Assessing Wellness In the Built Environment

Wellness In the Built Environment

As the term “wellness” becomes increasingly ubiquitous, the focus tends to be on individual proactive methods which demand that in order to be “well,” we must employ a rigorous daily routine. For example, a wellness routine might include twenty minutes of meditation, a healthy diet, a minimum of thirty minutes of exercise, mindfulness, self-care, and the list goes on.

For most, incorporating this seemingly endless list is, well, not realistically at the top of their daily to-do list. Prioritizing one practice over another or finding time to complete just one of them can, in some cases, add to daily stress. In this article, I’m going to talk built wellness and how it’s taking shape in today’s world.

RELATED: What Is Wellness and Why Is It Important?

Built wellness and biophilia

Architects and designers make a living out of shaping spaces and experiences in ways that aim to increase human wellness. For example, with more than ¾ of Americans working in office jobs, trends toward more thoughtful and pleasant workspaces are becoming a priority for building owners and employers.

Long gone are the days of windowless conference rooms, cubicles, and permanent work stations. In order to attract and retain staff, offices have needed to modernize and look radically different from those just a decade ago. Alongside this employee-focused shift, the creators of our physical spaces – these include work (or school), home, and our “third” places – have been aligning inhabitant wellness with a concept called biophilic design.

Biophilia is the innate human desire to gravitate toward that which is alive or naturally occurring. Although this concept is backed by plenty of research, it is mostly intuitive. When humans interact with nature or have access to it, they are happier, healthier and more productive. With regards to evolution, human survival has always depended upon finding access to water, food, and shelter within nature. As a result, those humans which found rich, sustainable environments developed an evolutionary fitness directly related to survival. In a very primal sense, access to opportunity (hunting and prey) and protection from predators (shelter) became fundamental to surviving and advancing.

RELATED: What Is Physical Wellness and Why Is It Important?

An example of biophilia

A movement towards biophilic design

Since most of us are not wilderness guides or park rangers, day to day access to nature can be limited. Combined with a steady increase in urbanization (over half of the world lives in urban areas and is estimated to be nearly 70% by 2050), finding places of respite or calm in nature is increasingly difficult.

However, it is not unattainable. Simple daylighting strategies within building designs are often the first step toward optimizing both the performance of the building itself and that of its inhabitants. Biophilic design maintains that humans recognize daylight, plants, natural materials, and fresh air as essential elements for productivity and should not be a luxury.

Neurological and psychological evidence suggests that by incorporating these elements into built spaces, inhabitants experience very healthy returns, mentally and physically. Their moods are impacted, and their quality of work increases. While the business case for this facet of architectural design is clearly paying dividends, it also addresses larger questions about human wellness, the natural environment and the impact we have on it.

RELATED: What Is Occupational Wellness and Why Is It Important?

How biophilic design benefits the unwell

Biophilic design doesn’t just benefit the “healthy” but also the unwell. Rehabilitation and recovery are enhanced and increased with the presence of nature. During times of trauma or stress, access to nature via views, daylight, or plants provides calm and delight.

As hospitals and healthcare facilities continue to acknowledge these benefits, the business case begins to keep pace with the human case for biophilic design. Healing in the context of nature creates a win-win for healthcare providers – as a result of implementing biophilic strategies within their facilities, they are witnessing shorter patient stays, reduced dependency on pharmaceutical drugs, and overall increases in recovery and capacity.

In environments which require more containment or need to be “sealed,” other types of biophilic design can be employed and still provide similar effects. Evidence about the human reaction to light, shadow, and natural forms or fractals suggest that a biophilic response can be experienced within these more complex environments. As architects and designers find more creative ways to flex their biophilic muscles, these built spaces are becoming brighter, more natural, and more pleasant places to be – even those which we have typically considered to be unpleasant.

RELATED: What Is Emotional Wellness and Why Is It Important?

Final thoughts

As previously mentioned, biophilic “moves” are not particularly complicated – we recognize them to be somewhat commonplace in our lives. Examples include houseplants, an open window, the use of natural wood, a walk in an urban park, a pet curled up in a sun spot. These provide a service to our complex human nature in a very simple way.

The more we can become aware of these methods and their subsequent advantages, the more that wellness can find a way into our daily grinds. For architects and designers, the push to more positively stimulate these basic human responses within our built environments will demand more systemic biophilic methods. This is our role and is what we intend to promote as the pursuit for wellness continues.

What do you think about biophilic design in today’s world? Leave your feedback in the comments below.

Author bio: Joe McNeill is a Project Designer at ZGF Architects headquarters office in Portland, Oregon. A design generalist, his focus is on sustainable design strategies and quality detailing, particularly the use of wood and mass timber as a primary structural material in new construction. He is passionate about this building typology which is rooted in the ethos of the Pacific Northwest and is intent on highlighting human wellness through thoughtful design as an end goal for clients and projects in every region. Joe holds a Master of Architecture from Clemson University and a B.A. from the College of Charleston. In his spare time, he enjoys running, sports, graphic design and traveling with his architect wife, Caitlin. 


  • Terrapin Bright Green LLC. (2012). The Economics of Biophilia. New York, NY: Terrapin Bright Green LLC.
  • Wilson, E. O. (1986). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • ZGF Architects LLC, (2014).  Biophilic Design: Strategies to Generate Wellness and Productivity.  Portland, Oregon. American Institute of Architects, Washington DC.