Biophilic Design

What is Biophilic design?

Updated March 4, 2022

Derived from the term “biophilia,” biophilic design is the concept of connecting humans to nature, both directly and indirectly. The ethos originated in 1984 and was outlined by the Harvard naturalist Edward O. Wilson, who defined biophilia as “the urge to associate with other forms of life.” Mr. Wilson said that because people spend most of their lives indoors––as much as 90%, depending on their occupation and lifestyle––they have an intrinsic need to interact with the outdoors frequently.

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Since its inception, that theory has consciously and unconsciously dictated interior design and architectural concepts in homes, businesses and communities, as biophilic design principles continue to rise in popularity. Besides the visual benefits, introducing nature into the built environment has been proven to increase quality of life: encouraging mental stimulation, raising productivity rates, reducing stress, improving sleep and even boosting overall health and well-being. Scientific studies support these ideas.

Biophilic design introduces plants, water features, natural airflow, sounds and scents into a room, allowing individuals to experience direct contact with nature. Photo: Jason Leung / Unsplash

Nowadays, biophilic design helps counteract the impact technology has on people, as screens, keyboards, apps and social media dominate their lives. Integrating the natural world within a building’s interior provides a healthy distraction to electronics.

Biophilic, however, can be a misused term. To qualify as biophilic, the design must emphasize the natural world and contribute to human health and productivity, both necessities to survive. Hence, while greenery in a space is an attractive accessory, biophilic design reaches further. 

14 Patterns of Biophilic Design

Terrapin Bright Green, a New York-based sustainable consulting firm, characterizes 14 patterns of biophilic design. Its team groups these patterns into three categories: Nature in the Space, Natural Analogues and Nature of the Space. While few interior spaces will include all 14 of these patterns, a mix of several biophilic design elements can physically and emotionally enhance a room and its inhabitants’ well-being. 

Nature in the Space

This concept introduces plants, water features, natural airflow, sounds and scents into a room, allowing individuals to experience direct contact with nature. This category includes seven patterns.

  1. Visual connection with nature: seeing plants, trees, flowers and greenery.
  2. Nonvisual connection with nature: hearing, touching, or smelling it.
  3. Nonrhythmic sensory stimuli: random motion, such as the sway of trees in the breeze.
  4. Thermal and airflow variability: feeling subtle changes in temperature, air and humidity as if these would naturally occur.
  5. Presence of water: having the ability to see, touch, or hear water.
  6. Dynamic and diffused light: how light can mimic the circadian processes present in nature.
  7. Connection with natural systems: being aware of seasonal changes and other manifestations in nature.

Natural Analogues

This category’s three patterns highlight elements indirectly connected to nature, such as furniture, textiles, art and surfaces.

  1. Biomorphic forms and patterns: the design features patterns, textures, shapes and arrangements that occur in nature.
  2. Material connection with nature: selecting textiles and materials to reflect the natural environment.
  3. Complexity and order: keeping in mind nature’s symmetry, hierarchy and geometry.

Nature of the Space

These four patterns refer to how the user relates to the architecture, design, and feel of the interior space.

  1.  Prospect: the innate desire to see beyond the immediate surroundings. Large windows, skylights and balconies promise the user wide-open views of the exterior.
  2.  Refuge: seeing what lies outside the space, yet feeling relaxed and safe inside.

       3. Mystery: considering the unknown or hidden elements of the outdoors.

       4. Risk/Peril: the excitement of danger beyond the space, yet staying protected within it.

Ways to Introduce Biophilic Design Into a Home

  • Select a color palette that reflects nature: varying shades of green, sky blue, aquamarine, earthy reds, oranges and yellows, for example.
  • Decorate with natural fibers such as cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo, rattan, natural stone and wood.
  • Add plants and flowers throughout the interior: hanging baskets where appropriate, an herb garden, fresh floral arrangements, succulents and potted plants.
  • Maximize natural light, and add warm light throughout the house. 
  • Choose art that reflects nature and its colors: botanical prints and landscape scenes are a good start.
  • Allow fresh air. Open windows during all seasons, even in winter.
  • Use aromatherapy: introduce scents found in nature. Examples include sage, anise, lavender, balsam, geranium and rosewood.