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Photography by Adam Mørk

Biophilic design, which seeks to reconnect people with nature in an increasingly urbanised world, has grown in popularity in recent years—and for good reason. It promises significant benefits for building occupants.

“Biophilic design can reduce stress, improve cognitive function and creativity, improve our well-being and expedite healing,” design consultancy firm Terrapin Bright Green notes in its paper, 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design.

“[It] is essential for providing people opportunities to live and work in healthy places and spaces with less stress and greater overall health and well-being.”

These advantages extend to education applications, with several studies and trials already undertaken or underway to prove that biophilia (literally “love of life”) has a direct impact on the productivity and performance of students. Most recently, the American Institute of Architects awarded US $100,000 in grants to four research projects, one of which seeks to provide evidence of the link between biophilic classroom design and student success.

There is also no shortage of studios around the world practising biophilic design. One of the easiest ways to incorporate it in education and research projects is through daylight optimisation.


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The IT University of Copenhagen, designed by Henning Larsen, combines ample daylight with open, informal study environments. In the day, the building’s five-storey atrium is bathed in daylight. Photography by Adam Mørk

Bringing natural sunlight into interior spaces is one of the most common strategies employed in residential applications, but it has equal merit in educational institutions too. 

As opposed to artificial lighting, which according to a 2002 study titled Daylight Design of Buildings, can cause strain, fatigue and circadian dysfunction in building occupants—research has shown that daylight optimisation in school buildings improves psychological reactions, attendance rates and students’ speed of learning.

Just take the results of the year-long study of 2,000 classrooms by the Heschong Mahone Group, which found that students in classrooms with daylight improved 20 percent faster in math scores and 26 percent in reading scores.

Another report by Human Spaces states that optimising daylight exposure alone can improve school attendance by an average of 3.5 days a year, and test scores by up to 14 percent.

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The University of Texas at Dallas Student Services Building maximises daylight harvesting with terra-cotta louvers on its façade that respond to solar exposure in appropriate density. This strategy allows for 76 percent of all occupied spaces to be ‘powered’ by natural daylight, and 93 percent of all occupied spaces to have views to the outside. 

Some of the easiest ways to optimise exposure to natural daylight is to include more windows, skylights and reflective surfaces in your design. However, thinking about how your building is laid out, both internally and externally, is also critical.

“The large scale design for daylight starts with urban planning. Create districts and buildings in a form that people receive daylight as their source of light and heat, as well as views where and when they want it,” architectural lighting expert Dr Thomas Schielke, writes in the Archdaily column, Light Matters.

“This strategy is of course dependent on the specific climate and location. A careful design of a building height forms the basis for avoiding excessive shading from nearby buildings or from different building wings.”

In addition to being considerate of the site orientation, Schielke also recommends enlarging as much perimeter footpath as possible to maximise daylight for interior spaces. For instance, long and narrow building forms work better for harvesting daylight, while atriums offer additional possibilities.

The importance of shading should not be understated either. To avoid overheating in buildings with glass facades, designers should consider utilising technical solutions such as exterior shading elements, including operable elements, or nature, such as trees, to optimise visual and physical comfort. 

The University of Southern Denmark, Campus Kolding by Henning Larsen features a striking solar screening façade, which consists of approximately 1,600 triangular shutters. These perforated steel shutters are operable to match the amount of desired inflow of light at any time. Photography by Hufton+Crow


Of course one should not forget that an optimised engineering solution is not necessarily an aesthetic one,” Schielke adds. “Designers should be able to use sunlighting strategies without creating a conspicuous ‘sunlighting building’ look,” he quotes William Lam, a pioneer in the field of architectural lighting and former teacher at MIT, Harvard and Yale.


“Daylight design needs to be planned in the concept stage, as part of an integrated design approach.”