How Biophilic Design Impacts Wellness

Healthcare facilities that use biophilic design principles like installing a circadian lighting system can improve patient outcomes and reduce staff stress.

By Gary McNay

Often, healthcare facilities represent “nature” with a potted plant on a plastic laminate counter. But hospitals could save $93 million in healthcare costs annually by providing patients with authentic connections to nature through views of the outdoors. Designers should also utilize natural patterns when developing hospital interiors. This process helps expedite healing.

biophilic strategies
McLeod Tyler Wellness Center, Williamsburg VA. Architect: EYP

Healthcare facilities that employ the principles of biophilic design improve patient outcomes and reduce staff stress. By making simple choices like using more natural building materials or installing a circadian lighting system, healthcare designers can make hospitals into more comforting environments.

The Connection Between Nature And Healing

There are several different facets to biophilic design, starting with the authentic presence of nature in a space. Plant life, visual and auditory connections to moving water, and other sensory stimuli provide direct environmental links for patients. Staff members also perform better when they can access the outdoors through a garden or sunroom.

Natural analogs are another essential element because they offer indirect connections to the outside world through material and color. Hospitals should use natural construction materials like wood or granite with texture and grain that people can see and touch. Paintings and wall hangings of nature scenes also achieve the desired effect. This tactile approach helps both patients and caregivers to reduce stress and improve well-being.

biophilic design
McLeod Tyler Wellness Center, Williamsburg VA. Architect: EYP

Finally, the nature of the space itself is crucial. What can patients see outside the window or beyond their immediate surroundings? Poor design limiting visual exposure to the outdoors inhibits recovery rates and leads to staff churn. But patients with more visual access to light and outdoor environments have fewer complications, and the people who care for them are also more content.

Scientists first uncovered the effects of biophilic design in 1984. Dr. Roger Ulrich discovered that hospital patients whose rooms faced vegetation and water recovered faster than patients who stared at a brick wall all day. The nature group took fewer drugs, got fewer negative comments from nurses, and went home quicker than the wall group.

Given three decades of studies have confirmed Ulrich’s hypothesis, it’s surprising that more hospitals haven’t embraced the principles of biophilic design. When healthcare facilities put nature front and center, everyone involved benefits.

A Value System That Promotes Human Thriving

Typical “green” products like solar panels and paints without volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are crucial parts of environmentally friendly buildings. But biophilic healthcare design is about more than that. It involves implementing savvy strategies that allow patients and staff to connect with natural patterns and rhythms at scale.

biophilic design
McLeod Tyler Wellness Center, Williamsburg VA. Architect: EYP

The U.S. spends more money per person than any other country on health care, and biophilic design is an easy way to cut those costs. Hospitals that incorporate a balanced mix of natural elements into their projects will save money throughout the building’s life cycle.

Healthcare designers need to think smarter, not work harder. They should thoughtfully incorporate biophilic strategies at every phase of the project, keeping in mind the human need to experience nature.

This approach doesn’t have to be a costly proposition. In many cases, biophilic design is more cost-effective because it enhances existing elements rather than creating new ones. The strategy benefits everyone involved: patients heal faster, caregivers are more focused and productive in their work, and building owners cut operational costs.

Keeping The Body In Rhythm

Another important element of biophilic design in healthcare involves keeping the human circadian rhythm in balance. This natural, internal process is responsible for resetting the body’s internal clock every 24 hours by exposing patients and staff to varying wavelengths of natural light during the day.

McLeod Tyler Wellness Center
McLeod Tyler Wellness Center, Williamsburg VA. Architect: EYP

Healthcare designers can achieve this goal by utilizing window designs that offer expansive views without breaking the bank. Patients sleep better and are less depressed when exposed to natural light and outdoor landscapes.

Doctors and nurses also stay alert longer, with sharper cognition and focus, when circadian rhythms are in sync. They feel less stress and are more prepared to work, no matter what time of day it is.

Of course, it’s more difficult for health workers to get these benefits since they walk through bright, noisy hallways 24/7 and work on rolling schedules. Doctors and nurses on the night shift need access to daylight (or a simulated version of it) during working hours, but patients need total darkness to keep their circadian rhythms in check.

Hospitals have adopted several solutions to this problem. Some are using indoor circadian lighting systems that deliver “cool” blue light during the day and transition to “warm,” low-intensity light in the evening. This setup reinforces healthy rhythms and quickens recovery time.

McLeod Tyler Wellness Center
McLeod Tyler Wellness Center, Williamsburg VA. Architect: EYP

Other health facilities are experimenting with artificial lighting during night shifts, so workers can be alert while tending to patients and rest more easily during breaks. This process also respects the body’s sleep and wake cycles by mimicking natural rhythms and light wavelengths.

Both of these light schemes are backed up by science. In fact, both the Illuminating Engineering Society and UL have developed practices for circadian lighting.

Biophilic elements are an essential part of modern healthcare design. They help patients recover faster while reducing staff stress and improving emotional wellness. By making hospital environments more natural and reflective of the outdoors through circadian lighting, healthcare designers will keep healing and innovation at the forefront of care.

biophilic design
Gary McNay, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, ILFI Ambassador
Academic Planning and Design
EYP Architecture & Engineering

Gary has over 30 years of experience in Higher Education and Academic Science. He works closely with teams to set and achieve aggressive sustainability goals while also working closely with clients to define how their Vision and Mission informs each project through integrated planning, programming and design for healthy learning, research, and workplace. Gary has helped to create sustainable, agile buildings for a long-term future, inspiring communities of discovery, while enhancing each campus. Every solution is focused on a thoughtful response to the unique place and culture, enhancing learning outcomes, enhancing research effectiveness, and creating inspired workplace cultures. Every design response showcased dramatic improvements in health and wellness of all occupants, modeling careful stewardship of all human, natural and physical resources.

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