Timber Gets Top Marks for Biophilic School Design

As research purporting the benefits of biophilic design continues to grow, architects are rethinking school design—from elementary to college-level—by incorporating more natural materials, such as wood, along with views of nature and better access to the great outdoors.

Wood inside a school science lab

NATURALLY BRIGHT | École Au Millénaire’s brightly colored classrooms feature solid rosewood, timber benches, birch branches and modular wooden cubes. Each classroom is designed with specific pedagogical values in mind. (Courtesy Les Maîtres d’oeuvres Hovington Gauthier Architects)

Wood inside a school classroom

Making Nature Elementary

“We wanted to create a school environment that is better suited to what young people need. We want to promote a greater feeling of belonging amongst students. Not only towards their classroom, but to the natural environment that surrounds them as a whole,” said Chantale Cyr, a director general at a Quebec-based school board speaking at the inauguration of École Au Millénaire.

Featuring exposed timber, natural hues and abundant sunlight, the classrooms at École Au Millénaire are unique, each one designed with specific educational principles in mind. From the onset, first and second grade students are introduced to the importance of the environment and its connection to their healthy development. As students progress through each grade, there is an added emphasis on culture for third and fourth graders and communication for fifth and sixth graders. The use of wooden materials and five colors (orange, blue, green, red and yellow) serve as a recurring motif, unifying the eclectic decor.

Wood was selected for the design of the built-in furniture in the classrooms and the hallways. “It was important for us to have a natural appearance, the feeling of wood. Honestly, that made all the difference,” explains Alexandre Simard, architect at Les Maîtres d’Oeuvre, Hovington Gauthier, the firm that designed the school.

The interior includes tables in solid rosewood, timber benches, birch branches and modular wooden cubes. This commitment to authentic, natural materials does not go unnoticed by young students, says Simard. “I think that the children have this awareness that when they are sitting on a wooden bench, it is a real log, not a fake one.”

Whether or not children are consciously attuned to such details, a growing body of research suggests that biophilic design—an emphasis on natural materials and cues to nature—can have a positive, measurable impact on children. The restorative benefits of nature on mentally fatigued adults and children is being established through an increasing number of studies, including field experiments and longitudinal analysis.[1]  In one experiment, 94 high schools students randomly assigned to classrooms with views of greenery performed better on concentration tests than those assigned to purely “built” views or windowless classrooms[2]. And in multiple studies, contact with nature has been linked to greater self-discipline in children.[3]

Elementary School Wood Use

FIRST CLASS COMFORT | Families have come to see Dollard-des-Ormeaux as not just a place of learning but as a source of community support and comfort. Classrooms feature floating tiles of plywood with a cherry wood finish. Wood, with a durable finish, was also used for the locker rooms and hallways, the interior doors and as a cladding in the gym. (Courtesy BGLA Architecture)

The benefits of biophilic design, along with a focus on occupant comfort, are central to the design of another Quebec-based school, Dollard-des-Ormeaux School. Located near a military base, many students at the school have parents who are frequently away from home, serving as armed forces personnel. Keeping in mind that children with parents in such roles often experience higher levels of stress—along with anxiety and depression—it made good sense to optimize such a school for occupant comfort and well-being.[4] As a result, families have come to see the school as not just a place of learning, but as a source of community support as well. This commitment to care is exemplified in a cocoon-like motif, with an abundance of timber enveloping the space with warmth. Exposed cross-laminated timber (CLT) serves double duty as both a structural and aesthetic material. Ground floor classrooms feature floating tiles of plywood with a cherry wood finish. Wood, with a durable finish, was also used for the locker rooms and hallways, the interior doors and as a cladding in the gym. The overall impact is a welcoming, natural and inviting learning space for this community.

A Class Apart

Along with biophilic strategies, a design that is environmentally sensitive can empower a school to demonstrate its commitment to sustainability and be used as a teaching tool for students.

Such was the case with Common Ground High School in New Haven, Connecticut. As an eco-minded environmental charter school that offers an innovative curriculum of urban agriculture combined with sustainable land-management practices, the 14,000 square-foot addition incorporates a variety of green building and biophilic features. “Common Ground High School asked us for design recommendations,” said Alan Organschi, principal at the New Haven-based, Gray Organschi Architecture. “I suggested using mass timber as the construction material. I said we would source the wood. We know exactly what Canadian forest this wood is coming from. The school will be a great pedagogical lesson for the students. School leadership liked it. They were committed from the beginning.” For Organschi, the environmental story of wood is compelling and provides students with an added connection to nature.

The staff and students of Common Ground couldn’t be happier with their addition.

“It’s a triumph for the school, the state of Connecticut, and education building design.” “Common Ground students can point on a map where the wood for their school was grown and the CLT fabricated. That’s a connection that matters.”

Wood inside a school science lab
You can talk about wood in terms of energy performance, renewability, and carbon sequestration. There’s nothing like it. We need wood more than ever.
Alan Organschi
Gray Organschi Architecture

Higher Education Sets the Biophilic Bar High

Elementary and secondary schools aren’t the only ones embracing eco-friendly, biophilic design. Colleges and universities are also seeing the benefits of incorporating such features.

R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts is a firsthand expression of this liberal arts school’s emphasis on connecting with the natural environment. The college is one of the few post-secondary institutions with a working, sustainably managed farm—a program that provides campus and community members with local, sustainably-raised produce and meat.

The center itself minimizes its carbon footprint as a net-zero building (water, energy and waste), earning the distinction of the largest Living Building Certified higher-education project in the world.

Its use of natural materials includes a half-dozen wood species, such as black spruce for the glulam; ash and birch for the doors; salvaged red oak for the flooring and monumental stair; pine for the ceiling; and cedar for the exterior. Much of the wood and building systems are left exposed and the central floor-to-ceiling glass pavilion maintains a connection to the outdoors and serves as a hub of campus activity. The center’s light-filled atrium has become a popular gathering place; professors hold office hours at the coffee bar and students toil on their laptops for hours in the café.

As David Fell, research leader at FPInnovations observes, “in the early 1990s we focused on improving a building’s environmental performance, be we weren’t necessarily always focused on improving the health of its occupants. These days the conversation has also turned to the health of the occupants, and wood has a really good story to tell.”

On the opposite coast, 3000 miles west, the University of British Columbia is proving itself to be a vanguard of sustainable design. As one of Canada’s largest universities, it has set out an ambitious green building action plan that will make net positive contributions to human and natural systems by 2035. Biophilic design is intertwined into almost any new building located on the main campus that is surrounded by natural woodlands and rich vegetation.

This include UBC’s first green building, the C.K. Choi Building, that set benchmarks worldwide when it opened in 1996, a decade before biophilic design principles went mainstream. Its timber structure, built of salvaged Douglas-fir, accommodates double-height windows that provide an abundance of natural light and views to the adjacent forest.

Another early example of biophilic design is the Forest Sciences Centre. Built over twenty years ago, with its soaring timber-framed atrium and tree-like wood columns supporting a massive skylight—it is the closest thing you’ll find to an indoor forest canopy. David Fell, research leader at FPInnovations, sees it as “the ultimate relaxed environment where people come from all over campus to study.” In fact, it was this observation that led to his 2010 study to investigate the health benefits of wood in the built indoor environment. The results suggested that exposed wood can have a positive impact on the stress levels of students.

Cross-Laminated Timber University of British Columbia

FALLING INTO STEP | More and more post-secondary institutions are incorporating biophilic design into their campuses as is the case with UBC’s gravity-defying cantilevered cross-laminated timber staircase in its Earth Sciences Building. (Courtesy Perkins & Will | Photographer: Martin Tessler)

Since that time, UBC has gone on to construct a growing number of green buildings, including 31 that achieved LEED Gold or higher. Among these are the impressive Earth Science Building with its gravity-defying cantilevered CLT staircase, the precedent-setting 18-story Brock Commons Tall Wood House, and the Campus Energy Centre that provides occupants with the aesthetic warmth of mass timber and generous views to nature, something unique to an industrial building of this kind.

This growing roster of buildings signifies a trend in which green building and biophilic design have merged—something more and more schools are taking advantage of.

[1] Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship, Frontiers in Psychology, February 2019, p.2,

[2] Impact of views to school landscapes on recovery from stress and mental fatigue. Landsc. Urban Plan, 2016, abtract,

[3] Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship, Frontiers in Psychology, February 2019, p.2,

[4] Strain On Military Families Affects Young Children, Report Says, Washington Post, July 22, 2013,

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