Biophilic Design: More Than a Distraction?

When you first started your architecture education, you were no doubt exposed to concepts tying the built and natural environments such as the chambered nautilus, bi-lateral symmetry, golden section, and of course Le Corbusier's Modular Man.  It seemed like cracking the code of nature would give some kind of magical solution to any design problem.  Then you probably forgot all about that stuff as you began a career and had to deal with real program requirements and code constraints.  Nature-inspired design is back, and this time its about more than just proportion or organic shapes a la Bruce Goff. It's also more than just putting up some twinkly LED lights in the ceiling or an illuminated photograph of a natural scene to simulate an outdoor view.

Incorporating evidence based design principles, biophilic design looks to meld the materials, process and cycles of nature into architecture.  It links our health, job performance and well being directly to the built environment. Design that takes into account natural processes and cycles feels better to inhabit. And now, it has evidence behind it.

In his popular book Biophilia, Edward Wilson, a biologist and social researcher describes a connection that humans innately seek with other living things.  The deep psychological connections that we have formed with nature influence us in primal and subconscious ways.  As behavioral psychologists began to study biophilia in greater detail, the applicability to healing environments became evident. Roger Ulrich has shown direct correlations between connections to nature and reductions in pain and depression, both of which lead to fewer complications and faster recovery. His work in particular seems to indicate that the most beneficial type of stimulation comes from evoking nature, as in artwork, or through actual exposure to nature itself. The growing amount of research into the impact of biophilic concepts on the built environment has included work with actual patients and hospital staff, such as the Ambient Experience created by Phillips, focused on building systems that provide a multi-sensory environment for patients, families and staff.  

This seems intuitive.  However, what exactly to implement in each type of space you are creating is not.  Your game plan:
  1. As part of your space program, create a column for what you are trying to promote in each space.  In corridors, you may want to promote wayfinding and reduce noise; in staff work areas, reduce errors; in patient rooms, promote healing; and reduce stress in procedure rooms.  
  2. Look at existing research on what will best produce the desired effects in each space.  For example, stress and anxiety contribute strongly to high pain levels.  Views of nature create a  positive diversion that helps to keep people focused on things other than pain or anxiety and promote healing.
  3. Brainstorm as a team about ways these effects can manifest themselves in each space- can you provide views to a landscaped area?  Should artwork of natural landscapes be a focal point? What about lighting and acoustics?  What opportunities are there to get natural light, especially sunlight, into the space?  Can the space adapt to the time of day or season?  Are there opportunities to actually bring nature inside through plants or water features?
  4. Determine how you can measure the results of your strategies and incorporate them into your evidence-based design plan.
Why does it work?  Some speculate that reducing anxiety is all about distracting people, but I think it goes further than that and taps into a primordial state of balance that helps inhabitants to feel calmer, more focused and invigorated.  Being in a biophilic environment is enriching and by stimulating our senses, we stimulate the soul.  


  1. Good thoughts. Too bad that many want to create environments that produce tension with the idea that it will increase productivity. The result is often strife in the workplace and the home.

  2. The matter of this post is critical to not only architecture but to the sustainable existence of the human race. Western culture divorced itself from the idea that it was part of nature when it started to see nature as a resource to fuel its appetite for development. As the divide has grown, so has lack of understanding of how exactly to deal with our selves - our tensions, our stresses, our depression etc. etc. It is unfortunate that our way of pigeon holing thought and thus closeted thinking does not enable a broader perspective that might look at for example the philosophical concepts of the East. In terms of Architecture, one might look to Vaastu Shastra as a building science that is based upon the understanding that humans are part of the natural world and its process and for this seeker is the original 'green' building science. As building designers it is our obligation to seek to understand how build solutions have been found outside of our own cultures narrow perspective, so that the important step of integrating the understanding and thinking differently can occur. Without this process happening, as individuals we will never reach a full picture understanding of ourselves or this most beautiful world that we live in.
    Thank you raising this subject. May we all live harmoniously!

  3. James, so true- we have denied that we are organic beings and become detached from the natural world through built environments that ultimately produced illnesses and poor mental states. Just because we can use technology to overcome the climate and environment around us does not mean that we should.

  4. I always find it interesting that something as fundamental as the view you look out on from a room has never, in my admittedly brief experience, been something that architects that I have met and worked with (I am aware that what I am saying is potentially contentious which is why I am hedging my comments!!!) consider. How could a view from the bedroom of a brain injury client that looks across the car park help recovery? How could the view from a cancer ward out onto a cement brick wall help someone's quality of life in their dying days? And believe me both these examples are true. Perhaps because I spend time actually gardening as well as designing I take my connection with nature as something absolute. It is not a concept, idea or abstract; it is an absolute reality. It saddens and frustrates me when dealing with clients and care workers (and I use that term very loosely) that they are not more aware of the potential that nature has for healing the mind and body. Even if it is 'only' the view from the window.

  5. Dorinda,
    I appreciate your insights. I think that the experience of space has too long been overlooked in favor of treatment received in that space, when in fact they are interconnected. I hope that you will continue to be an advocate for bringing nature into the built environment. Look for a new post in 2012 featuring an interview with Naomi Sachs of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network that expands on this topic further.

  6. Dear Angela, Many thanks - I will do so. It is going to be interesting for me in the next few months as I am going to be the one looking out on the 'view' as I require to have a minor op that is going to prevent me working outside for 8 weeks...... So perhaps part of that experience is to understand more fully how the environment that we look out on assists/hinders healing!

  7. Hildegarde Von Bingen nailed it in the 12th century with her philosophy,'Veriditas' the healing power of green.

    1. Absolutely. Green not only heals, but it is preventative medicine, reducing stress and anxiety.


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