Higher education institutions are realizing that students need to be surrounded by nature to increase cognitive benefits and improve mood, mental health and emotional well-being. As a result, many colleges and universities are incorporating building styles that connect more to nature to boost their experience and wellbeing.

Biophilic building design – which focuses on connecting occupants to the natural environment through the use of natural building materials, natural light, vegetation and views of the outdoors – provides many benefits to students in university buildings. The connection to nature helps students cope with stress, fatigue and green campuses may boost student quality of life. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at the National Institutes of Health, biophilic design is not just about introducing trees and vegetation into built settings, but incorporated as a more thoughtful design process meant to elicit responses such as restorative moments, create connectedness to the environment, to other people and to one’s self. Students can benefit from these connections cognitively, physiologically and psychologically, says the NCBI.

Across the U.S., universities are conducting research and developing initiatives to explore and study human health responses to biophilic experiences. For instance, the Center for the Built Environment at U.C. Berkeley is working with SERA Architects to evaluate the impact of biophilic features in existing workspaces.  The University of Virginia School of Architecture is home to the Biophilic Cities Network, a global effort that acknowledges the importance of daily contact with nature as an element of meaningful urban life.

A handful of colleges and universities are actually creating biophilic spaces in their campus buildings.

Hathaway Dinwiddie Construction Company, architecture and engineering firm HED, and architecture firm The S/L/A/M Collaborative (SLAM) designed and built a nine-acre health sciences complex at the University of California at Irvine, meant to be a showcase for integrative health patient care, training and research.

The U.C. Irvine Susan & Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences Building and Sue & Bill Gross Nursing & Health Sciences Hall, which was completed in June 2022, incorporates design strategies strongly influenced by biophilia. Occupant access to light, air, views of vegetation and water all support the overall mission of the complex and schools.

The complex includes a five-story, 135,111-square-foot health sciences building and adjoining four-story, 77,028-square-foot nursing school building were designed to support an integrative health model. The complex also includes a 150-seat auditorium, a central courtyard that connects with the existing Herbert Eye Institute, landscape design elements that support activities such as yoga and tai chi, a Zen garden and a 600-foot-long wellness walk that leads to the School of Medicine’s Biomedical Research Center. 

Biophilic design is not merely including larger windows facing gardens or trees. There are many elements that can be incorporated to help occupants feel connected to the environment, explained architect Megumi Hironaka, Sustainable Design Leader at HED, and the sustainable design leader of this project. “Incorporating murals depicting natural motifs and local landscapes can replace windows in underground areas or rooms without natural light. Tunable white LED lighting can be utilized to save energy and can be programmed to simulate the 24-hour cyclical circadian color temperature shift,” Hironaka said. In addition, using a palette of natural colors can soothe occupants.

Acoustics are also a critical component of biophilic design, Hironaka said. “Designers can counter ambient chatter by creating quiet areas. Utilizing plants, particularly hardy plants like sansevieria, provide welcoming décor while also increasing occupants' connection to the environment,” she added.  

For the Susan & Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences Building and Sue & Bill Gross Nursing & Health Sciences Hall, the project architects focused on elements that improve the holistic health of patients and students. “Biophilic elements are proven to speed recovery times in hospitals, so we included large windows, terraces with gardens and a large central courtyard, green walls, a natural interior palette, forms, and patterns, Hironaka offered. “This access to natural elements encourages patients and students to interact with nature and engage all senses.”  

Biophilic design can be a key contributor to certification systems like LEED, BREEAM or WELL, which provide guidelines for measuring a project’s sustainability and encourages a positive impact on the health and wellness of inhabitants, surrounding communities, and the environment, Hironaka explained, adding that there is a common misconception that sustainable design adds costs, which may be shortsighted and potentially harmful in the long run. Biophilic elements do not have to add significant costs to a building. Choosing sustainable, natural materials and design additions can lower the lifetime operating costs of buildings by reducing energy consumption and improving occupancy, she pointed out.

“While some sustainable design features may result in additional initial cost, most high-performance design strategies are cost-neutral. In fact, most high-performance design decisions will provide savings over the lifetime of the equipment systems or the facility itself. If enough foresight is applied, the right sustainable design choices now can avoid costly future renovations, particularly given the rapid pace of change within code compliance and governmental regulation we have today,” she explained.