Green care biophilic home
A biophilic home designed to emulate Nature can be beneficial for your wellbeing. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Take a moment to imagine your happy place. If outdoors - is it cool and green, a cozy nook under a flowering tree with the rush of flowing water nearby? Or perhaps is it amidst the dusky sunsets of the desert, or aboard a boat on the glittering blue ocean, the wind playing with your hair?

Science has shown that surrounding ourselves with Nature or doing Nature-based activities can actually be used as a form of structured therapy – also called ‘green care’. This includes sitting outdoors, caring for plants in a garden or your own pet – and is now practised in a prescribed manner for treating mental health and those with learning disabilities in various countries.

As far back as 1990, a Japanese study at the Faculty of Horticulture in Chiba university found that viewing plants reduces fear, anger, stress, blood pressure and pulse rate, showing altered EEG recordings (Electroencephalogram (EEG) is a test used to find problems related to electrical activity of the brain). Findings also arose that patients recovering from catastrophic injuries can heal more quickly if they have access to outdoor spaces with plants – and hospital gardens have existed since the Middle Ages for patients, a few current examples being the ones in St Thomas hospital London, and Al Jalila Children's Specialty Hospital in UAE.

But far from the benefits of the great outdoors - for most of us, the past two years of the pandemic have taken more tolls on us than we can comprehend. A major one was being stuck in clinical indoor spaces, away from the comforting touches of light and greenery. So, what if we could bring this feeling to our indoor spaces, creating therapeutic little natural havens that channel these effects?

Biophilic design promotes a therapeutic environment in terms of relaxation, positivity and overall well-being. To be surrounded by elements of Nature on a daily basis, helps you to think outside the box.

- Jo England, Founder of Tribe Dubai
Watering plants biophilic design
'Green care' is a form of structured therapy that includes sitting outdoors, surrounding ourselves with Nature and doing Nature-based activities such as caring for plants. Image Credit: Pexels/Sasha Kim

Jo England, founder of Tribe Dubai, an interior décor studio specialising in sustainable, handmade and ethically sourced furniture, says, “The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to adapt to the new normal, in terms of work from home or even travel. In today’s fast paced environment, everyone is constantly in search of the ideal method to stay positive, relieve stress and reconnect with nature.

“Biophilic design promotes a therapeutic environment in terms of relaxation, positivity and overall well-being. To be surrounded by elements of nature on a daily, helps you to think outside the box.”

The key word and solution here is ‘Biophilia’ a term coined by the Harvard biologist Dr Edward Wilson back in 1984 to describe humanity’s “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes". His theory was that we have an instinctive and genetic need to connect with Nature, used to support the idea that surrounding ourselves with Nature is healthy. Aurelien Paggi, project designer and estimator at Vancouver-based ByNature design, that offers biophilic design products to corporations, architects, interior designers and homes across North America, tells Gulf News in an exclusive interview, that this idea then translated into interior spaces in the same decade. This involves integrating natural elements into our lives, exploring our innate love for Nature.

“It also helps develop a healthier mindset to work, boosts creativity as well as encourages productivity,” adds England.

Gaia: Bringing the spirit of Nature indoors

Biophilic design living room
Advancements in design means your walls and floor can be carpeted with creepers - preserved or growing. Image Credit: Shutterstock

“To me a lush carpet of pine needles or spongy grass is more welcome than the most luxurious... rug,” once said Helen Keller, the famed American author, educator and disability rights advocate.

Now, the advancement in biophilic design has made it possible to bring these lush grass and moss carpets indoors, moreover in rug form, so you don’t have to compromise. Living walls filled with flowers and creepers, preserved natural products such as moss, living furniture that has in-built spaces for plants – for example, a bench with a plant growing out of it – are just some of the other available green products to liven up your home.

Other than using plants, the basic principles for biophilic design include various elements such as natural textures, fabrics, patterns, light and colours - and even using curved and uneven pieces to emulate natural shapes.

Another feature is sustainability. England says, “Throughout the life-cycle of a sustainable interior process, it is crucial to include environmentally friendly outcomes, this making it a green design.

“One must assess the materials used to create the furniture, the chemicals used for its creation, the manufacturing process, the carbon footprint, the durability and finally the potential to be recycled.”

You must be wondering how to make your own green cocoon to reap these benefits for your health and well-being. Without further ado, here’s the full guide to transforming your home and your environment with all these elements, because as England puts it: “By incorporating elements of organic shapes, earthy tones and natural sunlight, your space can transform into your dream location.”

A biophilic room of one’s own

The first question to ask yourself is - what kind of natural space would you find most comforting?

You can aim for the minimalism of the desert under a starry sky, the lush greenery of a forest with softly shifting light and brown shades, or for the ocean lovers: furniture reminiscent of beaches, sand, coral and rainbow-coloured fish. As a scuba diver and swimmer myself, water is always a source of comfort.

Once you have your theme in mind, we have England and Paggi walking us through each element to build your personal paradise.

1. Leafy patterns, sea shells and rough edges

Biophilic design interior by Tribe Dubai
Curves, natural textures and prints are perfect for your biophilic design plans. Image Credit: Supplied/Tribe Dubai

For baskets, wall hangings, plant pots and more - jute, rattan, wicker, bamboo, textured uneven wood and cotton are some examples of materials with natural textures that can help build cozy, forest-emulating nooks of Zen.

“Most of the shapes that we now see in our indoor spaces are straight lines, and very, very sharp edges and patterns that we don't really see in Nature,” says Paggi. Bringing in natural shapes with curves, unevenness and rough textures can help offset this.

Using soft, natural and layered fabrics can also contribute to decorating your safe, nature-loving cocoon. He says, “You will have the feeling of being cozy and being safe, because you are surrounded by nice textures, and fabric like very soft pillows.”

You can also use rocks, for example – and all these natural things that you would find outdoors as elements of the core design, rather than plastic and other manufactured materials.

- Aurelien Paggi, Project designer at ByNature

About other elements in the room, Paggi adds, ”You can also use rocks, for example – and all these natural things that you would find outdoors as elements of the core design, rather than plastic and other manufactured materials.” He added that using recycled fabrics and other materials are a great way to have long-lasting elements, that are also energy efficient. For ocean inspirations, this could include shells, sand and waves.

“Another important aspect which helps build a more authentic feel to the room, is focussing on natural analogues such as naturally inspired wallpaper, the weave of the rugs and even the materials of the furnishing,” adds England.

2. Blooming foliage

Greenhouse conservatory biophilic design plants
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Sometimes all it takes to make your morning is seeing a young new bud – rising fresh and green on our beloved plants.

Camilla Fitz-Patrick, Head of Creative and Partnerships at Florette, an outlet that delivers flowers from Netherlands in the UAE, advises: “For bedroom spaces, often elements such as paint and furniture can release toxins like formaldehyde and benzene into the air, so you should be looking for plants that naturally filter air pollutants and improve air quality.”

For bedroom spaces, often elements such as paint and furniture can release toxins like formaldehyde and benzene into the air, so you should be looking for plants that naturally filter air pollutants and improve air quality.

- Camilla Fitz-Patrick, Head of Creative and Partnerships at Florette

• Snakeplants, are one of the few plants that convert carbon dioxide into oxygen at night, she says, making them a great choice for a bedroom.

• Heartleaf philodendrons have striking leaves that trail off wall shelves, making them an aesthetic addition. Fitz-Patrick adds that it is not only easy to grow, but particularly effective at absorbing formaldehyde.

• “Indoor plants such as succulents, monstera, money plants, snake plants or aloe vera are low-maintenance, help to oxygenate and can improve concentration and productivity,” says England.

And don’t be afraid of adding too much or experimenting with your plant collection – whether it's succulent solicitude, showering some extra love for lilies or delighting in daisies, there’s room for it all. Paggi, who worked as a horticulturist in France before starting in ByNature Design says, “One lesson that I’ve learnt working with plants every day is – if you put a lot of plants in your space, it will never look too much.

“That’s the beauty of it – usually, you can’t really go wrong with natural shapes, elements and especially with plants.”

3. Soft colours and shifting sunrays

Sunlight on plants biophilic design
Using multiple warm lights, and letting in plenty of sunlight through windows are best for biophilic design. Image Credit: Unsplash/Behzad Ghaffarian

The secret of a beautiful sunset, as we all know, is the ever-shifting shades painting the sky, whether violet, orange, pink and twilight blue interweaving into one ecstatic palette. Rooms, however, often have a central light source that radiates from a fixed point in the ceiling, a feature that Paggi says can be replaced for biophilic effects: “Instead, you can have some access lights that focus the light beam on different elements to create blended looks of light throughout the space.” This can be as simple as adding an evening lamp or two by your bedside, and even the ultimate student favourite – fairy lights.

Having windows, letting in lots of sunlight for your plants and room is ideal. Also think sunlight filtering through leaves, a delightful visual also called ‘Komorebi’ in Japanese. Interestingly, Paggi adds that a lot of light engineers are now creating bulbs that have more fluctuation throughout the day to better mimic the light of the sun for the brain, instead of a central light that switches on and off.

Nature colour palette
Choose the colour palette of Nature that you find most comforting, and pick colours for your accents such as armchairs, cushions and artwork from this. Image Credit: Shutterstock

And the colours of the room?

“Any tone that can be found in Nature is always a great way to make your space comfortable, and gentle colours such as a soft yellow, green and pastel colours are especially recommended in biophilic spaces,” adds Paggi.

A quick tip is to choose a gentle colour palette from a picture of your favourite landscape, and head to the store or online with that template in hand – elements like bedsheets, cushions, wall hangings, posters and rugs are some ways of bringing these colours to life.

4. The fragrance of Nature

Smelling fragrant flower biophilic design
Diffusers and flowers help you channel the outdoors through fragrance as well. Image Credit: Supplied

Petrichor – the deliciously earthy smell following rain, is taken to mean the Earth or rock that flows in the veins of Greek deities in mythology (‘Petra’ meaning rock and ‘Ichor’, the blood of the deities). Although not easily replicated for interior spaces, you can use aromatic diffusers with essential oils that remind you of the outdoors – patchouli, frankinscense can have dusky, earthy smells, while you can also opt for lavender, rose and other flowery reminders of summer, sunshine and the outdoors.

5. Summer chirps, breaking waves and world music

Natural sounds like running water, chirping birds are great to help us reconnect with the outdoors at home. Youtube

Channel your inner naiad, or a water nymph of flowing water springs, rivers and brooks in Greek mythology – by installing a small eco-friendly fountain in your room. A 2011 study published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggested that physiological recovery after stress is faster during exposure to pleasant natural sounds such as running water than less pleasant noise of the same loudness. 

Paggi recommends Youtube recordings as well: “For example, you have recordings of forests during the storm, and all these different tools that are very accessible that actually helps our brain to reconnect with sounds that we don't really hear in our indoor spaces.”

Note: This article was first published in June 2022