Rediscovering biophilic design

I had not given much thought to what an architect was before taking time off between high school and college to travel. As I backpacked through the Australian landscape, the sheer natural beauty of the country, its unique flora and fauna, and the vast expanses of pristine land stood in stark contrast to the developed cityscapes of England where I grew up. When I first set eyes on Sydney Harbour, for the first time in my life I could visualise a place where the natural world and built environment coexist and complement each other.

A few years later, as I traveled through Southeast Asia, I came to discover the unique history, ecology, and culture of each place through its buildings. It struck me that who we are as people has much to do with the intersection and mingling of nature and the human-built environment. This idea fascinated me. I wondered, what if the barriers between the two—between nature and people, between nature and buildings—could be dissolved? What if we felt the same experience walking through a city or a building as we did walking through a forest? This became my passion and my calling. I became an architect with the commitment to connect people and nature through the buildings I designed.

Biophilic design, or the deliberate incorporation of elements from nature into the built environment, is not a new practice. In every part of the world, and for millennia, people have infused architecture with plant and animal motifs, incorporated gardens, ponds, and atria into buildings and “brought the outside in” by keeping plants and animals close.

Examples of biophilic design abound, especially in indigenous architecture. The cedar houses built by Northwest Coast Indians in the Pacific Northwest are replete with compelling stylised images of orcas, ravens, eagles, beavers, and other creatures. The artwork reveals how deeply intertwined these creatures are with the people’s cultural status, identity, and spirituality. Japanese timber-framed structures show a deep reverence for the trees and other materials used in their making. In the modern era, many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s projects exhibit biophilic design, from Samara, which incorporates the winged seed motif in the home’s clerestory windows and elsewhere, to Fallingwater, an exhilarating example of how a building can be integrated with its environment. On a larger scale, the revitalised Western Harbour neighbourhood in Malmö, Sweden, incorporates meandering open water channels, waterfalls, gardens, and courtyards throughout. This green infrastructure not only treats stormwater; it infuses the city with beauty and the soothing presence of still and running water. This development also draws all of its energy from local and renewable sources.

In the modern era, many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s projects exhibit biophilic design, from Samara, which incorporates the winged seed motif in the home’s clerestory windows and elsewhere, to Fallingwater, an exhilarating example of how a building can be integrated with its environment.

There is a reason homes with “million-dollar views” go for a premium, and why most of us request the table next to the window at our favourite restaurant. Similarly, there is a reason we keep plants on our work desks and found natural objects such as shells on our nightstands and fall asleep to the soothing sound of ocean waves, even if that sound emanates from a white noise machine.

The foundations of human psychology rest on our instinctive reactions to the natural world. Our brains are evolutionarily preconditioned to seek out places that provide refuge while enabling us to look about and prospect—to consider what is coming next. We are predisposed to explore and discover nature, and we are physiologically wired to respond to the weather, the seasons and the time of day.

Most of us have experienced buildings that capture the movement of the sun through the sky. These dynamic shadows and pools of light that play across the floor connect us to the time of day, the season, and our sense of our inner biorhythm. There is a lasting and healing power in these moments, and they can serve as touchstones, whenever we need a respite from our busy and sometimes stressful lives.

But all too often, our contemporary buildings do not give us the chance to connect with nature. Buildings with few or no windows, no fresh air, and views of nothing, save a wall or a parking lot, are all too common. Given that we spend 90 percent of our time inside, this means many of us are living the majority of our lives completely cut off from the natural world—in a sense, cut off from a part of ourselves.

If, for as long as we have been building shelters, biophilic design has come naturally to us, how could this happen?

Like all living things, we are limited by our environment, but unlike other creatures, humans have developed technologies that allow us to push beyond our ecological and physiological constraints. Our clothing and shelters enable us to live in extreme climates; our global transportation network lets us enjoy a varied diet drawn from all parts of the world. Since the Industrial Revolution, our technologies have evolved ever more rapidly, and the constraints have all but fallen away. In most contemporary Western cultures, we use our buildings to assert domination over nature and highlight our separation from it. No longer must we rely on natural ventilation
or orient our buildings to capture the sun’s warmth or shade us from its swelter. Abundant and inexpensive energy has allowed us to create our own artificial and perfectly calibrated interior environments. Instead of actively managing these environments by manually opening windows or manipulating shades, we have become passive observers, reliant on systems that automatically control space heating and cooling. Much of the world is moving toward this Western model of overconsumption and constant comfort.

At the same time, a massive and global shift from agrarian to urban lifestyles is happening. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban environments, and the United Nations projects that by 2050 that number will grow to 66 percent. Although cities certainly have their strong points, it is all too easy to push nature aside in these human-built environments, and it becomes more difficult for people to see that they are directly dependent on the natural environment for the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, water, and healthy air.

This growing disconnect has dire consequences. Like any relationship, our bond with the natural world requires nurturing. If we do not attend to it, this relationship can wither and die, leading to indifference or even contempt. We are already seeing the disastrous consequences of this estrangement in habitat destruction, species extinction, and pollution.

Children who do not spend enough time outside are suffering from nature deficit disorder, which is associated with a host of physical, psychological and behavioural problems, including obesity, depression, and attention disorders.

Ironically, the implications of global climate change may, by necessity, urge us away from this destructive path and toward solutions which both consume fewer resources and help restore our connections with the natural world. We are making stepwise progress through more rigorous energy codes and the courageous leadership of many in the sustainable design community, but if we have any hope of meeting the goals established at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris in 2015, we will have to radically change our approach to designing buildings.


Biologist E.O. Wilson published Biophilia in 1984, in which he set forth the hypothesis that the human tendency to affiliate with other living things is encoded in our DNA, along with the hope that it would spur a renewed conservation ethic. Others built upon Wilson’s ideas. Stephen Kellert, whose early work focused on the connections be-tween nature and children’s health and development, collaborated with Wilson on a series of publications and later pioneered the concept of biophilic design in architecture. Since Roger Ulrich published a study on hospital recovery rates being influenced by patients’ contact with nature in 1984, several other studies have shown the link between access to nature and productivity, which can serve as a proxy for health and well-being. Pioneers in the philosophy and practice of biophilic design include Vivian Loftness, who has coordinated research that quantifies the health and productivity benefits of biophilic design, and Judith Heerwagen, who co-edited Biophilic Design with Kellert. Heerwagen coined the term “bio-inspired design” to describe building interiors that draw from nature to the benefit of occupants.

In Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life, Stephen Kellert defines six elements and over seventy mechanisms for engendering a biophilic experience through building design. The Living Building Challenge Standard draws upon Kellert’s work, and project teams must address each of these six biophilic elements to meet the Challenge’s Biophilia Imperative. Others have developed slightly different frameworks; for example, Terrapin Bright Green outlines 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design in order to articulate the relationships among nature, science and the built environment. Bill Browning of Terrapin Bright Green has authored many articles and research reports that articulate the impacts of biophilic design.


Increasingly, green building project teams have attempted to incorporate biophilic design into their projects, but often their efforts amount to adding trees and plants or water features to their buildings. I believe this is because nothing in their training or backgrounds has prepared them for this exercise, and their experience with green building rating systems has trained them to fulfil the minimum requirements of a checklist without thinking past that step. True biophilic design goes much further and deeper, drawing on the intrinsic psychology that is mapped in our brains calling for us to be connected deeply to the natural world.

Although the frameworks developed by Kellert and others are helpful, there is no easy checklist to bring biophilic design into mainstream design practice; the principles do not translate easily into code language. This is because biophilic design is a philosophy that requires a shift in thinking. Though its benefits can be quantified, biophilic design draws as much from intuition and emotion as it does knowledge and formal training. It requires each individual to tap into the instinct that guides them to pay more for a home with a view of a park, the mountains or a lake, or to live on a street lined with trees.

How can we encourage this shift in thinking, one that inspires and instructs creators of buildings to think systematically, and to use biophilic design as the design driver instead of applying it as an afterthought? The long-view answer is that such a shift starts early, with children, at home and in schools, with parents and teachers who help foster the bonds between children and the natural world by encouraging exploration, play, and wonder. Simply spending time in natural landscapes and with plants and animals nurtures the relationship. And the good news is that, in some places, efforts to increase ecological literacy among the younger generation is rising. But what about aspiring architects and designers, and those who are already practicing?

First, those of us in the position to mentor young design professionals must change our approach. We must train architects and designers to think and act systematically and design holistically, and we must help them develop inspirational tools to communicate to building owners and developers the profound and positive impacts of biophilic design on building occupants. Some models and resources already exist. Organizations such as Terrapin Bright Green provide services intended to help restore the connections between people and the environment; for example, biophilic design workshops and charrettes lead design teams through creative thinking sessions, during which participants explore specific biophilic design strategies for improving health and wellness.

Such a collaborative approach is key to propelling these ideas forward.

Equally important for accelerating this shift, we need built examples—projects that demonstrate how biophilic design, when used as the design driver, can positively transform both the design process and the resulting building environment for occupants. We need built examples that intentionally draw from our instinctual connection to nature. We need built examples that demonstrate the positive impacts of biophilic design on energy performance, comfort, health, and productivity.

This post is adapted from the first chapter of: CREATING BIOPHILIC BUILDINGS. An Ecotone Publishing Book 2017

Copyright ©2017 by the International Living Future Institute