Image of a woman walking across a bridge in a building designed to look like the jungle

What Is and Is Not Biophilic Design?

If design doesn’t focus on aspects of the natural world that contribute to human health and productivity in the age-old struggle to be fit and survive, it’s not biophilic.

​Biophilic design seeks to connect our inherent need to affiliate with nature in the modern built environment. An extension of the theory of biophilia, biophilic design recognizes that our species has evolved for more than 99% of its history in adaptive response to the natural world and not to human created or artificial forces. We became biologically encoded to associate with natural features and processes. Rather than being vestigial – or relevant to a world that no longer exists – this need is thought to remain instrumental to people’s physical and mental health, fitness, and wellbeing.

Since today’s “natural habitat” is largely the built environment, where we now spend 90% of our time, biophilic design seeks to satisfy our innate need to affiliate with nature in modern buildings and cities. Thus, the fundamental goal of biophilic design is to create good habitat for people as biological organisms inhabiting modern structures, landscapes, and communities. Accomplishing this objective depends on meeting certain conditions. First, because biophilia is essentially about evolved human tendencies, biophilic design focuses on those aspects of nature that, over evolutionary time, have contributed to our health and wellbeing. Let us be clear on this point: Any occurrence of nature in the built environment cannot be called biophilic design if it has no bearing on our species’ inborn tendencies that have advanced our fitness and survival.

TOP IMAGE: Located in the Mayan jungle near Tulum, Mexico, SFER IK is a new art center whose design is inspired by, and largely built from, the materials of the jungle. Designed by the enigmatic artist and architect Roth, the building features virtually no straight lines or right angles and is partially open to the elements. Photo Credit: AZULIK

The cover of the book Biophilic Design

Simply put, biophilic design focuses on those aspects of the natural world that have contributed to human health and productivity in the age-old struggle to be fit and survive. Thus, desert or deep-sea habitats or microorganisms or alien or extinct species or other obscure aspects of nature are largely irrelevant as aspects of biophilic design because they offer little if anything in the way of sustained benefits to people.

Another distinguishing feature of biophilic design is its emphasis on the overall setting or habitat and NOT a single or isolated occurrence of nature. All organisms exist within connected and related environments bound together as integrated wholes or ecosystems. When the habitat functions in the best interests of the organism, the ecosystem performs at a level greater than the sum of its individual parts. By contrast, habitats comprised of disconnected and unrelated elements provide few benefits to its constituents and may even harm individual members. Thus, simply inserting an object of nature into a human built environment, if unrelated or at variance with other more dominant characteristics of the setting, exert little positive impact on the health and performance of the people who occupy these spaces.

The effectiveness of biophilic design depends on interventions that are connected, complementary, and integrated within the overall environment rather than being isolated or transient. A third distinctive feature of biophilic design is its emphasis on engaging with and repeated contact with nature. Biophilia can be described as a “weak” rather than “hard-wired” biological tendency that, like much of what makes us human, must be learned and experienced to become fully functional. Although we may be biologically inclined to affiliate with nature, for this contact to be useful, it must be nurtured through repeated and reinforcing experience. The benefits of biophilic design depend on engaging contact with nature rather than occasional, exceptional, or ephemeral experiences.

These distinctive characteristics yield a set of five conditions for the effective practice of biophilic design. Each underscores what is and IS NOT biophilic design:

  1. Biophilic design emphasizes human adaptations to the natural world that over evolutionary time have proven instrumental in advancing people’s health, fitness, and wellbeing. Exposures to nature irrelevant to human productivity and survival exert little impact on human wellbeing and are not effective instances of biophilic design.
  2. Biophilic design depends on repeated and sustained engagement with nature. An occasional, transient, or isolated experience of nature exerts only superficial and fleeting effects on people, and can even, at times, be at variance with fostering beneficial outcomes.
  3. Biophilic design requires reinforcing and integrating design interventions that connect with the overall setting or space. The optimal functioning of all organisms depends on immersion within habitats where the various elements comprise a complementary, reinforcing, and interconnected whole. Exposures to nature within a disconnected space – such as an isolated plant or an out of context picture or a natural material at variance with other dominant spatial features – is NOT effective biophilic design.
  4. Biophilic design fosters emotional attachments to settings and places. By satisfying our inherent inclination to affiliate with nature, biophilic design engenders an emotional attachment to particular spaces and places. These emotional attachments motivate people’s performance and productivity, and prompt us to identify with and sustain the places we inhabit.
  5. Biophilic design fosters positive and sustained interactions and relationships among people and the natural environment. Humans are a deeply social species whose security and productivity depends on positive interactions within a spatial context. Effective biophilic design fosters connections between people and their environment, enhancing feelings of relationship, and a sense of membership in a meaningful community.

Unfortunately, modern society has insufficiently supported the human need to affiliate with nature, erecting various obstacles to the satisfying experience of the natural world, often treating nature as simply raw material to be transformed through technology or a nice but NOT necessary recreational and aesthetic amenity. This increasing separation from nature is reflected in much of our modern agriculture, manufacturing, education, healthcare, urban development, and architectural design.

The modern assumption that humans no longer need to affiliate with nature is revealed in the widespread practice of placing people in sensory deprived and artificial settings such as office buildings, hospitals, schools, shopping centers–with little if any contact with natural forces and stimuli. Much of today’s built environment is designed lacking adequate natural light, natural ventilation, natural materials, vegetation, views, environmental shapes and forms, and other evolved affinities for the natural world. In many ways, these structures remind us of the barren sensory-deprived cages of the old-style zoo, now ironically banned as “inhumane.” We are just beginning to find that these environmentally impoverished habitats foster fatigue, symptoms of disease, and impaired performance, and the simple introduction of natural lighting, outside views, and vegetation can result in enhanced health and productivity.

The fundamental challenge of biophilic design is to address these deficiencies in the modern built environment by initiating a new framework for the beneficial occurrence of nature. The effective application of biophilia begins with adhering to the previously described basic principles. From there, particular practices of biophilic design can be employed to help implement positive and beneficial outcomes. These applications of biophilia are listed below, although more detailed descriptions can be found in Kellert and Calabrese, The Practice of Biophilic Design.

Direct Experience of Nature

Spaces that allow direct experience of Light, Air, Water, Plants, Animals, Weather, and Natural Landscapes and Ecosystems

Indirect Experience of Nature

Nature represented by these elements: Images of Nature, Natural Materials, Natural Colors, Mobility and Wayfinding, Cultural and, Ecological Attachment to Place, Simulating Natural Light and Air, Naturalistic Shapes and Forms, Evoking Nature, Information Richness, Natural Geometries, Biomimicry, and Age, Change, and the Patina of Time

Experience of Space and Place

Biophilia can also be achieved through these approaches: Prospect and Refuge, Organized Complexity, Integration of Parts to Wholes, and Transitional Spaces

Viewpoints on Biophilia

It is important to realize that biophilic design is more than just a new way to make people more efficient by applying an innovative technical tool. The successful application of biophilic design fundamentally depends on adopting a new consciousness toward nature, recognizing how much our physical and mental wellbeing continues to rely on the quality of our connections to the world beyond ourselves of which we still remain a part.

Stephen R. Kellert  is Professor Emeritus, Yale University in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.  He is also a founding partner and board director in the firm Bio-Logical Capital that invests in and implements sustainable land uses on large landscapes.  He is the author of 12 books including: Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World, Biophilic Design, Building for Life, the Biophilia Hypothesis (with E.O. Wilson), and is currently writing a new book, Nature by Design: the Art and Practice of Biophilic Design, among others.  He also co-produced the video (with Bill Finnegan) Biophilic Design: the Architecture of Life.  Dr. Kellert has over 150 publications, has received many awards, served on committees of the National Academy of Sciences and as a board director of many organizations, and is listed and described in American Environmental Leaders: From Colonial Times to the Present.


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