The power of nature

HLM’s Aline Browers and David Greig explain how the benefits of biophilia are increasingly being recognised by designers working in educational environments

Biophilia is a term popularised by American psychologist Ed Wilson in the 1980s. When you ask people where they feel most productive and happy, in the main the answer is going to be an outdoor space. Wilson explores this in his Biophilia hypothesis, claiming that humans are hard wired to positively respond to nature. There are several sectors where biophilic design is fast becoming a key trend and even a new norm. Studies have shown that staff retention, wellbeing, productivity and stress reduction are all enhanced when a workplace responds to the natural environment. At HLM, we have utilised biophilic designs to transform existing offices and schools. However, we believe that these benefits have yet to be realised in the higher education sector – the natural link between childhood and the working life. Recent workshops we have held with students from the Universities of Glasgow, St Andrews and Edinburgh revealed that they consider the majority of learning environments to be dull and uninspiring. Students are instead asking for a diverse range of learning spaces that are inclusive, safe and stimulating to reflect their daily needs and lifestyle. The importance of wellbeing and reduced stress is becoming much more important to today’s students, who have an increased focus on mental health. Young people like to take ownership of their education, working from wherever they are, be it in a cafe or outdoors, and are calling for universities to reflect these environments in informal study and formal teaching settings. How can designers respond to this need?

Biophilia and the students of today

When we think about the campus of the future, we must consider how the students of tomorrow will be learning. The need for biophilic design in educational settings can be traced back even further in a student’s life, to their primary and nursery school years. A conscious, significant development in the primary education sector has been to move learning environments for children into the natural landscape. Forest schools, revolving around outdoor and woodland education, have proven benefits to wellbeing, with teachers and parents noting positive changes in their children’s health, attitude and behaviour. There is much to learn from this approach when it comes to the higher education sector.

Biophilic interventions in refurbishments

Generally, universities appoint experienced design teams, which will use standard good practice to develop new buildings that incorporate biophilic principles. Aspects like direct access to daylight, creating views and vistas and the use of interesting patterns and textures, should be engrained within the design process. The same cannot always be said when it comes to refurbished buildings. Sustainable development on existing campuses should include these projects so that estate assets are fully utilised. This often presents greater challenges however due to the absence of biophilic design principles in common architectural styles from previous decades. Factors such as small windows, dark corridors and poor ventilation can make it difficult to create an entirely holistic experience. We have used this challenge as an opportunity to showcase what biophilic design can really offer to these spaces. One example being a series of refurbished classrooms at the University of Glasgow. The use of natural and untreated materials would be the most obvious choice for a designer when it comes to staying true to the biophilic concept. This can be a potential obstacle in the education sector because estates departments are cautious of new materials that are untested and potentially expensive. Lead times can influence product choice with refurbishment projects subject to fast track programmes in the summer months. We actively consider the practical elements of biophilic design, such as maintenance. While living walls are a beautiful and often striking way to introduce nature into a learning space, their maintenance can add extra costs. Although they are beneficial for air quality, they can suffer over time due to lack of proper upkeep. We strive to ensure that spaces hold their beauty even after years of use, not just at the handover period.

Natural materials vs man made

As design concepts have developed, we have explored how, subconsciously, materials, textures and imagery of nature influence humans. At what point do we respond better to an unprocessed material such as solid timber compared to a man-made replica like laminate? Experts have realised that references to nature in a biophilic focused environment do not have to be direct, literal representations. The human brain also responds positively to nature presented in abstract patterns. For example, a wall mural depicting the cell structure of a leaf can engage the senses, without displaying the entire forest scene, which would be counterintuitive and not immersive due to its scale. A holistic approach is required rather than isolated, out of context interventions. Where a direct experience of nature is not possible, we explore the biophilia concept through choosing fabrics, textures and materials that borrow references to nature. Many of these products do not cost more than others, and the market is continually responding to the design community, launching new ranges. As an example, we incorporated Circadian Rhythm lighting into a refurbished room, which has no direct access to daylight. This lighting changes colour and temperature throughout the day responding to the human body’s daily cycle. However, we understand that it can have a high impact on project costs compared to standard lighting. We are currently conducting research to discover how this impacts on student performance to gauge its true value. Refurbishing existing spaces can be difficult in terms of creating a holistic experience. Some students will have their courses in a different classroom every week and change buildings throughout the day. How effective can one room really be and what impact does it have on the student? The findings are positive. We continually get great feedback from students and staff who would prefer these spaces over other rooms refurbished without the use of biophilic design principles.


As designers, we believe that the elements of biophilia used within a project must all be connected, complementary and integrated within the overall environment. This creates a true ‘learning landscape’. By continually trialling biophilic ideas and collaborating with clients who are interested in exploring their effects, we aim to demonstrate genuine increased educational value.

Aline Browers is a senior interior designer at HLM and David Greig is an associate at HLM