Biophilic Design: What is it and How Does it Work?


There might have been increasing talk about biophilic designs in the recent years – a topic made more prominent due to the pandemic’s effects and sustainable building movements. 

But, what is biophilic design?

The biophilic concept is an approach in architecture and design that aims to increase the connection of building occupants to the natural environment. Through elements like natural lighting, ventilation, natural landscapes and space conditions, the building serves as the bridge allowing people to connect with nature while indoors. 

Biophilia means the ‘love of nature’. 

Given the evolution of men and our adaptive response to the natural world, we have this tendency and subconscious inclination to seek connections with nature. After all, the natural elements of the earth have supported human life in the past. 

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than one seeks.” – John Muir, 1877

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How and when did it start?

The term – ‘biophilia’ – was first coined by Erich Fromm, a social psychologist who observed the rapidly increasing disconnect of humans to nature due to urbanization. In his book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), he states that biophilia is the “passionate love of life and of all that is alive…whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group”.

It stands on the foundation of environmental psychology.

The beginnings of the idea revolved around a link between biology and psychology and the desired connection with nature. How men are predisposed to find a connection with natural sceneries despite limitations brought about by urbanization. 

As such, the biophilic design concept allows humans to reconnect with nature in this built environment, and improve health and well-being while urban progress continues. Biophilia shows how design can draw actual elements from the natural world to promote human health and productivity.

A study from Roger Ulrich called ‘View Through a Window may Influence Recovery from Surgery’ showed the difference between recovery rates of patients who had a view to nature compared to those who did not. This established the power of having a connection with nature, no matter how small. 

“Only as far as the masters of the world have called in nature to their aid, can they reach the height of magnificence. This is the meaning of their hanging-gardens, villas, garden-houses, islands, parks, and preserves.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Additionally, it addresses the rising concerns of environmental issues and climate change that plague the world today because of increasing cement and concrete.  

The green building movement, which emerged in the 1990s, further propelled the importance of this concept while adding a new, broader impact – financial gains from increased employee health and well-being, and therefore, productivity. 

In the early 2000s, biophilia translated to a concept in architecture and design. The pioneer who articulated this principle was Stephen R. Kellert – recipient of the Biophilic Award Design in honor of his legacy for this globally recognized and highly important practice. 

Stephen R. Kellert, along with co-authors, Judith Heerwagen and Martin Mador, wrote a book titled: Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. It championed the principles and mechanisms of the biophilic design concept which engendered its benefits and more widespread practice and acceptance. 

In the past decade, there is an evident rise on the connection and interaction between architecture and psychology. Biophilia is now part of the green building design standards given its contribution to the quality of the indoor environment. 

Consequently, this evoked practical and creative solutions from the architectural and design communities. Today, many strive to achieve that harmonious relationship with the natural world in this hard, built environment. 

“When nature inspires our architecture – not just how it looks but how buildings and communities actually function – we will have made great strides as a society.” – Rick Fedrizzi, president, CEO and founding chairman of the U.S. Green Building Council.

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Interestingly, another trigger leading to widespread practice of the biophilic concept is the zoo. Zookeepers observed that animals in cages manifested erratic, angry and dissociative behaviors making them unfit and unable to interact with other animals. 

In simple words, the animals were angry, frustrated and depressed when forced to live in concrete cages, far removed from their natural habitat. 

“We outlawed the old zoos and replaced them with exquisite reproductions of natural animal environments, but we keep humans in inhumane environments We give them a computer with a nice screen saver and maybe a poster of a potted plant, and if it’s energy efficient, we call it ‘Gold.’” – Stephen R. Kellert

Biophilic design means our environment should still flow fluidly along and within the natural world to enhance physical and mental wellbeing.

How, then, do you carry out biophilic design? What are its principles?

While not the most direct approach to architecture and design, there are still numerous examples around the world that successfully carry this out. 

Here are the six guiding principles to achieve true biophilic design:

1. Environmental features

Direct contact with greenery is the most straightforward and widely used method of foster that human-and-nature connection. 

In both interiors and exteriors, this is adhered to through with the presence of indoor vegetation, water features, outdoor gardens, green walls, etc. On top of that, natural materials such as wood and stone add to the overall natural feel. 

As one of the most successful biophilic design strategies, nature-filled space indoors is usually the first step to achieve biophilia. The feeling of relaxation and respite in these green environments and blue spaces are known to reduce stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate, enhance mood and calm and prompt healing.  

New York Times Building using the biophilic design concept

Photo source: Architect Magazine | The birch tree and moss garden in the New York Times Building is a space carved out of the center of the structure that serves as a visual connection to nature and for building occupants to witness its transformations in the changing of the seasons. 

2. Natural shapes and forms

Natural environments are complex spaces with varying elements and patterns. While the presence of real plants and natural elements are best in achieving psychological benefits, mimicking nature’s shapes and forms also have some positive impact. 

We are attuned to nature having diverse forms and utilizing these biomorphic patterns also feeds our needs. The richness and vividness of these details provide a level of comfort and delight to our mind and body. 

These natural shapes and forms include botanical and animal forms like trees, leaf, foliage, insects, and other species. In design, ornamentation and structures suggestive of a natural shape like wings, tree columns, building facades or walls that follow organic shapes also achieve the biophilic effect. 

Jewel Changi airport in Singapore following the biophilic design concept

Photo courtesy of: Jewel Changi Airport Development | Animal-shaped topiary line a walk on the Canopy Park level

Jewel Changi airport in Singapore following the biophilic design concept

Photo courtesy of: Jewel Changi Airport Development | An art installation by Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot hangs in Jewel Changi Airport and features 16 “clouds” that reflect weather patterns with dynamic lighting sequences

3. Interaction through multi-sensory stimuli

According to Stephen R. Kellert, the evolution and survival of men have always required the management of a highly variable natural environment.

This follows a similar vein as the previous point. It means responding to uncontrolled and diverse situations, functions and structures (like in the natural world) using innate sensory systems of sight, sound, smell and touch. 

Thus, a multi-sensory space most effectively incorporates the biophilic design concept. 

Seeing greenery around us is good, but being able to smell the flowers or hear the flow of water is even better. Finding opportunities to interact with our sensory systems in and around the built environment is essential to stimulate organic growth. 

Additionally, if the diverse characteristics of the natural world are present in the design of a space, then we break away from the predictable realm of the built environment and experience non-rhythmic stimuli. This refers to random elements of nature like rustling leaves, chirping birds, flowing water, wind flow, etc.  

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Rich biodiversity enveloping visitors at the Jewel Changi Airport on different levels with the highest indoor waterfall as the focal point – spreading sounds of water throughout the entire space and sometimes even feeling the water on your skin when you go near enough

The Dockside Green Community in Vancouver Island in Canada following the biophilic design concept

Photo source: Terrapin Bright Green | The Dockside Green Community on Vancouver Island, in Canada allows people to have ephemeral experiences of swaying grasses, flowing water, buzzing insects in its efforts for habitat restoration and rainwater management

4. Light and space

Incorporating a generous amount of spatial and lighting features gives the impression of being in a natural setting. Maximizing natural light not only does people good but also saves energy. However, for biophilic design, lighting is not limited to the diffused amount but also relates to temporal changes.

In any space, when natural light is present, we become more attuned to our circadian rhythm by allowing us to better connect and respond to outdoor natural environments. Then, with this, we can better keep track of our natural 24-hour daily cycle. 

Similarly, increased space, such as open-space layouts, or very tall atriums, allows extended exposure and sustained engagement to natural elements. 

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The World Trade Center Oculus in New York City. The iconic central space allows sunlight to make its way across the Oculus floor

5. Place-based relationships

Biophilic design does not stop with just the structure. Instead, it looks to integrate design interventions that connect the overall space with its geographical setting.

Allowing inhabitants to identify distinctive biogeographical and cultural characteristics gives way to emotional attachments that may motivate positive thoughts and performance. 

To achieve this, one must draw inspiration from the unique elements and designs seen from that area such as its local topography and landscape, indigeniuos materials or historical traditions. Sometimes, giving access, either visual or experiential, to existing natural systems will be easier to carry out. 

This technique of biophilic design fosters a relationship between people, the setting and the environment and makes it an interconnected whole instead of an isolated space.  
The Te Kura Whare - located in Tūhoe, Tāneatua, New Zealand which follows the biophilic design concept

Photo source: ThisNZLife | This is the Te Kura Whare – located in Tūhoe, Tāneatua, New Zealand – created as part of an effort to restore the relationship between the Tūhoe people, their culture and the land. As a Living Certified Building, all natural elements and materials were used from their ancestral lands to create this protective space for gatherings and other events. 

The changing landscape outside an office space gives the biophilic design effect to its onlookers

Photo source: Terrapin Bright Green | A green roof that dramatically changes colors throughout the year, following the seasons, sits outside the New York penthouse office of COOKFOK Architects giving its occupants a visual connection with nature and local activity

6. Perception of protection and prospect

The power of space and design to provide a sense of retreat and withdrawal is an important consideration for restoration and relaxation. In this quiet spot, people look for that perceived feeling of security and protection. 

In terms of feeling safe, an enveloping space that can protect its inhabitants is more important than the size of the space.

An area that provides protection from or for conditions like: privacy, medication, reading, or simply, alone time. Protection is achieved usually by being covered above and behind, removing all the blind spots. 

It is a small part of a larger space – a small corner that is embracing but not necessarily disengaging from the bigger whole. 
Giving prospect in a small seating area seen in a simple student hostel

Photo source: Shepley Bulfinch | A student housing space where a resident finds a small place of refuge while still feeling connected to the larger space, a simple high back chair can give perceived safety and improve concentration and attention

Protection given to those who rest as they walk along the Henderson Waves Bridge in Singapore

Photo source: Archello | The protected seating alcoves along the Henderson Waves Bridge in Singapore provides a sense of refuge and protection from natural elements and the activities along the open area of the bridge

On top of protection, being in nature evokes innate feelings of possibility and growth. This refers to the principle of ‘prospect’ – the concept of providing unimpeded views that feels open and freeing while still safe and protected. 

This can be achieved indoors and outdoors either through an elevated position, very high ceilings or atriums, placing stairwells at building perimeters with glass facades – as long as there is an expansive, ideally uninterrupted view to see. When it comes to dense urban spaces, this can refer to the opportunity of seeing multiple spaces in one gaze. 

Space and design that provide a combination of security and opportunity are suggested to include health benefits like reduced stress, boredom, irritation and fatigue, and in turn, increase creativity and imagination. 

The central courtyard of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California fully exemplifies the idea of ‘prospect’

Photo source: Terrapin Bright Green: Designed by Louis Kahn, the central courtyard of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California fully exemplifies the idea of ‘prospect’ as one can gaze endlessly out towards the Pacific Ocean 

Biophilic concept may not be the most straightforward approach to architecture and design because of its very intentional, yet sometimes hidden, principles. But, as long as the modern environment continues to evolve and develop so will the desire of people to be affiliated and connected to nature deepen.

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Molly @ Transatlantic Notes August 4, 2021 - 11:43 pm

I really like this kind of architectural design. It’s definitely becoming more prominent as the world (hopefully) turns to thinking about how buildings impact the natural world. I think, if it’s done well, it can be something so innovative and beautiful. Thanks for sharing!

cubicoon August 5, 2021 - 10:18 pm

100%. I agree completely. I get excited whenever I read and write about biophilic and green architecture and design. It’s the evolving relationship of nature, concrete and people and likewise, I cannot wait to see more of it around the world. Really happy to read your comment, thank you!!

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