Natural Materials in Biophilic Design

In creating a direct connection to nature, wood ceilings and wall systems can boost occupant health, well-being, and productivity
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Sponsored by CertainTeed Architectural
By Barbara Horwitz-Bennett
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Panelized Linear

Panelized ceilings offer the same visual as a linear plank, but unlike the former where each plank must be installed individually, panelized linear can install more quickly. Whereas linear planks typically create inaccessible plenums, panelized linear can be installed in the ceiling with changers or on the wall with Z-clips to make spaces behind accessible.

With an NRC of up to 0.75, the modules are well suited for creating visual interest in spaces like conference rooms, offices, kitchenettes, and cafeterias. They also work well in hospitality applications where a warm, comforting interior is the goal.

Lay-in Grilles

Available in reveal and narrow reveal edges, these horizontal and vertical slats add dimensionality to the ceiling. They are an ideal choice for renovation spaces with existing acoustical suspension systems and can be found in conference rooms, board rooms, and common shared spaces.

When used vertically, the blades take on a three-dimensional appearance, while the horizontal blades appear two dimensional. Design possibilities include herring bone patterns and checkerboard, among others.

Basswood or poplar are commonly selected and offer up to 0.90 NRC when specified with sound-absorbing infill.

Common installation methods can be used for a fully accessible ceiling plenum.


A high-end design aesthetic for open spaces, clouds, and canopies are independently suspended panels available in rectangle and other shapes that can be concave, convex, or flat as well as S-curved.

Common applications include elevator lobbies, small entryways, lobbies, and conference rooms. They work well when the design intent is to create a more intimate, cozy space or draw attention to a specific area, particularly when working with tall ceilings. For example, with an information desk, reception area, or security checkpoint, the canopy can be used to frame the space without having to build a separate room.

Canopies do a good job of defining spaces in rooms that need a more formal feel. Solid canopies can hide mechanical or audio-visual equipment, while curved canopies can help distribute sound. If sound absorption is required, perforated canopies can be used with acoustic infill to improve the acoustics of a space.

Open Cell

These decorative, solid-wood cell ceilings come in different finishes and a range of configuration options. Traditionally a lay-in panel, the system creates visual interest with a cubic look and serves as a way to bring down the ceiling space with natural materials. Open cell also frames the space while still giving visibility to the ceiling above.

With an acoustic infill, NRC values of 0.75 or higher are possible. Common installation methods can be utilized, and the open-cell system can be independently suspended from the ceiling space.

Typically, all of the wood ceiling and wall products discussed above have been confined to customer-facing areas, executive spaces, and entryways. However, in recent years, a focus on health, well-being, and biophilic design is expanding wood elements into employee work areas so that all occupants can benefit from the warmth and comfort of wood interiors.

In viewing wood ceiling systems with a biophilic lens, McNay suggests that layered, natural, textured, and open wood ceilings exhibit more natural patterns than flat, smooth systems. Natural branching or wave patterns integrating with structures, open grilles, or trellis frames that are rhythmic or non-rhythmic can inspire positive human connections. Additionally, ceiling panels that float can be more analogous to tree canopies, clouds, or even flocks of birds.

Real, Engineered, and Faux

In evaluating real wood versus engineered wood versus faux wood for wall panels and ceilings, a number of elements must be taken into consideration.

While real wood is best for biophilic design, the other options can offer biophilic benefits if the panels display an authentic-looking grain. This means that the repeat patterns should not be obvious and the surface should appear to be real. This is essential for walls, as they are seen from up close, whereas ceilings are viewed at more of a distance.

“If you have a relatively distinctive knot, for example, you have to make sure that it does not appear repeatedly across the wall or ceiling,” explains Augustin.

With engineered wood, authenticity is not an issue. Furthermore, these products are less expensive, less likely to expand from humidity and moisture, and are structurally more stable. At the same time, specifiers should take a good, hard look at the product, as sometimes the engineering of wood can be systemized to the extent that it loses natural properties and aesthetics.

Some wood products can be engineered to contribute to other aspects of occupant well-being, like wood ceiling systems that help control the acoustics of a space.

Another issue is vetting the adhesives used within the product. “Formaldeyhe and other VOCs in composite wood products will negatively affect air quality and therefore occupant health, negating the positive health effects of using wood as a biophilic material,” cautions Hutchison.

Where sustainability is the main priority, real wood trumps all. In addition to sequestering carbon, it is a renewable resource and is highly valued by green building rating systems. “Wood can be recycled, salvaged, and reused or become a natural nutrient in nature instead of adding to a land fill,” adds McNay.

To ensure that the material is truly sustainable, architects should verify the product chain of custody and sourcing to ensure that the wood did not come from a species that is threatened or endangered, and that it has been harvested from sustainably managed forests. Doing so can be more challenging to track with engineered wood, as it can contain multiple species of wood.

Real wood also embraces local materials, the environment, local craftsmen, and the natural beauty inherent in the material’s maturity over time. Authentic wood gives off a natural smell, thereby strengthening its biophilic properties.

Real wood is the best material for biophilic design strategies, but wood-look materials—particularly those with realistic-looking grains—can also offer biophilic benefits with added performance advantages, like indoor/outdoor applications.

With green building rating systems, wood products can score quite well, although the credits will vary for the different programs.

In LEED v4, wood can qualify in the Regional Materials category, depending on the project location; Building Disclosure and Optimization with environmental product declarations; Building Life-Cycle Impact Reduction and Interiors Life-Cycle Impact Reduction; and Low-Emitting Materials.

For the Living Building Challenge, which is considered the most progressive building rating system, wood is associated with five prerequisites, one of which requires that a biophilic design workshop be conducted with the project team to create a plan that is developed and used throughout the design phase of a project.

With the WELL Building Standard, designs should show a direct connection to nature through strategies relating to plants, water, light, or views; an indirect connection to nature including the use of natural materials; and the integration of natural elements throughout the design.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in May 2020