Breaking down biophilia to its component parts and putting them back together again to better understand how to make biophilic design work for wellbeing.

In 2007, Ambius was launched as a new brand. Our slogan then was “Stimulating the senses” and little did we realize how accurate a slogan that would be in the new age of biophilic design.

Biophilia was a dimly-understood concept in the wider design community.  Most architects and designers had never heard of it, and interior landscapers were often oblivious to the notion that what they had been doing inside buildings for decades was actually profoundly important.

Let’s start by looking at a definition of biophilia.  The most famous, and most important is that given by Edward Wilson. Wilson catalyzed the development of the concept.  In 1984, he defined Biophilia as 

“…the innate affiliation people seek with other organisms and especially the natural world.”

This is a strong statement.  Wilson also speaks of the human bond with other species.  This all suggests that biophilia is essentially an emotional need to connect with nature and natural surroundings.

Stephen Kellert, the Grandfather of Biophilic Design, put it another way in 1997:

“Our physical, emotional and intellectual inclinations for nature and life”

By expressing our need to connect with nature on an emotional level, we instinctively understand the concept.  We remember that being in natural places makes us feel good and that the countryside and woodlands are instantly relaxing.  Bringing nature into our built environment – our offices and cities – is a great response to that feeling of calm that we get while in the presence of nature.

However, let’s examine why being in nature really makes us feel comfortable.  Researches contend that it isn’t wholly a psychological or emotional need, but much more of a physiological need.  This is where “Stimulating the senses” begins to make sense.

Biophilic environments are natural environments

If you were to take a mole away from its burrow and place it in an open, sunny garden, it would be stressed, frightened and try to dig a new hole.  Its senses are not able to cope with the bright light, the lack of close skin contact and the shrill noises of birdsong. Millions of years of evolution have produced a creature that thrives in dark, damp, tight tunnels.  This is where it finds food, shelter and other moles with which to mate. If we were to create an environment for a captive mole, it too would be dark, damp and tight. That is the environment in which they thrive.

When we create environments for humans – offices, for example – we tend to make them very space-efficient, very energy efficient and completely unlike the environment where our species has spent over 99% of its evolutionary history.

Humanity evolved in wide-open spaces with undulating landscapes.  Scattered vegetation grew in clusters; water was plentiful and skies were bright.  Humans use their eyes to look for food and threats – sight is our most developed sense. Color perception for us – the part of the spectrum that we can see – enables us to spot shapes (food or danger) against the background of vegetation, and recognize when fruits are ripe.  Our hearing is fine-tuned to the sounds of prey animals and running water. Our sense of touch helps us to determine the quality of materials that we can use for shelter. When it comes to what is safe to eat, our sense of smell helps us out.


Each of our senses is highly adapted to that environment.  Those senses evolved to enable our species to survive.  If we stress our senses, we react as if there is a threat to our survival.  Stress hormones prepare us to fight or flee. Our senses become overwhelmed or underused, creating a dangerous cycle of constant stress and disequilibrium in our bodies.

Other species have evolved senses differently.  Dogs have a better sense of smell than humans and see in a different part of the spectrum because that is what helps them hunt.  Whales can hear frequencies far out of the range of human hearing. This is perfect for the oceans where sound travels in water, but not the air.  Our friend the mole has a remarkable sense of touch and can navigate in total darkness. Human senses are as fine-tuned to our natural environment as a mole’s are to its.


What has this got to do with design?

Biophilic design is the design trend of the moment, but it’s much more important than that.  It is associated with greater well-being. However, many of its proponents think mainly in terms of the emotional need to connect with nature, an effective and easily-understood approach. However, design experts believe we can create more effective spaces if we use a sensory approach to design. When we stimulate our senses the way nature intended, the benefits to productivity, creativity, and psychological well-being (among others) abound.


Vision is our primary sense.  It is a broad term – it covers our perception of brightness, contrast, color, shape, distance, orientation, time of day and movement – at least eight senses in one.  We use our eyes to scan far and wide as much as we do to examine tiny objects in our hands or under microscopes. We are constantly scanning the environment and changing our focus. Our eyes help us to avoid fast-moving objects, or coordinate our hands to catch them.  

So what do we do in offices?

Many offices have uniform lighting that varies little throughout the day.  Office workers focus their gaze on a screen, placed at eye level and only a short distance from their nose.  If you are lucky to be near a window, it might have its blinds down, or you will get a view of another office block across the street.  This does not stimulate our sense of sight the way that we need for true comfort. Indoor plants can be used to recreate something of our natural habitat – especially if arranged in a naturalistic style.  Art and wall coverings, such as murals, can create stimulus and awaken memories of happy places. Varied texture and color can have a similar effect, but lighting is one of the most effective ways to improve sight qualities.

Enter Biodynamic lighting – sometimes called human-centric lighting – is one way around the problem of poor light quality and lack of variation throughout the day. These systems, such as those produced by Waldmann, adjust the light quality during the day to better reflect the changes in light quality found outside, and it has been shown to have a dramatic effect on the production of stress hormones and improvements in sleep quality.


Offices can be noisy and distracting.  Recent research has shown that noise is one of the biggest complaints in modern offices. The background hum of machines, overheard conversations, or the audible sound of music leaking from a colleague’s headset – all set to drive people beyond the edge of reason.

New technology has been developed to create sounds that mask those distractions – a good example being the Habitat Soundscaping system developed by Plantronics – which uses a simulated water sound to mask loud conversations and reduce the impact of a distraction.  Clever technology can detect and mask distracting noise at an incredibly localized level. It can even move the acoustic mask as the source of the sound moves.

Natural sounds, such as water or birdsong, can invoke a sense of calm. Vegetation can also be used to reduce echoes and absorb certain frequencies.


The insides of buildings can be smelly places.  Malodors from restrooms or trash receptacles (or even poor personal hygiene) can be an unwelcome addition to the sensory environment.  From an evolutionary point of view, malodors represent something you should avoid – unsanitary conditions or the presence of rotting waste.  Smells derived from solvents and other building materials prime your body to try and avoid the area.

Malodors can be masked and pleasant smells introduced.  Technological solutions, such as the Premium Scenting system sold by Ambius, can release naturalistic scents into the environment that are much more similar to those found in healthy human environments.  The psychology of scenting is a relatively new discipline, but measuring the responses and reactions to different fragrances is helping designers to add an extra dimension to interior space.


Modern office buildings feature smooth laminated desks, uniform floor coverings, straight lines, and right angles, plain walls and shiny surfaces.  Our sense of touch is deprived of stimulus, apart from our fingertips bashing away at a keyboard.

Texture can help us navigate spaces. Our feet are very good at determining whether a pathway is even and supportive. Our fingertips do the same, especially when we can’t see what we are dealing with.

Companies such as AkzoNobel and Interface are exploring how texture can be used on walls and floors to revitalize our sense of touch when using a space.

Other objects call out to be touched as well – the feathery foliage of a fern or the soft, smooth texture of some minerals.  The use of a wide variety of textures as part of an interior design adds interest and stimulus.


Admittedly, taste is a matter of, well, taste!  It is also hard for a designer to deal with.  You cannot mandate a particular menu or blend of coffee. However, a good facilities manager can certainly ensure that a wide variety of nutritional needs are met and tastebuds are stimulated.


Stimulating the senses – the core of real biophilic design

Ambius has been at the forefront of thinking about biophilic design since before the term was even considered in the design community. Indeed before even we knew it had a name.  Our research dating back to the early 1990s has consistently shown how enriching environments with sensory stimuli has benefits for the users of that space. By understanding that if we stimulate our senses to meet our needs, we can make our designs even more effective.  Biophilic design is much more than an emotional need to connect with nature. It’s a survival mechanism.

If you enjoyed reading about our innate connection with nature and the benefits of Biophilic Design, we highlight recommend taking a look at our Biophilic Design Trends Report. You’ll find all of the latest trends, information, and best practices to help you create engaging spaces for your property.