biophilic design for schoolsThe physical campus has a big impact on the learning outcomes and general wellbeing of students.

As concern for climate change and energy costs pushes schools and other education institutions to engage with sustainability, new research is showing the amazing benefits of biophilic design for schools and education.

What is biophilic design?

Biophilia (“love of life”) and biophilic design is an architectural and interior design style which incorporates and mimics nature. It's based on the idea that humans have an innate affiliation with nature, due to our evolutionary history.

Much research has shown spending time in nature has positive psychological and physiological effects. These effects can be recreated with indoor environments which are rich in nature and nature-inspired features.

So far, research has suggested biophilic design has a plethora of benefits, including making workers more productive, patients recover quicker, shoppers buy more and students learn better.

Biophilic design for schools

This article is all about biophilic design for schools. Why schools? Why think this is a key application for several reasons:

  • Anything that helps engage kids in learning, helps them get better grades and be happier, is worth exploring
  • Helping children feel more connected to nature is good for the environmental conscience of the next generation
  • Schools currently have a serious capacity shortage, making expansion and innovation crucial

Industry leader Human Spaces divides the key biophilic design principles into three core areas:

  • Nature in the space
    Such as sunlight, fresh air flow, pot plants, green walls, aquariums…
  • Natural analogues
    Such as shapes, patterns and colours reminiscent of natural forms, natural materials like timber and stone, nature photography and artwork…
  • Nature of the space
    Spatial configurations we are naturally drawn to, such as cosy secluded nooks, wide open expansive space, meandering corridors…

So what’s the evidence to back all this up? Here’s a small selection of the research that’s been conducted in this growing field.

Benefits of biophilic design: the evidence

  • A 2016 study in the Journal of Indoor Environment and Health on carbon dioxide and cognitive performance found that moderate amounts of stale air was linked with participants being drowsy and giving slower and fewer correct answers in cognitive tests.
  • A study in the US on workers in offices which had either the average level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and ventilation or the low level of VOCs and high level of ventilation (which is required by certified green buildings) found huge differences in cognitive performance. The participants in the green offices performed an astounding 101% better than the conventional group!
  • A study in the Journal of Environment and Behaviour found the group of children exposed to chronic low-level noise had significantly worse memory recognition scores than their control group.
  • The report Learning Spaces cites a year-long study of 2,000 classrooms by the Heschong Mahone Group, which found that: “Students in classrooms with daylight improved 20 percent faster in math scores and 26 percent in reading scores.”
  • A study by the American Society for Horticultural Science compared the students’ subjective evaluation in two otherwise identical classrooms, one of which included tropical plants. The students in the class with plants rated both their course and their lecturer more favourably and said they felt more engaged.
  • A report by Human Spaces states: “Research shows that optimising exposure to daylight alone can improve school attendance by an average of 3.5days/year and test scores by 5-14% whilst increasing the speed of learning by 20-26%. Trials have found that plants in classrooms can lead to improved performance in spelling, mathematics and science of 10-14%.”

If you’re wondering how plants and natural views help cognition, the Attention Restoration Theory goes some way to explaining it. The 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design report quotes researchers Lewis and Vessel (2012) in describing the physiological response of the eyes to screens and other tasks such as reading or writing:

“When sitting and staring at a computer screen or doing any task with a short visual focus, the eye’s lens becomes rounded with the contracting of the eye muscles. When these muscles stay contracted for an extended period, i.e., more than 20 minutes at a time, fatigue can occur, manifesting as eye strain, headaches and physical discomfort. A periodic, yet brief visual or auditory distraction that causes one to look up (for >20 seconds) and to a distance (of >20 feet) allows for short mental breaks during which the muscles relax and the lenses flatten” 

5 examples of biophilic design for schools

Here's 5 excellent examples of biophilic design for schools and other educational buildings.

1. The University of Texas at Dallas Student Services Building, USA
This university building features full-height glazing flooding the rooms with daylight and providing views to the trees, grass and water in the outside grounds.

biophilic design for schools

The University of Texas at Dallas Student Services Building. (Public domain).

2. Panyaden School, Thailand
This rustic-style school has buildings constructed entirely of natural materials such as bamboo, with organic curving roof profiles reminiscent of a meandering stream.

biophilic design for schools

Panyaden School. (CC: Takeaway)

3. Huddersfield University Business School, UK
This university building has an organic stone curved wall with a raised up walkway providing prospective expansive views to the grass and flowers of the grounds.

biophilic design for schools

Huddersfield University Business School. (CC: Kay Williams)

4. Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, Germany
This campus building has full-height glazing providing daylight and garden views to the inside while adding outside seating with views to trees and a garden.

biophilic design for schools

Frankfurt School of Finance & Management. (CC: Frankfurt School)

5. New Muswell Hill School Ark, UK
This primary school learning space has an unusual organic shape, is fully cladded with natural wood and the green, blue and red floor seating is reminiscent of a park picnic scene.

biophilic design for schools

Muswell Hill Primary School. (CC: Phil Campbell)


PassivPod side view

PassivPod side view

Our zero-carbon PassivPod would make an ideal classroom module, with one teaching space downstairs and one upstairs, each seating 30 students.

PassivPod incorporates the principles of biophilic design. It is made entirely from natural materials (including a timber frame, sheep wool insulation and cladding with red cedar shingles), it has an unusual 'pod-like' organic shape with full-height glazing allowing daylight to flood in, and has a light-well in the centre of the ceiling which opens to bring in fresh air.

PassivPod would be ideally placed in front of a school garden, with trees and flowers planted around it to maximise the benefits of natural views from the huge windows.

PassivPod is run on 100% renewable energy, with solar PV and solar thermal panels on the roof and a rainwater harvesting system to minimise water demand. The design is up to passivhaus standards of air-tightness, insulation and passive solar, meaning the exceptionally low energy demand can be met with zero-carbon green technologies.

These eco features can be used as an active learning tool to help students learn about sustainability, as well as cutting utility costs. As the studies mentioned above show, green buildings such as PassivPod make ideal learning spaces as the pure air, sunlight and natural views enhance cognition and therefore learning.

We are currently working on the technical design and fundraising to build a PassivPod prototype. Following that, our vision is to roll out many PassivPods across the education sector. See our new website to learn more.

Want to learn more about the benefits of green, biophilic and human-centred design for education? Subscribe to our monthly eco-design newsletter to get a free copy of our 22-page report 'Built to Learn: Use Green Design to Boost Student Engagement, Achievement and Wellbeing'. Click below and get the report as soon as you confirm your email address.