Better buildings
April 25, 2022

The biophilic response to wood: Can it promote the well-being of building occupants?

Although the term may seem recent, the concept of biophilia has been used for decades in architecture and design. The guiding principle is quite simple: connect people inside with nature to promote their well-being and quality of life. With all the ongoing design trends that have consolidated as a result, the demand has focused on organic materials that emulate outdoor environments. Among all the options, wood is one of the most popular materials to bring nature indoors, not only because of its functionality, but also due to its multiple physiological and psychological benefits.

Interior view of light coloured wood panelized two-storey entrance with sun rays filtering in.

Audain Art Museum, Photo: James Dow, courtesy Patkau Architects

In this context, wood and mass timber continue to gain attention in the architectural world. Apart from the relevant environmental benefits of sustainably sourced wood, its popularity is driven by users that find the material to be beautiful, natural, and stress relieving. In this way, building occupants tend to instinctively prefer wood over other materials because of their biophilic response to it, as explained by a Terrapin Bright Green report featuring several scientific studies.

Biophilic design principles

Promoting health benefits

Essentially, biophilia refers to humans’ innate affinity for nature. When translated to architecture, biophilic design is about incorporating elements like natural light, airflow, water features, plants, and organic materials into the built environment to make spaces more appealing. For example, most people would prefer to spend time in an illuminated room with plants instead of surrounded by plain white walls. Why? Apart from being more aesthetically pleasing, it actually makes you feel better.

In fact, like this study shows, integrating natural elements in interior spaces promotes health benefits that include stress reduction, improved cognitive performance, enhanced moods, and increased preference for spaces—and these are precisely referred to as ‘biophilic responses’. With this in mind, users are innately attracted to wood over other materials due to its effective biophilic response.

The physiological and psychological benefits of being in a space with wood are many: lowered blood pressure and heart rate, perception of warmth, and connection to living things to name a few. In addition, research continues to indicate that nature-made and human-made environments are processed differently in our brains, influencing which is the preferred experience. Even though wooden objects are crafted by humans, the wood itself is still considered to be natural, which is why users like having wood around them in buildings—no wonder it has been used in construction for thousands of years.

Bioenergy Research and Demonstration Facility, UBC | Photo: Don Erhardt

Biophilic responses

The sensory experience of wood in architecture

To this day, wood continues to be considered a warm, relaxing, comfortable and natural material that creates healthy environments. In fact, a study from the University of British Columbia and a Brown University clinical trial show that the visual presence of wooden elements can lower stress more effectively than plants, while rooms with about 45 percent of wooden surfaces boost perceptions of comfort and lower blood pressure. Ultimately, it all comes down to our senses. Whether it be through a haptic, olfactory or visual experience, users tend to be more drawn to wood and timber architecture in comparison to other materials.


Often, the natural texture of wood is the first thing people feel when engaging with a building, and it’s certainly one of its most attractive characteristics. In a blindfolded experiment where participants had to touch stainless steel, tile, marble, and white oak, the results of the study demonstrated that the oak panel led to increases in the activity of the rest and calming portion of the nervous system.


Just like trees are esteemed for their smell, the scent of wood in interiors generates an appealing calming effect that adds another dimension to the overall wood experience. However, since smell can become imperceptible after installation, it is unlikely the predominant factor in the biophilic response to wood.

Prince George Fire Hall | Photo: Ed White Photographics


Even though smell and touch likely influence our preference for wood, the experience is most often visual—thus, it is not surprising that most of the available research is related to visual responses. When looking at a piece of wood, attention is driven to grain pattern, surface colour and features such as knots. In this sense, it is important that wood surfaces remain recognizable as a natural material, which attracts more positive reactions than when the material is deeply stained with clear or semi-opaque finishes that hide the original color and grain.

Another interesting factor regarding sight relates to fractals, defined as layered self-repeating mathematical patterns. Of course, exact fractals don’t occur in nature. However, when those mathematical patterns have variations, their presence is common (such as with snowflakes, flames, waves, etc.). When people see these patterns, even in human designed objects, the brain can easily recognize the image and measurably lower stress levels. Therefore, it could be argued that the nested contour patterns repeated in wood grain fits the definition.

Western larch dimensional lumber | Photo: Michael Bednar