As luxury hotels strive to incorporate wellness into their offerings, they would be wise to attend to the principles of biophilic design.

Any student of etymology should easily be able to define the word “biophilia.” It stems from the Greek words for life and love. As defined in English, biophilia suggests man’s innate biological connection with nature. It’s why a walk in the woods is soothing and why light is stimulating. Basically, it’s why nature makes us feel better.

But how does one apply the principles of biophilia to indoor spaces, which are separated from nature? That’s where biophilic design comes into the equation.

Much of today’s built environment lacks natural light, organic materials, and other nods to nature. Yes, the presence of plants can be therapeutic, but true biophilic environments are not achieved by way of add-on features, like a plant in every room. Instead, biophilic design means incorporating nature in every aspect of design.

It’s the use of natural materials whenever possible. It’s incorporating the curvy patterns (or fractals) found in nature into the design of carpets and furnishings. It’s imagining how people move through the space. It’s creating areas of refuge, where guests can feel protected. In all, there are at least 14 key elements of biophilic design. These are outlined in a brief bible of biophilic design produced by Terrapin Bright Green, an environmental consultancy.

“Biophilic design can be very powerful in the hospitality industry,” according to Lorraine Francis, design principal for Cadiz Collaboration. She said it can be “a cost-effective way to enhance the guest experience while improving well-being and health. (Use of biophilic) principles enable us to not only create a more engaging design experience but also trigger a deeper affinity to certain brands.”

According to Bill Browning, founding partner of Terrapin Bright Green, there’s room in the market for a hotel brand to own biophilic design. “Hospitality is one of the few places where designers tend to pay attention to all five senses. And since experiences are more intense when multiple senses are engaged simultaneously,” this bodes well for brand differentiation. Browning painted the picture: “The feel of the textiles; the scents of flowers, candles and food; crackling of logs in a fireplace; the splash of water in a fountain; the texture of wood grain and stone in furnishings; and birds singing in a lobby are ways of creating more memorable spaces.”

The key in biophilic design, though, is to not overdo it. Browning said the idea of focusing on one or two elements is the way to go: “Hoteliers should decide what they want guests to experience from the space and then provide complementary biophilic design. But they shouldn’t go crazy.” Otherwise, the cacophony of features might prove overwhelming.

Westin Looks to Nature

Westin’s claim to fame within the Marriott batch of brands is wellness. While the brand came from Starwood with some biophilic elements built in, the design was neither consistent nor ubiquitous, either throughout an individual hotel or throughout the brand. That’s why David Kepron, vice president of Marriott’s Global Design Strategy Group, thought the brand was ripe for a biophilic design makeover.

A Westin model room shows  the use of light in biophilic design, with light fixtures casting shadows and shapes found in nature. Photo: Westin Hotels & Resorts

“Because of a better understanding of neuro-physiology, the mind-body connection to experiencing space,” said Kepron, “the design team is working on better ways to create ‘cognitive handshakes’ throughout Westin — designing rooms and public spaces that respond to an individual’s neurobiological needs.”

While biophilic design is being considered holistically, the main element that Westin is focusing on is light. Kepron illuminated, “Westin plans to own light. We look at it in three ways. There’s the aesthetic quality. Both the light fixtures and the quality of light emanating from them need to be beautiful. We will use lighting that casts shadows or that allows for diffused light (an example would be a frosted glass wall between the bathroom and the bedroom, allowing natural light to filter in). Finally, we want light to respond to human biorhythms,” which may ultimately help guests use lighting as a tool for better sleep.

Westin will also be adding more natural elements to its rooms. In lieu of framed art of pastoral settings, Westin is adding three-dimensional sculptural elements made from organic materials or depicting natural themes. A major feature in each room will be the wall behind the headboard, which will incorporate natural colors and materials that are reflective of the location.

Lush Living Walls Mean Green — in More Ways Than One

An Orbitz study of millennials found that nearly one-fourth would pay $50 to $100 more for a room filled with plants. Along those lines, biophilic design can incorporate living walls. The Thompson Chicago, for example, sports a two-story-high wall of foliage behind its lobby bar. In Singapore, cab drivers call the PARKROYAL on Pickering the “jungle hotel.” That’s because it’s designed as a high-rise garden, with plants cascading from exterior and interior walls.

Thompson Chicago’s green wall behind the Nico Bar. Photo: Thompson Chicago

What’s the payoff for incorporating Mother Nature in hotel design? Guests will likely feel better while hotels will make more money. Terrapin, Interface, and Gensler collaborated on a study to observe pricing trends for hotel rooms with and without a view at hotels. The study found that rooms with a view to nature, particularly to water, are consistently priced higher than rooms without one. For resort hotels there was an 18 percent difference while a natural view from a city hotel could be priced up to 12 percent more.

But for Kepron, biophilic design is not just about the money. “Margin is in the mood,” he said. “There’s something to be said for considering the ROI of magic and memory.”

Photo Credit: The PARKROYAL on Pickering in Singapore incorporates natural materials, curves, and greenery throughout its interior design. Biophilic design principals include bringing nature inside, like the living wall shown here. PARKROYAL on Pickering