Places that Work: U.S. Botanic Gardens

The United States Botanic Garden in Washington DC is a place that works because the greenhouses there stimulate all our senses.

Transmitting experiences of a place through several senses is a central tenet of biophilic design. And at the Botanic Garden these pleasant experiences are due to much more than presence of plants. In fact, some of our best hospital rooms, workplaces, and other spaces are biophilicly designed, without including a single plant – although it’s always a great idea to include a few of them in any room. After all, research has linked leafy green vegetation has to creative thinking.

IMG_0074Stepping into the Botanic Gardens’ greenhouse on a cool day is an intense experience.  The plants are visually powerful. Their colors, lines, shapes, and textures are varied and dramatic. What is most noticeable on a winter’s day is the scent; some plants smell “green” like springtime vegetation while others emit intoxicating odors, the sort you’d imagine finding in the perfume factory equivalent of Willy Wonka’s. The air feels humid, creating tactile experience and a warm feeling.

While much of today’s design focuses on creating visual experiences, these perfectly photogenic places ignore the fact that we are hearing, touching, and smelling beings. Practitioners of biophilic design consider those non-visual sensory experiences as they ask: What does the floor feel like through our shoes?  What’s the soundscape like? Does it emit jarring echoes?  Or do you hear water moving through a fountain, a burbling white noise reminiscent of a pleasant day in a meadow? Or are you hearing the sound of rushing air that brings thoughts of tornadoes and hurricanes to mind?  Is the air scented with the aromas of natural materials or subtle odors or with stale cooking smells from the cafeteria?

Biophilicly designing for our multiple senses doesn’t require designing a greenhouse. We just need to remember the totality of the human experience: We need more than just to see a space.

Sally Augustin, PhD, is a principal at Design with Science . She is also the editor of Research Design Connections and the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley, 2009). She can be reached at

This post is part of a series of Places that Work.