Back to Nature

While everyone seems to be talking about “green design,” far less attention has been paid to its lesser-known cousin, “Biophilic” design. Yet the science of Biophilia has been subtly impacting kitchen design for many years, and its influence only continues to grow.

Biophilia can be defined as the innate craving and draw to nature, and the need for it to surround us. Whether that means sunlight or plant life, natural materials or fresh air, elements of nature, when incorporated into the home environment, can make the space both more appealing physically and emotionally – not to mention healthier.

Coined by a professor at Harvard University in the mid 1980s, the term Biophilia is one that many kitchen and bath designers have never even heard of. Yet a majority of these designers have long understood the idea behind it on an intuitive level.

After all, the idea of bringing the outside in has increasingly been evident, both in the growth of the outdoor kitchen trend, and in the plethora of nature-inspired products, colors and materials available in the kitchen and bath market today.

Indeed, kitchen and bath professionals have increasingly embraced the idea of incorporating nature into their designs.

However, up until recently, the concept was most often addressed primarily as an aesthetic one. For instance, earth tones and soft neutrals appeal to consumers on a sensory level, but the effect is generally confined to its visual impact.

By contrast, the scientific basis for Biophilic design and its health benefits encompass far more than just soft colors inspired by nature. And the concept has only recently gained exposure in this industry.

“The welcoming of Mother Nature into our kitchens is truly recent,” notes Susan Larsen, CKD, CBD, co-proprietor of Kitchen Design & Specialty Shoppe in Woodinville, WA. “The importance of Biophilic design is just being recognized by cutting-edge designers and architects.”

She explains, “If we stayed inside our entire lives, we simply wouldn’t be healthy. Hence, we innately equate health to the outdoors. Nature makes us feel stronger, healthier and even happier.”

Valerie Rizzo, ASID, of the Anchorage, AK-based Rizzo & Company agrees: “Designers are now recognizing that people have this real need to be closer to nature. People need natural light and exposure to nature to keep them happy, and [incorporating this into their homes and lives] just increases everyone’s living quality.”

Shanan Huerta, designer for The Kitchen Source, in Dallas, TX, takes it one step further, noting, “[The air] inside the typical American home is 10 times more toxic than outdoors…yet Americans spend 80-90% of their time indoors.” She continues, “This makes me want to choose materials for my clients that are going to help them [be healthier] in their homes.

Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that airborne chemical levels in homes are as much as 70 times higher than outside. The typical home contains over 63 hazardous products that together contain hundreds of chemicals. So, is it a wonder that designers and consumers are embracing Biophilia, so consumers can enjoy the visual benefits of nature, and also the health aspects of designs with more natural, earth-friendly products?

Both water and air purification systems, once luxury add-ons, have become increasingly standard in today’s homes. However, too many people still believe good ventilation is as simple as installing the right hood over the cooktop.

Designers who study and practice the concepts of Biophilic design, however, recognize that these issues extend to the whole home. As Rizzo explains, “One thing that’s a concern out here is that most people park in their garage [which is attached to the house], and they also have all of their gas stored there. The heating system generates from the garage and all that stuff comes through the house. So we’re looking for ways to seal that off from the house and get those impurities out of there, find another source to store all that [so that it doesn’t impact air quality].”

Similarly, water purification systems are another way to help bring a healthy, natural aspect to the home.

Tapping into yet another sense, waterfall systems that incorporate the sounds of a babbling brook allow designers to bring the outdoors inside, creating a soothing atmosphere for clients.

Natural Materials

Many designers believe that a key to bringing the outdoors in is through the use of natural materials.

Larsen states, “With today’s kitchens, there’s a good chance that our countertops are going to be made of granite, soapstone, cement or wood. Copper sinks, stone and wood floors, pebble tile or granite backsplashes ­– they’re all natural resources that commonly dominate in our modern space.”

Rizzo works with a cabinet company that has an organic rating system, “so the finishes are all in the allowances.” She says she also works with natural stone a lot, and specifies some cork flooring and bamboo. Incorporating plant material is also something she likes to do in order to further her designs’ connection to nature.

Indeed, all the designers interviewed stressed the importance of plant life in the kitchen as a way to tie together the indoor and outdoor environs.

Huerta, too, is a big fan of using natural materials, not only because of the health benefits, but because they add depth and richness. She notes, “I would rather use natural materials because I feel that a lot of things you find in nature have a lot of texture and color.” To further support Biophilic design, she recommends doing tests on air quality as well as “trying to get an overall look and feel [of nature] to create that sense of healthy living.”

Visual Access

Since humans are visually oriented creatures, bringing the great outdoors inside generally means creating a room with a view. After all, just seeing a beautiful landscape can relax clients. In fact, Larsen points out that many of her clients even change their decor with the seasons to create a soothing synergy between the inside and outside of their homes.

For that reason, Larsen says, “We want the view out of the windows from our kitchen sinks to be the best view in the house.” Among her clients, “visual access to the outdoors is a common request. More windows, more skylights and open kitchens are all part of Mother Nature’s calming draw.”

At Rizzo’s firm in Anchorage, AK, she says, “Natural lighting is important here because it’s dark nine months out of the year. We have windows with glazing and we make sure it’s seamless with a view. If I’m doing a bathroom, I’ll figure out how to put in glass block or something to catch light from another room and bring it through the space.

“I insist that lighting be the same color, so I would try to do all halogens together, for instance. That keeps everything consistent. The same holds true for trim. I will specify the trim to get the most light reflected out,” Rizzo adds.

But that view doesn’t end with the windows, Larsen points out. Rather, she suggests that a room’s “view” should take into consideration internal elements as well as external ones, with nature acting as a theme to bridge the gap that exists between indoors and outdoors. For instance, she notes, “Even once the [basic kitchen] is complete, my clients often turn to Mother Nature for her assistance in decorating. After all, her interior design skills are second to none!” She cites cabinetry pulls that mimic twigs or flowers and potted herbs growing on the windowsill as examples of this trend.

Organic Contemporary

Once the exclusive purview of tree-huggers and health-food fanatics, the idea that there is value in “organic” products has become more mainstream in our society in recent years. From organically grown fruits and vegetables to organic baby food, Energy Star appliances to dolphin-safe tuna, it’s clear that this movement is becoming a real consideration for consumers and designers alike.

Larsen describes the kind of nature-inspired design she specializes in as “organic contemporary,” and says she sees a growing call for this type of design among her clientele. Unlike the cold, high-gloss looks that people associated with modern design in years past, this new breed of design is softer, more natural and easier on the eye and psyche, she says.

And, it’s growing in popularity, according to many kitchen and bath designers. “Our new showroom is going to be organic contemporary,” enthuses Huerta. “This will allow us to be cutting edge and have that sleek, clean modern look. The organic look makes what is typically very cold into something with warmth, something that is full of textures.”

“Organic contemporary” also seems to be gaining visibility in the consumer press, as designers and consumers embrace the idea of a space that is healthy to live in and beautiful to see. And this, many believe, is only the beginning, as Biophilic design makes inroads in the kitchen and bath industry.

Of course some would argue that clients may like the idea, but may not want to pay to put it into practice. However, designers agree that there are many cost-effective ways to create spaces that showcase nature, and manufacturers also seem to be jumping on the bandwagon.

Huerta concludes, “People are more aware today. We have more options, and people want to do their part. Most of our clients know what their options are, so I think it is the clients who are really driving a lot of this trend.”