Biophilia, Selling the Love of Nature
By Shane Pliska
Interiorscape Magazine
January/February 2005
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Try this exercise; thumb through a magazine or newspaper and look for plants. Leaves, flowers, tree trunks, and roots are incorporated into countless corporate logos, adorn sexy models, and frame products. What we see in ordinary advertisements is an intuitive understanding for the human connection to nature.

University of Guelph-Humber - four-story "biowall"
covered with tropical plants
Corporations have spent many resources to discover that consumers want to wash their hair with herbs, drive in trucks made of rock, and chew gum that taste like ice. In other words, connecting products to nature equals sales.

In 1984, Harvard biologist Dr. Ed Wilson named this natural human desire, biophilia, "the love of nature." It is a feeling that dates back millions of years, to the age when the human brain evolved to attract us to elements and places that will most guarantee survival and reproductive success. Even though people may be happy in an urban high-rise, we are still most at peace when walking in a park, looking at the ocean, or hiking in the woods.

The study of biophilia is still in its early stages but much excitement is on the horizon. The recently attention of green building has inspired, researchers at Yale University and the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) to embark the project titled "Bringing Buildings to Life." The five-year study is focused on quantifying the value of nature in the built environment. This differs from existing research by institutions such as NASA and Washington State because "much of the material that has been generated so far has been theoretical in nature and not directly tied to today's real estate development" says Jen Seal, a principal at RMI.

Marrying research to commerce is the vital ingredient. Seal states that RMI's "contribution will be to make this knowledge more accessible and attractive to the building industry--practical, profitable, and not just for high-end projects. Finding ways to incorporate these concepts into the existing fabric of our already built environment is important as well."

Armed with a Masters in Real Estate Development from MIT, Seal is an ideal ambassador to present the case. The research is designed to address the developer's needs.

The momentum of green building has opened more developers up to exploring new ideas. Wooed by energy savings, greater efficiencies in space management, and the positive publicity, green building has become a serious business. As mentioned in my previous article, Our Stake in the Green Build Boom, plants are not included in the US Green Building Council's (USGBC) certification standard called LEED. As manufacturers of building materials and products continue to convert to sustainable methods, green products are on the way to become standard. Even though not every developer will go through the paperwork to seek LEED certification, the USGBC's recommendations are weighty. The study of biophilia is our inroad to have plants placed in a prominent spot in the LEED certification on the developer's priority list.

What The Market Knows Now

While the new research on biophilia will take 5-years to complete, that doesn't mean that we can't start informing others now. The marketplace already knows the basics. Some of the most persuading evidence comes from our own base of familiar customers.

Embassy Suites advertising campaign

This past fall, Embassy Suites and Hyatt Hotels launched glossy advertising campaigns that show plants and feature images that evoke the desire to be close to nature. One could call these ads an indirect endorsement for biophilia. The competing hotels are running full and half page ads in top general audience publications. I first noticed the ads in the Wall Street Journal, and they don't come cheap, these hotels are paying top dollar to show the most sought after business travelers pictures of plants attached to a message.

I interviewed marketing executives at both hotels, and while neither used the term biophilia, adjectives to describe feeling ran high.

"It seemed natural to appeal to business travelers senses through an ad campaign that shows we understand their plight and offer refuge through our core features," says John Lee, vice president of brand marketing for Embassy Suites. "The planted atrium is a core attribute to our brand."

The Embassy Suites ad shows a man looking out the window of a crammed office while recalling the spaciousness atrium lobby with live plants and a soothing brook. The man and the office are in black and white and the atrium jumps off the page in vibrant green.

When asked, if he had ever considered advertising that the plants clean the air, Mr. Lee said "its a possibility." He went on to say that the atriums appeal to both the emotional and rational, noting the fact that one can access high speed Internet in the hotel's atrium. Mr. Lee quickly reiterated that the intent of the atrium image is to capture the "feeling of an oasis" after spending a day in an airport or a meeting room.

Johanna Vetter, director of advertising for Hyatt Hotels Corporation said that "Hyatt does all it can to incorporate the natural setting into its hotel design." She explains that Hyatt, particularly its resort properties are designed so "you can truly experience nature of that destination so that at each resort is unique and not cookie cutter."

The full-page ad shows an attractive woman in the garden lagoon of the Hyatt's Regency Kauai property. The photography is crisp and the green foliage is stunning.

It's interesting that both executives considered their natural elements and plantings to be differentiators. To be called a differentiator is a big compliment, especially considering that plants are often listed as an optional accessory-- if listed at all. In other words, plants and the appearance of nature contribute to the property's competitiveness in the marketplace. The hotels have embraced what we already intuitively know; humans are attracted to nature and value it.

Pushing the Envelope

Throughout the world there are new buildings that are on the forefront of biophilic inspired design. It is worthwhile bring these unusual projects to the attention of building owners and tenants in your market. Such knowledge can add an interest and delight to a conversation, plus validate the importance of plants in current designs.

Among the recent projects that have biophilic attributes is the University of Guelph-Humber Building in Ontario, Canada. Completed in May of 2004, the most striking feature of the building is a four-story "biowall" covered with tropical plants. The 30'Wx55'H wall is strategically placed under a skylight and designed so the dense plant life is visible from nearly every floor, public space and corridor in the building.

In fact, the planted biowall is a prototype for a new filtration system. It acts as an indoor air purifier, pulling air through the wall and into the mechanical air ducts. According to the University, the biowall could supply all of the building's fresh air intake needs. Irrigated by a vertical hydroponic system, it naturally cools the building in the summer and humidifies in the winter.

Obviously, the biowall is a living experiment and would be most likely out of the comfort zone of a normal developer. However, just the fact that the biowall was built is an encouraging sign for the future of biophilic-inspired design. With or without the filtration system, planting on the wall is one space saving technique that provides the beauty of an atrium without sacrificing square footage. The success of this facility could pave the way for an entirely new design specialty -- "verticalscapes."

Another recent development is Sanitas Corporation's headquarters, in Madrid, Spain. The heath insurer sought to design a building that represented the companies health centered goals-satisfying physical, social, and environmental requirements. To achieve their vision, Sanitas held a design competition for the project.

Designed by by Ortiz Leon Architects, the result is a "glowing gem" among a flood of conventional sprawling office parks on the outskirts of Madrid. The twin oval shaped buildings have plants throughout the interiors and are surrounded by gardens planted with native plants, a slate rock fountain trickles water leading a pathway to the building entrance.

Seal cites the Sanitas Corporation headquarters as a primary example of biophilic design. Last November, in her presentation to an audience of 400 at the GreenBuild conference in Portland Oregon, Seal said that Sanitas intended the building have natural elements from the beginning. It was a commitment that came from the corporate leadership.

If Madison Avenue is splashing plants all over their ads and if a European health insurer makes natural elements a mandate for their new headquarters, we're more than half way there. The study of biophilia is bound to improve awareness and provide proof that so many decisions are dependent on.

Shane Pliska's column appears bi-monthly in Interiorscape Magazine. He is the Business Development Manager of Planterra Corporation, West Bloomfield, Michigan.

Reading on Biophilia

Biophilia, by E.O. Wilson, Harvard University Press

The Biophilia Hypothesis, by S.R. Kellert and E.O. Wilson, Island Press

Biomimicry, J. Benyus, by Wm. Morrow & Co.

Greening the Building and the Bottom Line, available as a PDF download at


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(Case Study: Henry Ford Hospital)
Helping to Heal: Therapeutic Garden Design
Specifies Speak: Why Greenery is Good
Planting for Stars
Planters or furniture? New ideas to display plants.
Biophilia, Selling the Love of Nature
Green Buildings and Plants: An Introduction


Indoor Plants Increase Worker Productivity
Indoor Plants Clean the Air
Health Benefits of Gardens in Hospitals
Plants Create a Consumer Habitat

  Case Studies:
Budco World Headquarters,
Robert Bosch Corporation


Space planning with Plants, a pictorial guide.
What is interior landscaping?
What is a plant designer?
What is a specimen plant?
How interior landscapes contribute to green building design.
Do plants harbor mold?

Resource Links

Botany and Plant Pathology Research Institutions
Horticultural Societies
Midwest Landscape Architecture Schools
Midwest Botanical Gardens
Office Furniture Dealers
Industry Links

Planterra: Integrating nature into office buildings, hotels, hospitals, shopping centers, and homes.

Planters or furniture? New ideas to display plants.
Biophilia, Selling the Love of Nature
Green Buildings and Plants: An Introduction

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