If there’s one design accessory that’s become as standard as a throw pillow for a living room or a cozy blanket for a bedroom, it’s a plant. Surely, placing a plant indoors is nothing new, but the expectation that a room isn’t complete without one is. In recent years, greenery has gained traction as a vital detail that makes a space feel more welcoming and lived in, whether that’s exemplified in the popularity of a fiddle leaf fig or in the ease of potted succulents. Some people even argue that their love of plants goes further than just having a green thumb. To them, their plants are “pets.”
And while plants do have a place in many different design philosophies—from bohemian and mid-century modern to contemporary and traditional—they’re particularly at home in the realm of biophilic design. If you’re curious about the ongoing popularity of plants and how they relate to biophilic design, as well as ways to bring this lasting trend into your home, read on to learn more.
“Biophilic design is a strategy for returning to nature in the design of buildings,” says architect and designer Nicholas Potts. “This can take on many forms and occur at multiple scales, from the incorporation of green walls to entire buildings that attempt to replicate natural structures. The overall goal is largely consistent: Biophilic design aims to appropriate the wisdom of natural processes to increase comfort, while reducing the impact a building has on our strained environment.”
If the emergence of plants as a must-have design feature seems like it really took off in the last decade, then perhaps it’s important to look at the impact sustainability has had on people at the same time. In the years between 2012 and 2020, Pew Research Center found that six in 10 Americans rate “protecting the environment” as a top priority, which is up from four in 10 at the start of that timeframe. As far as households go, this priority is being expressed in actions like recycling, composting, or shopping secondhand. It’s also part of choosing natural wood floors, zero-VOC paints, and other natural fibers, Potts says. When you’re trying to live more sustainably, biophilic design makes sense—and it becomes easier to see where bigger improvements are needed.
“Buildings are among mankind's largest users of natural resources, from the use of materials in construction and demolition, to the resources we use for heating, cooling, and electricity,” Potts continues. “By studying nature, designers are largely looking to reduce the inefficiencies of traditional building systems and materials.”
Biophilic design includes plenty of opportunities to let the outdoors in, from skylights and full-length windows to indoor plant beds and living walls, which can foster a respect and appreciation for the outside world. In some cases, biophilic design can mimic nature itself, such as a structure that resembles a tree canopy. “Architects can use thin-shell structural systems inspired by naturally efficient eggshells, trees, and spiderwebs, and mechanical systems that are inspired by evaporation, wind, and light,” Potts adds. “The benefits to the environment are supplemented by measurable benefits to the building’s occupants, with several important studies linking improved air quality to improved cognition and productivity.”
As much as those who are committed to living a more sustainable lifestyle would like to work and live in such environmentally sound surroundings, all is not lost if those are out of reach. Again, that’s where plants come in.
“Biophilic design refers to design that takes advantage of nature, so this can mean anything from houseplants to plant walls,” says principal and founder David Mann of MR Architecture and Decor. “I am all for it, in any way, shape or form. Sometime in the future, our home interiors may resemble well-maintained gardens with invisible floors, ceilings, and walls. In the meantime, terrariums, greenhouses and indoor plants inch us in that direction.”
Potts agrees, and adds a friendly reminder. “Their presence is much more than just an aesthetic feature,” he says. “Plants, of course, consume carbon dioxide from the air during photosynthesis, improving indoor air quality, and filter light from overexposed windows, cooling the home.”
The benefits of this design are in surrounding yourself with real components of the outdoors, even if they may require chores now and then. “The presence of nature indoors has a calming effect, contributing to a more peaceful and tranquil environment,” says designer Alvin Wayne. “Make the most of natural views, too, and you can even incorporate a water feature.”
If there’s one way to get biophilic design wrong, it would be in choosing fake dupes instead. “Look towards ‘true’ materials and eschew the artificial,” Potts says. “You may consider a mud plaster or unglazed terracotta on walls, as an example beyond plants. And rather than vinyl or composite flooring, you could use wood with a natural oil finish. Look for fabrics that breathe, such as wools, silks, and cottons, instead of plastics.” Overall, he notes, you want to create a space for the climate you’re in, and for the planet at large. “Invest in things that last a lifetime, rather than disposable trends,” Potts says.