The Impact of Biophilic Design on Health Care

Jul 31 2023

Take a moment and imagine a hospital waiting room, doctor’s office, or other health care setting. What words would you use to describe these medical environments?

Oftentimes when asked to describe a health care setting, words like “sterile” and “clinical” tend to be the first to come to mind. This is not a negative thing. In fact, creating environments that are safe and clean are at the top of any designer’s list of important elements to include in a health care setting; however, good health care design ensures that the space is not only clean, but is comforting and aids in the healing process. One way that designers can help create comforting health care environments is through biophilic design.

Biophilic design seeks to connect our inherent need to affiliate with nature into the built environment. Through direct and indirect exposure to nature, biophilic design seeks to improve users mental and physical wellbeing and help restore our connection to nature at a time when most people spend a sizable portion of their day indoors.

The Effects of Biophilic Design on Health Care

Biophilic design promotes physical and mental well-being in humans when implemented in the built environment. Regular access to nature, even if just through a window or looking at an image, has been proven to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression, reduce stress, lower blood pressure, increase quality of sleep, and much more.

The Challenges of Biophilic Design in Health Care

One of the biggest challenges of designing any health care setting is maintaining hygienic and safety requirements without creating an environment that feels “too sterile.” To prevent the spread of infection, certain cleanable and durable materials need to be used in all health care settings.

Navigating these challenges requires a lot of creativity and there are many ways that designers can add elements of biophilic design that meet the necessary health and safety requirements. For example, using prints and graphics of nature instead of real or artificial plants and including a view to the outside where appropriate.

Applying the Principles of Biophilic Design in a Health Care Environment

According to Stephen R. Kellert, author of “Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life,” there are six key principles of biophilic design. These principles are:

Environmental Features

This element of biophilic design focuses on direct and indirect exposure to natural elements in the built environment. Direct exposure to nature in biophilic design would be bringing physical elements from the environment, such as plants, rocks, and water, inside of a building. Indirect exposure in biophilic design is using materials that emulate nature such as graphics and images of the outdoors, natural colors, and building materials made from natural sources.

Natural Shapes and Forms

Natural shapes are lines and forms that occur in nature. There are many ways that designers can include shapes and forms found in nature in design. A few examples are using tree shaped columns, arches, vaults, domes, and botanical motifs. 

Natural Patterns and Processes

Biophilic design is more than just hanging landscape portraits on the wall but is about echoing the natural patterns and forms found in nature. This element includes incorporating natural patterns and processes that occur in nature in a space’s design.

Light and Space

Including abundant natural light through windows and skylights is an essential element of biophilic design. There are endless physical and mental health benefits to letting in lots of natural light including decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression, decreased eye strain, and helps lower stress levels.

Place-Based Relationships

This element focuses on the user’s connection to the unique geographical features and nature surrounding where the building is located. Drawing inspiration from the surrounding geography is a great way to design a facility that matches the unique culture and landscape of the area. Seeing familiar imagery and natural features can be grounding and help create a sense of calm.

Evolved Human-Nature Relationships

Recreating the relationship between humans and nature in the built environment can help restore users’ connection to nature. Since many people spend more time indoors than outdoors, recreating a semblance of that relationship through design can help make indoor environments more comfortable and enjoyable to be in. This element is not focused on replacing the outdoors with the indoors but evolving our relationship with nature.

Project Spotlights:

UNC Health AYA Oncology Infusion Center

MHAworks renovated the Adolescent/Young Adult (AYA) Oncology and Infusion Center for UNC Health. This infusion center provides outpatient treatments for adult oncology and benign hematology patients between the ages of 18-40. Patients will come to this infusion center to receive various treatments including chemotherapy and hydration and infusion of blood products.

When patients come to this infusion center, they may be spending up to eight hours receiving infusions at a time. One of the goals of this renovation was to design the space to bring the feelings of being outdoors or in a forest inside to create as comfortable of an experience for patients as possible. Since live plants and woven fabrics are not safe to use when designing this type of environment, the design team focused on using cleanable materials, graphic prints, and a color palette that reflects colors found in nature. Nature-inspired designs can be found all throughout the infusion center from the resin flower light fixtures above the nurses’ station to the forest scenes printed on window shades.

SECU Jim & Betsy Bryan Hospice Home

UNC Health commissioned MHAworks to design the SECU Jim & Betsy Bryan Hospice Home to ensure quality palliative care. This facility comprises six care rooms, each fashioned with its own private washroom, family area, wardrobe storage, and exterior patio area. Oxygen and emergency power are provided for all rooms to ensure maximum patient comfort.

This facility was designed in harmony with the natural settings of Chatham Park. Access to a landscaped patio area, as well as plenty of large windows throughout the building allow patients and their loved ones to experience a connection to nature while they are in hospice care. Natural wood and stone finishes, and the use of calm, natural colors indoors create a soft and comforting environment.