

This fundamental disconnection from our true natural habitat comes at a cost. Going from 100% of our time outdoors in the not-too-distant past to 7% today represents a massive behavioral shift for which takes a toll on our bodies and minds. We are more stressed. We have more incidence of cardio-vascular disease. We are more prone to mental health disorders. 

By bringing the outdoors indoors, biophilic design proponents strive to balance the scales somewhat-to introduce natural elements into those built environments in a way that makes us happier, healthier, less stressed, and more productive. Studies have definitively shown that this effect is not small: that biophilic design reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and heart rates, boosts cognitive performance, and makes people more creative, optimistic, cooperative and productive.

Biophilic design encompasses an extraordinarily wide range of concepts and styles. Common elements to many spaces designed with biophilia in mind include things like abundant natural lighting, clean air (including spaces that are perhaps open to the outside), water features, abundant plants and landscaping, and features that mimic natural landscapes.

Somewhat more subtle biophilic design features might include things like naturalistic shades, shapes and forms, materials that incorporate or evoke natural substances and textures, and a pleasing blend of contrasts and complexities. It could be something as simple as a wall pattern or as dramatic as an indoor rock wall installation with running water. Some of the best examples of biophilic design reflect natural geometries and proportions, and curvilinear forms and natural imperfections are a common characteristic of some biophilic spaces and structures.

Sometimes, designed spaces conceived and created with biophilic principles including nature in the most literal sense. Most commonly with trees, plantings and elaborate landscaping elements-but also, in some cases, by elevating outdoor spaces or opening spaces up to the outdoors. It may be as simple as orienting a room or a structure to  overlook a gorgeous natural vista or to benefit from the surrounding landscape. In some cases, it's possible to blur or even eliminate the boundaries between the built environment and the natural world.

Biophilic designs are also frequently:

  • Multisensory

Biophilic design is not just a visual medium. Spaces created with biophilic design principles may include much more than just a potted plant or two, but instead present a fully realized natural design vision explicitly created to appeal to multiple senses.

  • Immersive

Well-executed biophilic design is engaging in a way that makes those moving through the space feel like they are part of something larger than themselves.

  • Soothing

Biophilic design is typically calming, relaxing, inviting and often sustainable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, biophilic design elements have long been a popular choice in spas and other therapeutic settings where tranquility and connection are key priorities.

El Conquistador Tucson, a Hilton Resort, Tucson, AZ

A Biophilic Future

Biophilic design is not necessarily a new concept, but there is growing enthusiasm for natural design concepts, and we are starting to see these ideas deployed with increasingly frequency and growing sophistication. This is almost certainly being driven, at least in part, by the recognition that there are very real (and potentially very meaningful) economic benefits that can accrue from creating more appealing spaces and from bolstering the health and wellbeing of those who live, work and play in biophilic environments.

That was clearly a consideration with the design and construction of Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Yishun, Singapore, where the design vision of a "hospital in a garden" informed the creation of a project that takes extraordinary advantage of its location amidst natural splendor.

Biophilic ideas have an experiential element to them that makes them popular choices to inform and enhance the design of amenity spaces and elevate the guest experience. It is particularly prevalent in lobbies or in larger mixed-use spaces, and some forward-thinking companies are integrating biophilic principles into their office designs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, hotels and resorts have been leading adopters of biophilic design ideas.

At El Conquistador Tucson, a Hilton Resort in Arizona, for example, the 90-acre property is surrounded by high Sonoran Desert terrain at the base of the Pusch Ridge Mountains. The hotel masterfully reflects, embraces and integrates those beautiful natural Southwestern landscapes, with the colors, textures, materials, and native flora featured both inside the property and throughout the facility's extraordinary outdoor spaces and pools. From a hummingbird sanctuary to an onsite-garden, from housing a stable of horses to providing fire-lit sunsets serenaded by Native American flute, the hotel provides biophilic engagement throughout the entire stay.

These biophilic design principles can be credited for a big reason why the property was named the "Best Experiential Hotel" of 2018 by Hotel Interactive ® Lodging Industry Elite Awards, and named one of the 52 Best Hilton Hotels in the World by Forbes Travel in 2019.

One Central Park, Sydney, Australia. Motorized mirrors capture sunlight, and direct the rays down onto Central Park's gardens

One of the most striking examples of biophilic design in action is the award-winning One Central Park outside of Sydney, Australia. A mixed-use project completed in 2014, One Central Park includes two residential towers bracketing a multi-level retail component. There are a number of biophilic elements that stand out with this project, including a spectacular cantilevered heliostat and sky garden that reflects natural light throughout the retail atrium and public sections of  the residential towers, but without question the defining feature of this design is the inclusion of vertical hanging gardens that transform the buildings' exterior faces into "living walls."

At more than 50 meters, the hanging gardens of One Central Park have been cited as the world's tallest vertical garden. A "living tapestry" of more than 85,000 plants (including more than 350 different species) bring the walls of One Central Park to life in a remarkable fusion of the natural world and the built environment.

One Central Park biophilic balcony

While dramatic examples of biophilic design such as One Central Park are not always financially feasible, and may even require innovative architectural design solutions to execute (One Central Park's unique living walls required the development of custom planter boxes, support brackets and aluminum framing, along with an automated and centrally monitored irrigation and plant maintenance system), the results can be exciting. One Central Park was named the best tall building in the world in 2014 by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

At its heart, the growing popularity of biophilic design principles-and the growing prevalence of spaces and places designed with biophilic design concepts-reflects our deep-seated need to connect with the natural world. The origins of that need are primal and profound-and they aren't going to be going away anytime soon. Which is why, going forward, we can almost certainly expect to see more natural design elements in the modern structures and spaces where we spend so much of our lives.

Ms. St. Clair Jasmine St. Clair is the Vice President of Design and Construction for Prism Hotels & Resorts, an award-winning full-service hotel management, investment and advisory services company. An experienced professional who has worked on virtually all aspects of hotel design, development and operations, Ms. St. Clair has more than 20 years of project management experience in the hotel industry. She has worked for iconic national and international brands and operators including Hilton Hotels & Resorts, La Quinta, Bristol Hotels & Resorts, Remington Hotels & Resorts, and, most recently, Omni Hotels & Resorts. Over the course of her distinguished career, she has been responsible for managing franchise design and construction development, spearheading new product development and improvement plans (PIP's) on conversion projects, and supervising change of ownership and repositioning logistics at numerous hotels and resorts. Additionally, Ms. St. Clair has spent time in the purchasing project management role for one of the industry's premier hospitality purchasing companies, Purchasing Management International in Dallas, Texas. Jasmine St. Clair can be contacted at 214-987-9300 or jasmine.stclair@prismhotels.com Please visit http://www.prismhotels.com for more information. Extended Biography

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In the event that you have chosen to have your membership automatically rebilled, unless and until you notify HotelExecutive that you wish to cancel or terminate your membership to HotelExecutive, you hereby agree and authorize HotelExecutive's Internet Payment Service Provider to automatically renew your membership to HotelExecutive on a continuing basis and to charge your credit card (or other payment means you have selected) to pay for the ongoing cost of your membership. You hereby further authorize HotelExecutive's Internet Payment Service Provider to charge your credit card (or other approved payment means you have selected) for any and all purchases of products, services and entertainment provided to in, at, through or in association with HotelExecutive.

13. PRIVACY POLICY

The following is the Privacy Policy for HotelExecutive

We can be reached via telephone, email, or online at our contact page. When you visit our site we do not log any information regarding your domain or email address. Information Sharing: We do not share user information with any third parties other than via press release distribution as described below.

Hotel Newswire is a newswire service that distributes press releases on behalf of our users. If you decide to submit a press release for distribution through our system we will transmit your entire press release including any personal information therein contained to our media contacts and online distribution points including search engines. This is the only redistribution of your information that we engage in. Your submission of press releases through our system indicates consent with this policy. The information we collect during your registration process is used to notify users about updates to our service and inform users of any special events hosted by Hotel Newswire. This information is not shared with other organizations for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

Cookies: Our system requires the use of cookies to enable the user to log back into our website to access information from the newswire, without having to log in each time using the required username and password.

If you do not want to receive email from us in the future, please let us know by following instructions included in our communication with you. Users who supply us with telephone numbers online may receive telephone contact from us regarding their account, or informing them of new products and services available on the HotelExecutive website. If you do not wish to receive such telephone calls, please edit your account and remove your phone number from your account profile. This can be done from your user account menu.

Ad Servers: We do not partner with or have any relationship with any ad server companies. From time to time, we may use customer information for new uses not previously disclosed in our privacy notice. If our information practices change at any time, we will post the policy changes to our website to notify you of these changes and provide you with the ability to opt out of these new uses. If you are concerned about how your information is used, you should check back at our website periodically.

Upon request we provide site visitors with access to all information (including proprietary information) that we maintain about them. Users can access this information by logging in to their account.

Security: We always use industry-standard encryption technologies while transferring and receiving user data exchanged with our site. We have appropriate security measures in place in our physical facilities to protect against the loss, misuse, or alteration of information that we have collected from you on our site. We do not store credit card information in our systems.

If you feel that this site is not following its stated information policy, you may contact us.

Coming up in January 2020...

Mobile Technology: Meeting Tech Expectations

What once seemed futuristic is now the norm, owing to the escalating developments in mobile technology, and hotels must continue to innovate in order to meet guest expectations. In a recent study from Mower, 65 percent of guests said they would gladly pay more for a hotel that provides the mobile technology they deem essential. The same study shows that 44 percent of travelers are more likely to book a smart hotel, and nearly 7 in 10 want to use smart devices provided by the hotel. And how do guests wish to use all this technology? A majority expressed a desire for mobile check-in and check-out, and mobile payment options. They also want to be able to stream content from their phone to the TV; to make service requests of the hotel staff; to control in-room lighting, temperature and sound; to order food and beverages; and to request a wake-up call - all from their mobile device. Guests also expressed preferences for robust wi-fi and convenient device charging ports throughout the hotel. They also appreciate the use of hotel branded apps which allow a guest to book a room, access loyalty programs, receive discounts and rewards, and even use the app to choose the room, floor and view they prefer. Some hotel apps also allow a customer to track their charges throughout their stay, rather than waiting to receive a bill at the end. Finally, mobile tech lounges are popping up more frequently in some hotels. These lounges offer guests the opportunity to perform tasks like airline check-ins or access to local info guides, but they also provide a place where guests can comfortably get some work done outside their room. The January Hotel Business Review will report on what some hotels are doing to meet their customers' expectations in the mobile technology space.