Biophilic Design for Learning

a collage of various biophilic design samples in the real world Despite the documented benefits of getting outside and experiencing nature firsthand, students spend most of the day indoors and a growing proportion of that time is spent staring at a computer screen.  This reality reinforces the value of applying biophilic design principles to a new school building or campus renovation to create a better learning environment for students.

Open Air School, Netherlands, 1918
Open Air School, Netherlands, 1918 – The health benefits of nature connections have long been appreciated. Open air schools originated in the early 1900s in response to tuberculous outbreaks. The first open air school in the US opened in 1908 in Providence, Rhode Island.

Biophilic Design Defined

Biophilic design has received growing attention in recent years. The idea that nature connections help to inspire, calm and nurture us almost seems like common sense. Biologist Edward O. Wilson, who literally wrote the book “Biophilia,” describes our innate tendency to affiliate with nature.

Biophilic design acknowledges this reality and focuses on strategies to increase occupant connections to the natural environment. This is achieved through a combination of direct connections, simulated nature, and space and place conditions.

Clear partition meeting rooms at Messiah University Murray Library
Clear partitions allow natural light into smaller meeting areas. The flooring and furniture feature a natural palette and organic patterns. Messiah University Murray Library

Biophilic Design for Learning Spaces

Numerous studies have demonstrated the value of biophilic design for improving test scores, enhancing concentration and well-being. These are just a few examples of the documented benefits that apply to educational spaces.  Therefore, biophilic design strategies are part of the checklist our interior design team references when designing renovations or new educational facilities for students of any age.

Green roof planned for campus expansion
This green roof supports campus sustainability goals, while providing an appealing outdoor space for students and alumni to interact. Private College, Eastern Pennsylvania

Green roofs, living walls, nature courtyards and expansive windows are “big picture” concepts to consider whenever possible.  Simple measures, like introducing plants into a classroom, can have a positive impact, but that is only scratching the surface of what can be done.

A range of interior design strategies can also add value from a biophilic design perspective. Examples include natural materials, textures and colors that provide intellectual stimulation, as well as learning nooks or huddle spaces that simulate a place of refuge

A biophilic color scheme for stairs at Ephrata Area School District High School
A biophilic color scheme emulates nature with a variety of tones and textures. Ephrata Area School District High School
“Living Systems” line from Shaw Contract
The “Living Systems” line from Shaw Contract mirrors nature, responds to be adaptive, and transforms interior spaces.

Biophilic Design and Color

Just as the natural world features an infinite variety of colors, biophilic design calls for a diverse palette that replicates shades and textures commonly found in nature.  This includes earth tones such as blues, greens and browns that are prevalent in the sky, water, trees and foliage. This can be articulated through almost any interior finish or furnishing, from acoustical ceiling tiles to flooring patterns and everything in between. Current color trends reflect renewed focus on nature and biophilic design principles.  For example, the Behr paint color of the year 2020 is a green tone called “Back to Nature” while Sherwin Williams opted for a deep blue called Naval, described as “a versatile neutral, reminiscent of the night sky.”

Perhaps due to its prevalence in nature, blue is the most popular color, according to public opinion polls. Blue is often valued for its perceived calming qualities.  Scientists also believe that our brains and nervous systems react to green with a sense of calm because our eyes detect green wavelengths more readily than any other color.  Another positive for green is that looking at plants has been shown to increase attention span and concentration levels which has obvious benefits for learning environments. Other earthy tones found in natural landscapes, such as soft browns, grays and tans are also good for nature-inspired design selections.

Wood-look luxury vinyl tile hallway at Ephrata Area School District High School
Wood-look luxury vinyl tile creates natural texture and variation. It has the added benefit of scratch-resistance and easy maintenance for high traffic areas like this. Ephrata Area School District High School

Biophilic Design and Finishes

Acoustic ceiling tiles introduce organic shapes and colors.


Manufacturers of flooring, ceiling and wall treatment materials have increasingly looked to nature for inspiration. This encompasses organic color combinations, varied textures and unique patterns that emulate the sense of movement and visual interest found in the world around us.  Wood-look luxury vinyl tile offers this type of natural texture and variation. It also provides the added benefit of being maintenance friendly and scratch resistant.

Acoustic ceiling tiles are another great opportunity to introduce organic shapes while providing critical functionality based on their Noise Reduction Coefficient.  Even signage provides the opportunity for introducing biophilic elements whether through a literal depiction of natural elements or patterns and shapes evocative of nature. Considering the sustainable attributes of the materials used in educational settings is equally important for biophilic design.

We evaluate whether materials have been produced responsibly and confirm that they do not emit any VOCs (volatile organic compounds),” according to Amy Kleinfelter, IIDA, LEED AP ID+C.  “We also consider acoustical suitability and maintenance for different types of learning spaces.

Carpet tiles are one possible solution for these parameters. They provide the desired noise control and are now available in organic patterns and manufactured with post-consumer recycled content.

furniture options that evoke the biophilic principle at ephrata high school
New furniture options evoke the biophilic principle of providing a sense of refuge. Acoustic ceiling panels evocative of a bee hive provide a bright pop of color while helping with noise reduction.

Biophilic Design and Furniture

Colorful "Pebble" stools from Allermuir
Colorful “Pebble” stools from Allermuir

Similarly, furniture selections emphasize sustainable materials and nature-inspired shapes and patterns. More recent furniture options, such as banquette seating, reading nooks or pods, also support the biophilic design principle of refuge.  Spaces of refuge provide a sense of enclosure and protection. For example, a corner where a student can curl up with a good book provides “prospect” views into other areas of potential interest. An interior trellis or screen creates a smaller scale, biophilic-inspired refuge area that functions well as a quiet zone for concentration and reflection.

Prospect is the concept of long views, such as from an atrium, staircase landing or classroom entrance, into other areas, often toward an area of refuge. When given the choice, students will tend to pick a seat that provides the greatest line of sight. Providing a mix of options provides the needed flexibility to accommodate different types of learning. This might include open-style, high top tables for work desks or touchdown stations with more enclosed reading nooks,



corridor intersection allowing daylight to stream into the building at Warwick School District Middle School
This corridor intersection focuses on outdoor views, allowing daylight to stream into the building. Warwick School District Middle School.
Digital wallcoverings simulating nature in an office
Digital wallcoverings, like this example from Level, can be used to bring simulated nature to internal spaces that might not have access to windows.

More Examples of Biophilic Design Considerations for Interiors

  • Lower bookcases in creative commons/media centers to allow more natural light into the space
  • Adjustable shading capabilities for windows and lighting to adapt to changing daylight throughout the day
  • Interior water features or views to exterior elements, such as rain chains or fountains
  • Digital wall coverings or screens featuring natural elements
  • Materials, patterns and historical/cultural relevancy specific to the region

By considering interior design strategies for the built environment, educators can incorporate biophilic design elements to positively impact learning.

Jacqueline Fox, IIDA, explores opportunities for incorporating biophilic design features to create better educational spaces. She is excited to share design strategies and finish options that acknowledge the value of nature-inspired colors and forms.

Blog Editor – Jodi Kreider, LEED-AP

Header Image Photos Top L to R: The Garden School, Hackney, Oliver Heath Design; Georgetown University student center, GSky Versa Wall; Sandy Hook Elementary School, Svigals+Partners Architects; Medical office reception screening, RLPS Interiors; Bottom L to R: Etsy Offices;  Interface Good Natured Collection – Ashlar