CPD 14 2022: Incorporating biophilia and biodiversity

This CPD sponsored by TG Escapes Modular Eco-Buildings explains the issues around biodiversity and how buildings can help restore an environmental balance by including biophilic features

A co-working space incorporating biophilia can reduce stress and fatigue, leading to improved cognitive ability and emotional wellbeing. Source: Shutterstock

Those delivering the built environment are fully aware that their projects need to enhance the wellbeing of occupants.

Encompassing aspects of nature within the design of buildings – including urban green space or using plants and natural materials within the scheme – can play a significant part in maintaining and improving the health of those who use them.

This CPD will discuss biodiversity and biophilic design – using nature as a template for a building’s form and function – as well as addressing the advantages of including both these elements in the built environment, within the context of the construction industry’s strategies to achieve better outcomes for a building’s occupants.

UK biodiversity in decline

A recently published paper by the National Biodiversity Network, entitled State of Nature 2019 UK, collated a wide variety of data to document the trends in the UK’s biodiversity in the last five decades. It also analyses the pressures affecting the state of nature and reviews the conservation response.

The paper concluded: “Our statistics demonstrate that the abundance and distribution of the UK’s species has, on average, declined since 1970 and many metrics suggest this decline has continued in the most recent decade. There has been no let-up in the net loss of nature in the UK.”

The report looked at the many pressures on our native biodiversity, which include the intensification of agricultural land management, climate change and, most importantly for the construction industry, increased urbanisation.

The challenge for construction

Construction activity inevitably impacts the world around us, with building sites causing environmental change, noise and pollution.

Work to deliver the building projects we need – homes, places of work and leisure, infrastructure and more – creates enormous quantities of carbon emissions. According to the UK Green Building Council’s Whole Life Carbon Roadmap, the UK built environment is currently directly responsible for 25% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions.

The wall of an office building with plants encouraged to grow up it. Source: Shutterstock

In addition, once a project has been completed it emits operational carbon emissions, while the health and wellbeing of those who live and work in buildings are, to a large extent, determined by how a structure has been designed to cater for its occupants.

Can buildings be built in such a way that they provide a positive impact upon people’s everyday lives? The answer to this in recent years has been a resounding yes.

The construction industry has embraced a number of building performance systems to reflect the drive towards designing and delivering buildings that increase the wellbeing of occupants, through the use of natural elements such as sunlight and fresh air.

Building performance systems such as WELL assess, measure, certify and monitor features of the built environment that impact human health and wellbeing, through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind.

Many construction firms have also taken on board the role that nature can play in helping to deliver schemes that harness elements of nature, or mimic them, in order to deliver buildings which literally do their occupants good.

Biophilia and biophilic design

Biophilic design provides a calming environment that benefits occupants, whether in homes, schools, hospitals or workplaces. Source: Shutterstock

Growing numbers of firms across the construction industry are approaching building schemes with a mindset that revolves around biophilia.

The word “biophilia” is derived from the Greek: “bio” meaning life, and “philia” often being translated as “brotherly love, friendship, or affection.”

In Greek and Roman architecture, open-air courtyards were the centre of the home, with gardens, fountains and sculptures providing a calming respite, fresh air, natural light and views of nature.

A number of academics and researchers have looked into the positive effects of nature being incorporated into the built environment. In 1984 US biologist Edward Wilson argued that humanity’s affinity for nature was innate and evolutionary, and that it binds us all to other species.

US psychologist Judith Heerwagen co-authored a book – Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life – in which she suggested biophilic design “emphasises the necessity of maintaining, enhancing and restoring the beneficial experience of nature in the built environment”.

Heerwagen noted that while biophilic design is often presented as something new and innovative, “it was the way buildings were designed for much of human history. Integration with the natural environment; use of local materials, themes and patterns of nature in building artifacts and a connection to culture and heritage were all used by builders, artisans and designers to create structures [that are] still among the most functional, beautiful and enduring in the world.”

Others have looked at how biophilia can go further than merely aesthetically pleasing, practical structures. In 1989, psychologist Rachel Kaplan suggested that nature can provide a restorative effect on attention levels after a period of mental fatigue.

Known as the “biophilia hypothesis”, Kaplan’s theory suggests that the tendency of humans to focus on and affiliate with nature is genetic. Developmentally, exposure to nature enhances cognitive, emotional and moral development in discovering the self, a continuous process from childhood into adulthood.

And against a backdrop of climate change, our inherent fascination with the non-human environment can be restorative and calming while leading to contemplation and reflection. In turn, an increase in nature and biodiversity in the built environment can make a positive contribution to environmental factors.

A framework of principles

Stephen Kellert, a pioneer of biophilic design, created a framework of principles around the theory:

  • Direct experiences: light, air, water, plants, animals, natural landscapes and ecosystems and weather
  • Indirect experiences: images of nature, natural materials, natural colours, simulating natural light and air, naturalistic shapes and forms, evoking nature, natural geometries and biomimicry.

Biophilic design principles cover three core areas:

  • Nature in the space, such as sunlight, fresh air flow, pot plants, green walls and aquariums
  • Nature of the space, incorporating spatial configurations to which we are naturally drawn, such as cosy secluded nooks, wide open expansive space and meandering corridors
  • Natural analogues, including shapes, patterns and colours reminiscent of natural forms, natural materials like timber and stone, nature photography and artwork.
Biophilic Modular School Building by TG Escapes

Enhancing a scheme

Biophilic design can enhance a development in a number of ways. In education, adding sensory elements from the living, natural environment can help inspire curiosity, imagination and discovery in students.

A research paper Biophilic Design Patterns for Primary Schools, by Rokhshid Ghaziani, Mark Lemon and Paramita Atmodiwirjo, outlines the observed patterns of biodiversity and the effect they can have on students. This table is a useful reference and is relevant not just for those working in education.

Table 1: Attributes, benefits, and examples of the 10 patterns of biophilic design

NoPatternExperiences and attributesStress reductionCognitive performanceEmotion, mood and preferenceDesign examples
1Visual connection with naturePlants


Natural landscapes and ecosystems
Lowered blood pressure and heart rateImproved mental engagement/ attentivenessPositively impacted attitude and overall happinessWorkspaces next to windows with a view to nature

Plants, flowers and green walls
2Non-visual connection with natureWeatherReduced systolic blood pressure and stress hormonesPositively impacted on cognitive performancePerceived improvements in mental health and tranquility Sound (animals, conversation, music and water)

Smell (perfume and fragrant plants)

Touch (handrails and water for cooling)
3Non-rhythmic sensory stimuliWaterPositively impacted on heart rate and systolic blood pressure and sympathetic nervous system activityObserved and quantified behavioural measures of attention and explorationIndoor kinetic facades

Interactive design displays

Swaying grasses

Falling water

The sound of insects
4Thermal and airflow variability AirPositively impacted comfort, wellbeing and productivityPositively impacted concentration Improved perception of temporal and spatial pleasureOpenable windows, manually or individually

Work areas with external balconies

Visible mechanical ventilation
5Presence of waterWeatherReduced stress, increased feeling of tranquillity, lower heart rate and blood pressureImproved concentration and memory restoration

Enhanced perception and psychological responsiveness
Observed preferences and positive emotional responsesWater walls



Paintings of ocean/ water life

The colour blue
6Dynamic and diffuse lightFirePositively impacted circadian system functioning Daylight from multiple angles


Light distribution

Ambient diffuse lighting on walls/ceiling

Personal dimmer controls
7Connection with natural systemsCultural and ecological attachment to place

Transitional spaces
Enhanced positive health responses; shifted perception of environmentWorkspaces with patios or roof gardens

Native planting that grows and dies with the seasons
8Biomorphic forms and patternsImages of nature

Natural colours

Naturalistic forms and shapes

Evoking nature

Natural geometries

Observed view preferenceOrganic shapes

Natural colours




Geometric forms
9Material connection with natureNatural Materials

Age, changes, and the patina of time
Decreased diastolic blood pressure
Improved creative performance
Improved comfortMaterials that reflect native ecology such as specific woods, clay, stones, and other fabrics
10Complexity and other formsEvoking nature

Organised complexity

Integration of parts to wholes
Positively impacted perceptual and physiological stress responsesObserved view preference Repetitive and symmetrical shapes

Pattern order in wallpaper and flooring design

Exposed structure and mechanical systems facades

Spandrel and window hierarchy

Floor plan
Source: Rokhshid Ghaziani, Mark Lemon and Paramita Atmodiwirjo, Biophilic Design Patterns for Primary Schools

In medical environments, biophilic design can help nurture patient recovery. An indoor sky garden at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital (CWH) opened in September 2021. The hospital is expecting it “will bring the outdoors inside, supporting the cognitive function, wellbeing, and rehabilitation of patients in intensive care”.

Designer and CWH’s artist in residence Jinny Blom said: “Gardens, quite simply, improve our lives. To go and sit among plants and nature, especially in the context of a bustling hospital, has an immediate positive impact on stress levels.”

Meanwhile, in the workplace, stress and fatigue can be caused by noisy, open-plan environments. This can be reduced with exposure to nature, through the use of natural building materials, lots of light and fresh air. Additionally cognitive ability and emotional wellbeing can be significantly increased by designing or embedding nature into a space.

Plants can have a beneficial effect on stress levels. Source: Shutterstock

Biodiversity in construction

As well as employing biophilic techniques when drawing up plans for a project, construction firms are increasingly being encouraged – and in some cases mandated – to consider creating biodiversity gains across their schemes.

Biodiversity is essential to maintain a healthy, stable environment which, in turn, is crucial for the continued provision of life systems upon which human life depends.

These include food production and security, fuel, clean air and fresh water, and medical and pharmacological progress. A healthy ecosystem also plays a vital role in climate stability and disease limitation.

Although the problem of climate change is now broadly acknowledged, albeit with varying degrees of urgency and response globally, there is now a growing concern about the health consequences of biodiversity loss and the impact on the capacity of humans to sustain healthy, productive lives.

As detailed in the World Health Organisation’s paper on biodiversity and health, healthy communities rely on well-functioning ecosystems.

An overpass for animals reduces deaths and preserve the ecosystem. Source: Shutterstock

Human activity

Without any intention to play a blame game, the upshot of our human activity during the last 50 years has been that the UK is now recognised as the most nature-depleted nation in the G7, and in the bottom 10% globally.

The process of increased urbanisation and the associated construction of buildings, roads and rail networks has led to the direct loss of habitat while also causing habitat fragmentation and hydrological changes as more land is covered by artificial surfaces.

Yet well-planned development can enhance biodiversity. Well-planned and managed urban environments are capable of supporting a high level of biodiversity, with gardens, allotments and other green spaces currently recognised as pollinator hotspots.

The UK government has been slow to address the issue and until recently had only issued a set of guidelines – the Nationwide Planning Policy – requiring local planning authorities to consider unquantified biodiversity improvements when processing planning applications.

What is biodiversity net gain?

It is clear that time has become of the essence, as evidenced by the Environment Act 2021, which has specified a mandatory biodiversity net gain (BNG) and a requirement that all new development must show a measurable 10% uplift in BNG by the end of 2023.

Two metrics are to be used: one for large-scale projects, which must be verified by a qualified ecologist, and another for developments below 5,000m².

The metrics assign biodiversity “units” to the site of any proposed new-build scheme, as found and after development. Given that any new construction will result in the loss of some habitat and disruption to local wildlife populations, a 10% uplift is not a small undertaking.

Addressing biodiversity loss

The route to achieving the 10% target should be approached by a system based upon four principles. In descending order of importance, these are:

  • Avoid
  • Minimise
  • Remediate
  • Compensate.

Avoidance favours sympathetic site design aimed at conserving the maximum quantity of existing high-value biodiversity possible, particularly trees and hedgerows.

Minimisation can be achieved through the modular building method, whereby a building’s components are made off site and assembled on site, significantly reducing habitat damageand disruption, combined with the use of environmentally sustainable building techniques and materials.

These approaches can be further supplemented through the inclusion of green infrastructure, such as living roofs.

Compensation should always be seen as the last resort: the purchase of credits is a wasted opportunity to use simple yet highly effective tools to achieve the BNG target. These include planting trees, sowing wildflower seeds and building bird and bat boxes, both enhancing the BNG and enriching the experience of a building’s occupants.

Finally, there is enormous potential for a community space, such as a school’s grounds, to engage people in the issue of biodiversity and encourage them to take action in their own gardens or to band together to create other local green spaces.

Myths around biophilia

There can be some misunderstanding about what it takes to incorporate biophilia into a design. For example, it will take too much space, it is too expensive, or it is just green washing.

Biophilic spaces do not have to be large or expensive; indeed, the restorative elements of biophilia can be embedded in the smallest of areas, with the right design. And biophilia lends itself to retrofitting, again when the right project is being considered.

For new-builds where biodiversity net gain is a prerequisite, the industry could be making much more of the opportunity this presents to think about enhancing one or more of the biophilic principles referenced here.

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