Classroom with woodland picture, plants and orchid
Biophilic Classroom at Putney High School, photo: Matthew Cattell

Biophilic design has gained much traction over the last few years, nowhere more so than in the sphere of workplace design.  Numerous studies have shown that its adoption leads to reduced stress, improved concentration, less absenteeism and presenteism.  Given these positive outcomes isn’t it time to introduce biophilic design into mainstream education settings?

There’s no doubt that schools in the UK are in desperate need of rejuvenation – 60% of them were built before 1976!  Zero carbon schools will help the UK meet its net zero greenhouse gas emissions.   Just as humans need to live in the most sustainable way possible to safeguard the planet for generations to come, the benefits we derive from nature are now underpinned by strong scientific research.  It is a symbiotic relationship.  Biophilic design and sustainability go hand in hand.  

So just what are the benefits of introducing biophilic design into schools and colleges?  Recent studies have been found that:-

  • Children learn 25% faster when natural light is present
  • Classrooms with plants see improved performance in spelling, mathematics and science subjects of 10 to 14%
  • Green walls improve acoustics and can reduce CO2 levels
  • Reduced absenteeism of 3.5 days per year per pupil

Research by Bill Browning of Terrapin Bright Green, the environmental consultancy behind the 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, shows that cognitive ability and emotional wellbeing of students is significantly increased by designing or embedding nature into learning environments. This could be direct connection with nature for example natural materials and plants, to indirect connections such as patterns similar to those found in the natural environment.

An early example of the use of biophilic design within early years education is by Jessop and Cook Architects with their project for St Mary’s Infant School Witney in Oxfordshire.

St Mary’s Infant School by Jessop and Cook Architects, Photo: Nikhilesh Haval

Completed in 2013 the project uses cedar cladding over an outdoor play area.  Internally numerous roof lights, strip windows and bi-fold doors allow light to flood into the classroom throughout the day.  Natural light is essential not just for the production of Vitamin D, but also for the regulation of circadian rhythms, our internal clock which controls our physical, mental and behavioural changes.

Natural Daylight and Views of Nature at St Mary’s Infant School, Photo: Nikhilesh Haval

The Garden School in Hackney specializes in providing education to  2 to 16 year pupils with autism.   Architect Oliver Heath designed a recuperative space away from the usual hustle and bustle of the playground. Using natural textures and patterns which mimic nature, the aim of the space is for exploration, relaxation and restoration. 

The Garden School, Hackney, photo Oliver Heath Design

At secondary level Putney High School, London is an example of the synergy between sustainability and biophilic design.  The school had already engaged in a campaign to reduce its carbon footprint through recycling and reducing its consumption of energy and single use plastics.  It then went further.  Its Biophilic Classroom project studied the effectiveness of different aspects of biophilic design upon students and staff.  An extensive array of indoor plants was installed in the Math classroom.  In the English classroom a full size mural of a woodland scene adorned a wall.  In the third classroom, for Psychology, no changes were made.  Air quality was measured, as well as the concentration and feelings of wellbeing for both staff and students.  The Headmistress, Suzie Longstaff, reported that the re-design of the classrooms led to 78% of pupils feeling healthier and that the classrooms were more relaxing.  As stress is known to inhibit cognitive function, using biophilic design strategies can lead to more effective learning.   Not surprisingly the RHS chose the project to be included in the Discovery Zone at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show.  It’s a perfect example of the synergy between sustainability and biophilic design.

When so many youngsters spend so little time outdoors, the introduction of biophilic design within the classroom leads to an early engagement with nature.  By understanding and appreciating all that nature has to offer future generations may find new and innovative ways of protecting and nurturing our planet.    Now is the perfect opportunity not just to build our schools in a more sustainable way, but to go a step further and incorporate biophilic design too.