What is Biophilia?
By Brian Murch Principal, DLR Group | November 17, 2019
Biophilia is the theory that humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. The direct translation from its Greek origin essentially translates to "the love of living things." Unlike phobias, which are the aversions and fears that people have of things in their environment, philias are the attractions and positive feelings that people have toward organisms, species, habitats, processes, and objects in their natural surroundings.
Simply stated, biophilia means layering nature into design to help improve humanistic connections and overall well-being within the built environment.
In hospitality design, these connections can occur both directly and indirectly – whether through something as simple as a room with a notable view, or the way natural daylight cascades across the lobby in the morning, or the composition of natural materials that enhance the finishes around the bar. These experiential moments provide another layer that helps expand on both the architectural and interior visual storytelling of a hotel's overarching concept and design narrative.
There have been numerous studies conducted on the positive impact of biophilic design, ranging from classroom spaces to the conference rooms. Resources like 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design and the Economics of Biophilia explore the financial and wellness benefits of incorporating natural systems into our built environment. Regardless of what type of space is being considered, the constant in the biophilia equation is a rigor to the organic design layer and its relationship to the overall design solution.
A simple excess of added plants or a fountain will not differentiate the design and will ultimately do little to build an emotional response that guests are seeking. Savvy millennial travelers (who make up a good majority of the target audience for today's hotels) crave unique hotel experiences and more from their stay than just a cool hotel bar or decent coffee in their rooms. This sense of discovery and curiosity in hospitality design has fueled the soft brand revolution and a loyalty to the brands that embrace the opportunity to give guests a more robust, authentically unique experience.
As a design architect, my passion always starts with the artistic side of architecture and buildings. Building form and mass add drama and a sculptural identity to the hotel; the interior spaces activate the composition and become dramatic spatial components of the overall design. This design progression is always iterative and inspired by a project's rich context and the site-specific environmental constraints. Considerations inherently address view trajectories, solar orientation, locally sourced materials, and native landscapes into a refined design solution that aligns to its locale.
As an example, in a recent design study DLR Group conducted for a project in a harsh arid desert climate, we looked to nature for help with the design concept. During our analysis of the hotel, and a clever dose of biophilia we extended the slab edges a few feet from the larger mass of the guest tower. These radiating fins projected out beyond the glass façade to provide shade elements for the adjacent guest floors and added a series of soft curves and fluid geometry to the architectural vernacular.
This example of biophilic design used the analytics of conventional sun angles and the biomimicry of the way a cactus shades itself from the sun with the ribs of its fluted skin. A complex formula distilled both the environmental data alongside the artistic geometry of the building to create a unique design solution.
Daylight is just one of several examples of a direct source of biophilia and can play an active role in the integration of nature in architectural design. As a design mechanism, daylight can actively wash a building's exterior and interior spaces, animating a hotel throughout the day and across all seasons. Almost every designer tries to bring natural light into a space, and for a designer such as myself, who focus much of my time on hospitality projects, lighting is a tool that can be used to create a dramatic and memorable guest experience.
The Hilton Des Moines Downtown a prime example of how lighting can enhance a space or leave a memorable mark for visitors. To deliver a unique guest experience, our design team played with light in a variety of ways, both on the exterior architecture of the building and in the interior spaces. For the hotel's exterior façade, we utilized a series of 3D textured panels inspired by the geometry of a deconstructed wheat grain.
When cast with daylight (illuminated by the hotel's exterior lighting elements in the evening), these panels are a visual reference to Iowa's agricultural roots. This is just one example of a subtle but effective detailed use of biophilia integrated into the composition of architecture.
The Hilton Des Moines, Des Moines, IA
Bringing the Outside In
When we think about nature and design, it's easy to imagine a hotel entrance lined with trees or a lobby with indoor plants. Though trees and plants are one of the best ways to enhance a natural environment, biophilic design has a broader focus than simply greening exterior and interior landscapes: the goal is to bring more of the natural world into our day-to-day lives to enhance the overall experience of a built environment and help tell the story of a place.
To further expand on this nature-inspired trend, we need to consider the biophilic influence on the interiors of hotel and the significant importance of guest experience. Exploring the balance of organic inspired design layers and the relevant environmental opportunities establish the foundation for integration. The hotel lobby, for example, is always a big part of the first impression for a hotel. Intuitive well-organized interior lobby design sets the tone for guests to be comfortable and stress free, and so architecturally, these spaces should have humanistic scale and visually connect with a variety of outdoor views.
Thoughtful use of natural materials and attention to detail weave the concept narrative in and around the biophilic design influence, helping enhance a memorable guest experience. Color is another source of inspiration that can also contribute to these added levels of comfort. Earth tones and palettes inspired by nature can add warmth and character to the lobby and food and beverage spaces. Flora and fauna themes can use both literal and abstract designs as reference points. The use of visual storytelling lends itself to hand-crafted, organic finishes, including nature inspired patterns and textures that provide contrast and layering to the atmosphere of the interior design.
The Canopy by Hilton, Minneapolis, MN
Vegetation and the use of plants or greenery are more obvious layers of biophilia; these softer design features can improve overall air quality and aid in the reduction of ambient noise and reverberation. The biophilic effect of bringing the outside in adds a tangible impact of health and wellness to the guest experience. The awareness of the modern and sophisticated traveler is more accustom to a lifestyle that embraces personal well being and looks for opportunities to make it part of their traveling experience.
In addition to thoughtful use of vegetation and plants, designers are also turning (or really, returning) to the renewable resource of wood as a biophilic design material. Exposed wood finishes on interiors has been shown to reduce stress levels, lower blood pressure, and enhance creativity for building occupants; likewise, research has also found that humans instinctively relax when surrounded by natural elements such as wood. The Canopy by Hilton | Minneapolis Mill District, for example, makes use of exposed heavy timber beams and wood ceilings throughout the building, helping create a stronger connection to the natural world within the hotel's larger urban landscape.
Seamless biophilic integration makes the effects less perceivable but more about an emotional connection. These intangible design features help add to the overall comfort of the hotel, adding staying power and potential revenue generation, but more importantly, they get to the heart of the biophilic design: that by incorporating natural elements into a space – organic materials, sunlight, vegetation – designers have the power to actually help improve the overall health and well-being of the people occupying the hotels we create.
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