Sustaining Biophilic Design

It’s relatively easy to draw green cityscapes, less easy to deliver them and even more difficult to make sure they look great in ten years time.


The benefits of bringing nature into our cities had been recognised well before the concept of ‘biophilia’ was defined by the psychologist Erich Fromm in 1973. However, the research showing that contact with nature in hospitals speeds up the healing process added a new layer on top of the known benefits of plants in city centres such as reducing pollution, mitigating the urban heat island effect, encouraging biodiversity and enhancing mental health.


But why has the take up of biophilic design principles been so slow?


Having struck up a relationship with Biotecture in 2008 and nurtured London’s oldest hydroponic green wall at our Hatton Place studios we developed a good understanding of the challenges of working with plants as components of a building. They start small and grow large and they need feeding – that’s why Biotecture’s system was so appealing – it fed the plants automatically with an ingenious system of capillary felt cassettes connected to a microbore irrigation network. However, it is still a vertical garden and needs caring for like any other garden. So, when we try to apply green walls on other projects, building owners are often nervous about the long-term maintenance liabilities.


We are used to having the windows cleaned regularly and we accept the need to tend to our parks and gardens, but vertical gardening is not yet mainstream.


At Synergy House, in Bloomsbury, we managed to apply the same principles that we had explored in Hatton Place on a much larger scale in the hope that this might be the beginning of a transformation of London’s poluted streets. The concept met with initial resistance from the planning authorities – no-one had ever clad an entire building façade in a London conservation area before. The problem with plants is that they can die if they are not looked after, so how do you guarantee what a building covered in plants is going to look like in a few years time? However, the benefits of helping Camden and the Greater London Authority meet their sustainability goals and improve air quality were recognised and the scheme was completed in 2017. So far, it’s being well looked after, and the politician’s faith has been rewarded.


At the nearby Plimsoll Building in King’s Cross, we have created a two-storey high green ‘play fence’ for the King’s Cross Academy, where plants grow more traditionally out of the ground guided by a network of stressed cables – it’s taken longer to establish but requires less maintenance. It gives privacy for the playground together with all the benefits of contact with nature. However, in dense city centres, there is a limit to how high you can grow plants out of the ground.


To truly deliver all the benefits of bringing nature into city centres we need to make the vertical gardener an essential part of every building’s team. Only then will the long-term impacts of biophilic design surpass the promise of evocative computer-generated imagery.