Biophilia and Biophilic Design: 10 Tips and 4 Inspiring Examples

March 1, 2024

This meeting room's biophilic design emphasizes lush greenery, natural materials like wood, and organic shapes and curves.

Contents:

 

Intro to Biophilia and Biophilic Design

 

Do you experience a certain sense of calm when you’re surrounded by nature? Do you feel rejuvenated after a walk outside? This can be explained by a concept known as biophilia, or the biophilia hypothesis. Essentially, humans have an innate biological and genetic connection to nature and other living things, including an emotional dimension to this connection. People generally respond positively to natural aspects of the environment, such as foliage, flowers, moving water, sunlight, and organic shapes and colors. Think about your reaction to a crackling bonfire, a babbling brook, or crashing waves. These things captivate our attention and soothe something deep inside of us; that is biophilia. 

Today’s world is primarily composed of the built environment: man-made structures, features, and facilities viewed collectively as an environment in which people live and work. But for the majority of our time on this planet, humans have evolved in response to the natural world, not to human created or artificial forces. Biophilic design seeks to satisfy our innate need to connect with nature in conjunction with our modern buildings and cities. 

The fundamental goal of biophilic design is to bring into the built environment those aspects of the natural world that have contributed to human productivity and our mental, emotional, and physical health. This is in contrast with the development of the contemporary built environment, which degrades natural systems and isolates its occupants from the natural environment. 

 

The History and Evidence of Biophilia

 

A group of people sitting and looking out over a lake and distant mountains at sunset

 

The word “biophilia” means “love of life” from the Greek words “bio” (life) and “philia” (love). It was first introduced by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in his 1973 book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. He described it as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive…whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group.” 

The term was later used by biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson in his work Biophilia (1984), which proposed that the tendency of humans to focus on and affiliate emotionally with nature and other living things has a genetic basis. Wilson is known for developing the field of sociobiology: a field of biology that aims to explain social behavior in terms of evolution. In Biophilia, he argues that our natural affinity for life – biophilia – is the very essence of our humanity and binds us to all other living species. 

As mentioned previously, our species evolved in adaptive response to the natural world, rather than man-made creations. A 1986 study conducted by psychologist Arne Öhman illustrated humans’ inherent inclination to respond to natural forces and stimuli. In this study, subjects were subliminally exposed to pictures of snakes, spiders, frayed electrical wires, and handguns. Almost all of the study participants aversively responded to the subconsciously revealed images of snakes and spiders, but remained largely indifferent to the handguns and wires. 

These findings reveal the continuing influence of our evolved responses to nature. Since that study, a growing body of scientific research suggests that our inherent tendencies to affiliate with nature continue to have significant effects on people’s physical and mental health, performance, and well-being. 

The breadth of findings across a wide range of sectors – work, education, health, recreation, housing, community – support the contention that nature still has a profound impact on human fitness and quality of life. For example, in the healthcare field, a wide range of studies have reported exposure to nature can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, provide pain relief, improve illness recovery, accelerate healing, improve memory, and enhance staff morale and performance

 

History of Biophilic Design

 

Falling Water is an iconic example of biophilic design
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater

 

The interrelation of nature and architecture has a long history in cultures around the world. Classic examples include the garden courtyards of the Alhambra in Spain, porcelain fish bowls in ancient China, the aviary in Teotihuacan (ancient Mexico city), bonsai in Japanese homes, papyrus ponds in the homes of Egyptian nobles, or the legendary hanging gardens of Babylon. 

Ten Books on Architecture by the Roman architect and military engineer Vitruvius is the most complete treatise on the subject of architecture to survive from antiquity, estimated to have been written between 30-20 BC. In it, he discusses the necessity to respond to climate and environment in construction and design. 

This text influenced much of the classical architecture of the Renaissance, which frequently included picturesque gardens meticulously designed to complement the buildings themselves. Architects drew inspiration from natural forms, such as the curves of a seashell, shapes of leaves and flowers, patterns of branches against the sky, etc. for their designs. 

Artists and designers of the Victorian era, such as English painter and art critic John Ruskin, pushed back against what they saw as the dehumanizing experience of industrial cities. They argued for objects and buildings that drew from nature for inspiration. 

In the 20th century, design responses to the environment were explored by a few influential architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Miles Van Der Roche, and Louis Kahn. These visionaries laid the groundwork for the formative phases of a green movement in architecture. 

In the 1960s, increasing awareness of the anthropogenic impact on the environment led to an environmental awakening. Concerns about pollution, resource depletion, and habitat destruction led to a shift in societal values, one that questioned the impact of modern industrial practices on the natural world. 

Scottish landscape architect and writer Ian McHarg was one of the most influential people in the environmental movement, bringing ecological planning methods into the mainstream of landscape architecture, city planning, and public policy. He created the basic rules for green architecture in his seminal book Design with Nature (1969). 

In the introductory chapter of Design with Nature, McHarg wrote: 

“Let us abandon the self-mutilation which has been our way and give expression to the potential harmony of man-nature … Man is that uniquely conscious creature who can perceive and express. He must become the steward of the biosphere. To do this, he must design with nature.”

Alongside Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Design With Nature helped activists translate the energy of the 1960s into a string of political victories in the 1970s, including: the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. 

By the mid-1980s and continuing through the ‘90s, the number of environmental advocacy organizations rapidly increased. For architects, builders, and designers, a significant milestone was the founding of the US Green Building Council and the formulation of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system. This marked the formalization of the green building movement. 

 

Key Principles of Biophilic Design

 

In a wide, bright, natural wood dining pavilion, lighting mimics sunlight through leaves for the benefits of biophilia
The Park Pavilion De Hoge Veluwe in the Netherlands

 

 

Key Principles of Biophilic Design: 

  1. Biophilic design focuses on elements of the natural world that, over evolutionary time, have advanced human health, fitness, and wellbeing. 
  2. Biophilic design incorporates nature in a way that is connected, complementary, and integrated within the overall environment. 
  3. Biophilic design encourages ongoing connection between people and their environment, enhancing feelings of relationship, responsibility, and belonging.

Biophilia has to do with the instinctive bond humans feel with nature and other living systems, i.e. human tendencies. Therefore, biophilic design focuses on the elements of the natural world that, over evolutionary time, have contributed to our health and wellbeing. For this reason, deep-sea habitats, microorganisms, extinct species, or other obscure aspects of nature are largely irrelevant as aspects of biophilic design. These offer little, if anything, in the way of sustained benefits to people. 

Another key principle of biophilic design is its consistency and thoroughness. A single or isolated occurrence of nature in a design does not make it biophilic. Ecosystems are made up of complex webs of connection between organisms and their environment; habitats composed of disconnected and unrelated elements do not support those connections that allow constituents to thrive.

 A biophilic design is grounded in nature – natural elements form the core of the design, rather than final flourishes that are at odds with the more dominant characteristics of the setting. An effective biophilic design incorporates nature in a way that is connected, complementary, and integrated within the overall environment, rather than being isolated, fleeting, or out of place. 

Biophilic design also emphasizes continuously engaging with and repeated contact with nature. Although we may have biophilia, that innate instinct to connect with nature, for this contact to be influential, it must be nurtured through repeated and reinforcing experience. An effective biophilic design fosters positive and sustained interactions and relationships among people and the natural environment. 

Humans are a very social species; we feel secure and are more productive when we have positive interactions with each other and with nature in the spaces we inhabit. Biophilic design encourages connections between people and their environment, enhancing feelings of relationship, responsibility, and belonging. 

 

Benefits of Biophilic Design

 

A sunny, brightly lit office space with natural wood floors and shelves upon shelves of plants
Photo courtesy of Nadav Havakook

 

There are a wealth of benefits associated with biophilic design. A study by the University of Technology in Sydney revealed that stress was significantly reduced when companies added plants to the workspace. Below is a summary of the findings:

  • 37% drop in anxiety and tension
  • 58% decrease in depression/dejection
  • 44% reduction in anger/hostility
  • 38% decrease in fatigue

These findings are unsurprising, considering much of the research into biophilia shows that exposure to nature enables more rapid recovery of both emotions and stress from a negative perturbation. 

Additionally, biophilic design can improve productivity. According to a global study, workspaces that incorporate natural elements have a 6% higher productivity than employees whose offices don’t include natural elements. 

The study also revealed that workers entering environments with natural greenery are much happier and inspired than those who do not have greenery in their workplace. These findings are consistent with other research showing that the presence of greenery in the workplace can boost creativity anywhere between 15% to 45%

Incorporating biophilic design also makes a workplace more attractive to job candidates. Office design is so important to workers that a third of global respondents stated it would unequivocally affect their decision whether or not to work somewhere. 

Beyond the workplace, biophilic design on a city-wide scale can have far-reaching positive effects. In Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-Being, and Sustainability, the authors illustrate how biophilic cities have higher levels of social connectivity and better capability to handle life crises, which results in lower crime rate levels of violence and aggression. 

There is also an economic side to the benefits of biophilia and biophilic design. In Biophilic architecture: a review of the rationale and outcomes, Peter Newman found that by adding biophilic design and landscapes, cities like New York City can see savings nearing $470 million due to increased worker productivity and $1.7 billion from reduced crime expenses.

Biophilic design has been, in the past, often regarded as a luxury for property owners who want the best possible workplace for their employees, or who want to showcase their efforts to be more environmentally responsible. However, the reality is that improving community well-being through biophilia and biophilic design can also improve productivity costs and the bottom line. 

As organizations aim to maximize efficiency while minimizing costs, worker productivity tends to be undervalued, because the benefits are not always immediately apparent, whereas cost reduction strategies are directly identifiable. An investment in employee workspace seems less fruitful than an investment in technology upgrades, where the rates of return are calculable.

However, according to The Economics of Biophilia, industries spanning a variety of sectors – from hospitals to corporate offices – spend, on average, 112 times the amount of money on people as on energy costs in the workplace. This statistic makes it clear that the smartest economic investment is one in employees, their productivity, and overall well-being. 

The Economics of Biophlia emphasizes this point by revealing that integrating views to nature into an office space can save over $2,000 per employee per year in office costs, and over $93 million could be saved annually in healthcare costs as a result of providing patients with views to nature.

 

Dimensions of Biophilic Design

 

A warmly lit room with plants, arching wooden walls, and an open stairway leading to a glass wall looking out into a garden for the benefits of biophilia
The Heatherwick Studio-designed Maggie’s Leeds Centre. Photo courtesy of hospitalitydesign.com

 

Three pillar concepts flesh out the dimensions of biophilic design. These are: 

  • Nature in the Space
  • Natural Analogues 
  • Experience of Space and Place 

Nature in the Space addresses the direct, physical and ephemeral presence of nature in a space or place. This includes plant life, water and animals, as well as breezes, sounds, scents and other natural elements.

Examples include indoor greenery, decorative water features, bird feeders, aquariums, and gardens, as well as views of nature from the inside of a building. The popularity of courtyards in traditional architecture is a good indicator of our early attraction to incorporating nature directly into our built environment. 

As summarized in the white paper 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, by New York-based sustainability consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green, Nature in the Space encompasses seven biophilic design patterns:

  1. Visual Connection with Nature: A view to elements of nature, living systems and natural processes. 
  2. Non-Visual Connection with Nature: Auditory, haptic, olfactory, or gustatory stimuli that engender a deliberate and positive reference to nature, living systems or natural processes. 
  3. Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli: Stochastic and ephemeral connections with nature that may be analyzed statistically but may not be predicted precisely. 
  4. Thermal & Airflow Variability: Subtle changes in air temperature, relative humidity, airflow across the skin, and surface temperatures that mimic natural environments. 
  5. Presence of Water: A condition that enhances the experience of a place through seeing, hearing or touching water. 
  6. Dynamic & Diffuse Light: Leverages varying intensities of light and shadow that change over time to create conditions that occur in nature. 
  7. Connection with Natural Systems: Awareness of natural processes, especially seasonal and temporal changes characteristic of a healthy ecosystem.

Natural Analogues, which is the indirect experience of nature, refers to those elements that are one degree of separation away from true nature. Natural analogues are materials, shapes, and patterns that evoke the natural world. They are characterized by four broad types: 

  1. Representational artwork
  2. Ornamentation
  3. Biomorphic forms
  4. Use of natural materials

Pictures of trees and water, building elements that mimic shells and leaves, furniture with organic rather than geometric shapes, and visible wood grain fall under the umbrella of natural analogues.

The Experience of Space and Place refers to the way humans respond to different spatial configurations. This dimension harkens back to our biological evolution, thousands of years ago in the savannas of Africa. Our species’ existence among low-growing grasses, clusters of shade trees, and broad vistas has resulted in a long-lasting affinity for similar landscapes in indoor and outdoor environments. 

Physiological research indicates that our bodies react most positively to savanna-like settings with moderate to high depth and openness. Our courtyards are not packed with dense forestry or barren desertscapes; instead, they have open spaces layered with clusters of trees and vegetation, emphasizing visual depth and biodiversity.  

 

The Importance of Biophilic Design Today

 

Graph showing the increase in population living in urban areas
Graph courtesy of OurWorldInData.org

 

Globally, it is clear that people are moving away from rural areas to towns and cities. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, two out of every three people are likely to be living in cities or other urban centers.  

In an online survey of 7,600 office workers from 16 countries across a variety of roles and sectors, only 42% reported having live plants in the office and 47% reported having no natural light in their office. Almost a fifth of the respondents reported that there are no natural elements present at all in their workspaces. 

Knowing what we know about biophilia and the importance of exposure and engagement with nature, it is imperative that we do better to incorporate the natural environment into the built environment. 

Additionally, keeping future generations interested and engaged with nature could be key to thriving conservation efforts and protecting our wildlife and wild spaces in years to come. If we want to raise responsible stewards of our planet to ensure its continued existence for generations to come, we can’t afford to disconnect ourselves and our children from the natural world. 

We are facing an environmental and sustainability crisis, reflected in enormous loss of biodiversity, natural resource depletion, environmental pollution, and atmospheric degradation. The traditional design of the built environment has greatly contributed to this crisis. Our response has been focused on reducing our environmental impacts through energy and resource efficiency, the use of less polluting materials, recycling, use of natural energy, and other important methods. 

Yet this low environmental impact approach, while essential, is not enough by itself. Conserving and maintaining our environment means radically changing the nature of our built environment to incorporate conservation and preservation of the wild into it. 

 

10 Tips for Getting Started with Biophilic Design

 

1. Embrace Natural Lighting

 

Maximize the amount of natural light in the space. Windows and skylights let natural light in, and mirrors can be used to reflect this light around the space. When using artificial lighting, prioritize high quality, full-spectrum LED lights that mimic natural light. Additionally, incorporate lighting that mimics or emulates the contours, patterns, textures, and materials of nature. 

There are a variety of color temperatures available, ranging from 4000K to 6500K or higher. 4000K is closer to the warmer feel of natural sunshine; think of the early-morning or late-afternoon light that comes in through a south-facing window. 5000K and higher color temperatures are more aligned with natural daylight, like the more neutral, white light that comes from a north-facing window on an overcast day. 

There are also now circadian lighting options available on the market. These lights change their color temperature and brightness to mimic the sun’s path throughout the day. 

Candles bring the natural element of fire into our spaces. From an evolutionary perspective, fire  played a critical role in humanity’s development. In fact, Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, considered fire to be on a par with tools, language, our social habits, and tool use in terms of its contribution to the development of modern humans. It broadened our diet, protected us from danger, kept us warm (allowing for migration away from the equator), and allowed for technological advancements. Candles are an easy way to bring this crucial element into our environment, as well as adding natural, ambient lighting to our spaces. 

 

2. Incorporate Greenery

 

We’ve already discussed the many benefits of incorporating greenery into the built environment. When we bring plants into our spaces, we add beauty and direct points of connection with nature, as well as improving our indoor air quality by raising oxygen levels and purifying the air. 

Plants can absorb airborne molecules and restore the ecological balance in the air. They can also purify the air from pollutants such as carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds (VOC), particulate matter, and toxic chemicals like formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene. 

In the areas surrounding our buildings, we can enhance their biophilic benefit by landscaping and planting strategically. Trees and shrubs add varying heights and textures to the landscape, and having a variety of flowering plants adds beauty and biodiversity to the area. 

 

3. Bring In Visuals of Nature

 

Studies have shown that even representations of nature can have a biophilic benefit. To that end, incorporating posters/photos of nature and landscapes into the design of a space can add to overall biophilic design. Same thing with artificial plants – they don’t have the same air purifying properties as real ones, but have similar effects on mood and productivity from their visual impact alone. 

Additionally, artwork alone can boost workplace productivity, well-being, and collaboration. A new research study found that for 69% of participants, having “interesting and visually striking art” at the workplace contributes to their well-being. Hanging artwork depicting landscapes and the natural world is a powerful way to strengthen biophilic design and overall workplace satisfaction. 

 

4. Gravitate Towards Organic Shapes

 

Soft curves, abstract and rough forms, and asymmetry mimic the beautiful imperfections of nature. Keep this in mind when planning a room’s layout, when selecting furniture, and choosing upholstery and decor. Nature abhors right angles and straight lines; there are a variety of numerical arrangements, such as the Golden Angle, the Fibonacci sequence, and the Golden Ratio, that persist in nature you can implement instead. 

 

5. Consider Adding Water Elements

 

The sound of moving water has been proved to be soothing and to decrease stress levels. Adding an indoor fountain, water wall, small aquarium, or even playing recorded sounds of rain, running water, or crashing waves can add to a relaxing and rejuvenating ambiance. 

Research has actually shown that exposure to nature sounds, when compared to urban or office noise, accelerates physiological and psychological restoration up to 37% faster after a psychological stressor and reduces mental fatigue and increases motivation.  

 

6. Organize Opportunities To Interact with Nature

 

Two red chairs next to a window looking out at two beehives

 

Biophilic design emphasizes forming a connection with your natural environment and creating a sense of belonging to a place. Offering opportunities to interact with nature plays an important part in this. Placing bird feeders by windows, installing honey bee hives outside, organizing walks, hikes, picnics, and more can all be great strategies to encourage engagement with nature. 

 

7. Bring Scents of Nature Inside

 

Smell contributes to our non-visual connection to nature. With essential oil diffusers, incense, or candles, you can connect to the natural world through olfactive elements. In a workplace, we do suggest asking employees if they have any allergies prior to using essential oils. 

 

8. Use Natural Materials

 

Fill your environment with textures, shapes, and materials found in nature. Use materials such as wood, stone, clay, cork, or bamboo to bring natural elements indoors. When using these materials, use them in their natural states. For example, we are drawn to the natural texture of wood; we like to see the grain pattern, surface color, and features such as knots and whorls. 

Many of these materials also have an added advantage of aiding in energy conservation. Wood, cork, and clay, for example, are better thermoregulators than concrete, metal, and glass. These materials are also good sound insulators, which help to keep indoor noise at comfortable levels. This helps to lower anxiety, stress, and distraction. 

Natural materials, such as wood, copper, or leather, also mature and change over time, acquiring a patina. So, beyond just incorporating physical natural elements, you also incorporate natural patterns and processes into the built environment. This is one of the seven biophilic design patterns of the ‘Nature in the Space’ pillar. 

 

9. Follow Nature’s Color Palette 

 

A vast array of colors occur in nature. However, there are three main categories that dominate the natural world: blues, greens, and browns. Using these color palettes in the built environment grounds it in the natural world and is an essential element of biophilic design. 

Different color palettes will evoke different atmospheres. For example, a color palette evokes wood, rich earth, and terracotta will feel warm and cozy, whereas a color palette of a clear winter sky, overcast clouds, or sea foam will feel more soothing and calm. 

After blue, green is the second most prevalent color in the natural world. We’re predisposed to like the natural greens associated with plant life, so exposure to green spaces lifts our mood and sense of wellbeing. 

 

10. Purposeful Space Layout

 

When designing a space, keep our biophilic tendencies in mind. We are evolutionarily inclined to desire a refuge in our environment – a smaller portion of a larger space that provides a sense of retreat and withdrawal. 

 

4 Examples of Buildings with Biophilic Design

 

Barbican Centre: London, UK

 

Interior of Barbican Centre, displaying biophilia and biophilia design with water features, natural materials, and greenery

 

Opened in the 1980s as an estate in London, the Barbican Centre is one of the earliest and most famous examples of biophilic architecture. 

 

Apple Park: California, USA

 

Aerial shot of Apple headquarters, a feat of biophilic design as the building wraps around a wildlife and nature preserve

 

Apple’s headquarters in California has been praised for its design and incorporation of nature. It’s surrounded by a forest of around 9,000 trees and, with a hollowed-out center full of wildlife, provides employees with a space for well-being and a connection with nature.

 

Bosco Verticale: Milan, Italy

 

Biophilia and biophilic design displayed by this building's balconies overflowing with trees, shrubs, and native plants

 

Another famous landmark of both biophilia and sustainability, the Bosco Verticale was designed to combat urban sprawl and reduce expansion. Covered by 20,000 plants (which all help to convert carbon, absorb CO2 and dust, and improve air quality), it’s one of the most recognizable and widely-cited images of sustainable construction.

 

1 Hotel Nashville: Tennessee, USA

 

Exterior of the hotel covered in ivy, part of the hotel's biophilic design
Photo courtesy of Frawley

 

Right in the heart of the city, the 1 Hotel Nashville sits behind an 880-foot curtain of living greenery – 56,000 draped Hedera helix ivy plants. The hotel’s interior design takes inspiration from the range of landmarks and landscapes found just outside the city, incorporating reclaimed wood, water-worn boulders, and various homages to the area’s history and local culture.

 

Biophilic Benefits of Bees

 

Studies have shown exposure to dynamic nature, such as moving water, swaying trees, or wildlife activity, elicits the most positive physiological response. Movement in nature evokes associations across all human senses, rather than just visual stimulation. 

Watching bees buzzing around flowers or flying in and out of their hive can have a calming effect on the viewer, and also serve as a reminder of the connectivity of nature. The flowers provide the bees with pollen and nectar, and the bees pollinate the flowers, allowing them to reproduce and thrive. Having beehives on a property serves as a tangible, direct point of contact for inhabitants with nature’s processes. 

Additionally, we have an innate instinct to care for wildlife and to connect with other living creatures. When a property has bees, the people who share that space often feel affection and a sense of responsibility for their bees! That affection can inspire themed events, continuing environmental education, and pollinator advocacy. Several of our corporate clients have ceremonies for naming their queen bees; some of our residential clients have taken it upon themselves to organize community gardens for the benefit of their bees. One employee at a corporate client of ours in Boston said, 

“I love to watch the bees go in and out of their hive from my window. Their hard work inspires me to stay focused and productive!”

 

FAQs

 

Q: What does “biophilia” mean? 

A: The word “biophilia” means “love of life” from the Greek words “bio” (life) and “philia” (love).

Q: What is biophilia? 

A:  Humans’ innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.

Q: What is biophilic design? 

A: Biophilic design seeks to satisfy our innate need to connect with nature in conjunction with our modern buildings and cities.

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