When online retail giant Amazon unveiled the design of its new headquarters just outside of Washington, D.C, it was a far cry from the sterile corporate architecture we tend to associate with companies of similar size. The crown jewel of the 3.3-million-square-foot Amazon campus is The Helix—a swirling glass tower that resembles a mountain and features two walkable paths on the outside of the building planted with lush greenery that “you may find on a hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.”
Amazon’s striking design was just the latest example of the growing popularity of biophilia in architecture. Urban areas across the globe are undergoing a nature-inspired metamorphosis that is forever changing the environments in which we live, work, and rest.
In 1984, biologist Edward O. Wilson argued in his book Biophilia that humans have “the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike process.” In architecture, biophilic design refers to the practice of connecting people and nature within built environments. And while the movement is not new, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made it more popular than ever among both designers and clients looking for spaces that are more in sync with nature. The result is a new crop of high-end office, residential, and hospitality buildings that put the environment at the forefront of design.
“Biophilic design at its core is about connection. It is much deeper than simply connecting spaces to the outdoors in an effortless fashion. It is about considering the entire experience, each sense, and even time,” said Logan Ziegler, senior product designer at Blue Heron, a Las Vegas-based real estate developing company of luxury homes that focuses on biophilia. “The art of biophilic design is having a true sense for how to weave the elements seamlessly into a functional living environment.”
Blue Heron’s latest project that will be unveiled later this month is a 15,000-square-foot three-level home (Ziegler calls it “an experience center”) dubbed Vegas Modern 001. It features expansive living spaces with outdoor access from each room and unobstructed views of the city and mountains. But don’t expect to find Las Vegas’s theatrical opulence and penchant for neon lighting here. Inside, the home feels like a continuation of the desert—exposed stone walls and cacti flank the 2,000-square-foot reflecting pool that stretches to the master bedroom while a sky suite with floor-to-ceiling windows accessed through a floating glass bridge brings the Mojave desert inside.
“Today’s definition of luxury has evolved. Luxury is now being defined as deeply rooted in authenticity, experience, and connection to the natural world,” said Carlos Hernández García, president and CEO of Pellas Development Group, the developer behind Costa Rica’s 2,700-plus acre Costa Elena, a collection of luxury tropical residences.
He explained that demand has surged in the last year for homes in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, where the lifestyle and culture are underpinned by authentic and pristine nature. Instead of the traditional gated community model that centers around golf, large entrances, and resort-inspired infrastructure, Costa Elena’s architecture focuses on evoking luxury through biophilic elements.
“We let the houses be inserted into the environment to emphasize the ocean views, the horizon, the sun, the volcanoes, the Bays, the Bahia Salinas bird sanctuary, the Guanacaste Conservation Area. We let nature be the protagonist,” added Hernández García.
The community’s amenity spaces are all outdoors with no enclosed lobbies, and the use of glass throughout creates a seamless transition from indoor to outdoor. “We were intentional with the use of neutral colors and limiting art to allow for the colors of Costa Rica’s rich flora and fauna to take center stage,” he explained.
All exterior lighting is kept to a minimum to preserve the visibility of the nighttime sky, and interior lighting is concentrated in activity and high-traffic areas and minimized next to windows, so it doesn’t interfere with appreciating the views. But building a biophilic residence that still delivers every single luxury amenity you can think of comes with challenges.
“The difficult thing is to achieve this familiar concept of on-demand connectivity and technology without feeling like a sterile environment, without taking away from the experience with nature,” said Hernández García. “[Another challenge is] remaining focused on nature itself rather than overcompensating with architecture. The challenge for architects and designers is to find that balance between making a creative and interesting proposal but at the same time letting their designs slip into the background, to leave nature as the main protagonist of these properties.”
And in cities where nature in its purest form has long been the casualty of urbanization, architects incorporate lush forest-like spaces throughout both the interior and exterior of residential buildings to create a sense of closeness and connection to the environment.
In New York City, a proposed residential building in the shape of a mandrake plant features 1,600 trees and would act as a carbon emissions filter. In Milan, a newly approved plan for the rehabilitation of the Porta Nuova Gioia area includes a residential building designed by the designers who worked on New York City’s High Line. The tower, partially built from wood and sporting 18,300 square feet of lush vegetation distributed between its floors, truly looks like a vertical forest in the middle of one of Italy’s most industrialized cities. And in Australia, a 30-story apartment building may become the “world’s greenest residential building.” The Brisbane-based property will include a two-story rooftop garden, a ground-level park, and a façade covered by 1,000 trees and 20,000 plants.
The hospitality industry has also adopted a more biophilic approach to luxury.
“In the last few years, we have welcomed properties that effortlessly blend nature and the luxury experience, such as Nayara Tented Camp in Costa Rica, Hotel Las Islas in Colombia, Chablé Yucatan in Mexico, and São Lourenço do Barrocal in Portugal,” said Deniz Omurgonulsen, vice president of membership, The Leading Hotels of the World. She added that demand for properties that connect travelers with nature has steadily increased over the years.
Nayara Tented Camp, for example, features tents built on stilts and cantilevered over the rainforest. And while each tent is completely immersed in the surrounding nature, inside and out, no luxury was spared. Each tent has a spacious outdoor deck and a plunge pool offering stunning views of the Arenal Volcano. Inside, natural-inspired color palette and a mural sporting rainforest greenery complement the biophilic experience.
Here, this seemingly perfect symbiosis between nature and luxury also has its challenges.
“Gardening is one [challenge]—maintaining the balance between our commitment to reforestation and giving our guests unobstructed views,” explained Constanza Navarro, director of sales and marketing at Nayara Tented Camp, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World.
Because biophilia is all about connecting with nature, doing so in a sustainable way is crucial.
“I think technology and growing vertical gardens is an amazing thing, and we can do it in the right climate,” said Steven Tupu, principal and founder of New York-based landscape architecture firm Terrain. “Look, in Sydney, for example, we've got the moisture, it's tropical, so we can use a lot of native tropical plants, and it is sustainable. […] But attempting to do that same approach in a lobby in New York is not sustainable.”
Tupu explained that demand is surging for converting abandoned or “leftover” spaces in office and residential buildings into vibrant landscapes that help people connect to the natural world.
“There's more focus on making the most out of the spaces we have in urban cities both [in terms of] living and working. And that was already happening pre-pandemic, but I think with the pandemic, there's just a renewed focus on wellness, health, and safety.”
So is the emergence of biophilic design here to stay? Tupu seems to think so.
“We're learning the lessons of poor design, poor ventilation. We know that it affects us. So we’re building smarter, we're building more energy-efficient buildings. We've seen the damage of poor design and poor architecture. Disconnecting from the natural world has affected us […] Hopefully, we're turning the ship around, and we're kind of heading into a better place.”