What is Good Biophilic Design?

Biophilia is our biological connection with nature. It helps explain why crackling fires and crashing waves captivate us, why a garden view can enhance our creativity, and why animal companionship and strolling through a park have restorative effect.  Biophilia, like air quality, thermal comfort and acoustics, is an essential component of environmental quality that expands the conversation from daylight, materials toxicity, and air, water and soil quality, to include human biological health and well-being.  For decades, research scientists and design practitioners have been working to define aspects of nature that most impact our satisfaction with the built environment.  We aim to help people implement this research on a large scale, to enhance human health and well-being.

Biophilic design is designing for people as a biological organism, elevating the mind and body indicators of well-being.   See our article on the connection between Nature and Health.  Good biophilic design creates spaces that are inspirational, restorative, and healthy.  Biophilic design should nurture a love of place.

It helps to understand the relationships between nature and the built environment so that we can expand the human benefits of biophilia. In order to be efficient and effective, we focus on the 20% of nature/health relationships that have an 80% impact on enhancing our lives through this connection with nature in the built environment.

We mine the latest research on this topic, and then focus on implementation, as few guidelines currently exist on how to build biophilic spaces.  We want to help architects, interior designers, landscape architects, urban designers, planners, health professionals, and developers, and anyone wanting to improve the patterns of biophilia in their home and surrounding environment.

We want to help solve the universal issues of human well-being (i.e. stress, visual acuity, hormone balance, creativity) within our built environments.  The 14 patterns below can mitigate common stressors and enhance desirable qualities across our planet.

FIRST, LET’s define Nature

Views of what constitutes natural, nature, wild, or even beautiful greatly vary.  Some articulation of what we mean by ‘nature’ will help give context to practitioners of biophilic design.  There are two extreme connotations of nature. One is that nature is only that which can be classified as a living organism unaffected by anthropogenic impacts on the environment – a narrow perspective of nature (reminiscent of conventional hands-off environmental preservation) that ultimately no longer exists because nearly everything on Earth has been and will continue to be impacted at least indirectly by humans. Additionally, this idea of nature essentially excludes everything from the sun and moon, home gardens and urban parks, to humans and the billions of living organisms that make up the biome of the human gut.Alternatively, it could be argued that everything, including all that humans design and make, is natural and a part of nature because they are each extensions of our phenotype. This perspective inevitably includes everything from paperback books and plastic chairs, to swimming pools and asphalt roadways.As a middle ground, for the purpose of understanding the context of Biophilic Design, we are defining nature as living organisms and non-living components of an ecosystem – inclusive of everything from the sun and moon and seasonal arroyos, to managed forests and urban raingardens.  For added clarity, we are making the distinction that, in the context of health and well-being in the built environment, most nature in modern society is designed, whether deliberately (for function or aesthetic), haphazardly (for navigability or access to resources) or passively (through neglect or hands-off preservation); thus, we refer back to humankind’s proclivity for savanna landscapes. Humans create savanna analogues all the time. As designed ecosystems, some, such as the high canopy forests with floral undergrowth maintained by the annual burning practices of the Ojibwe people of North America, are biodiverse, vibrant and ecologically healthy. Others, such as suburban lawns and golf courses, are chemical dependent monocultures; while beautiful, they are not biodiverse, ecologically healthy or resilient.The key issue is that some designed environments are well-adapted (supporting long term life) and some are not. So while golf courses and suburban lawns may be a savanna analogue, in many cases they require intense inputs of water and fertilizer and thus are unfortunately unsustainable design practices.

WAYS TO CONNECT the build environment to Nature

Biophilic design can be organized into three categories – Incorporating Nature, Mimicking Nature, and Nature of the Space – that provide a framework for understanding a diversity of strategies for the built environment.


Incorporating Nature addresses the direct, physical and ephemeral presence of nature in a place. This includes plant life, water and animals, as well as breezes, sounds, scents and other natural elements. Common examples include potted plants, flowerbeds, bird feeders, butterfly gardens, water features, fountains, aquariums, courtyard gardens and green walls or vegetated roofs. The strongest Nature in a Place experiences are achieved through the creation of meaningful, direct connections with these natural elements, particularly through diversity, movement and multi-sensory interactions.

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.


We can use design elements that mimic nature, using organic but non-living evocations of nature.  Objects, materials, colors, shapes, sequences and patterns found in nature, can manifest as ornamentation, furniture, décor, and textiles in the built environment.  Mimicry of shells and leaves, organic shapes, and natural materials that have been processed or extensively altered (i.e. wood slabs, granite countertops), each provide an indirect connection with nature: while they are real, they are only analogous of the items in their ‘natural’ state.  The strongest experiences are achieved by providing information richness in an organized and sometimes evolving manner.

Mimicking Nature encompasses three patterns of biophilic design:

  1. Biomorphic Forms & Patterns. Symbolic references to contoured, patterned, textured or numerical arrangements that persist in nature.
  2. Material Connection with Nature. Materials and elements from nature that, through minimal processing, reflect the local ecology or geology and create a distinct sense of place.
  3. Complexity & Order. Rich sensory information that adheres to a spatial hierarchy similar to those encountered in nature.

3. Nature of the Space

Nature of the Space addresses spatial configurations in nature. This includes our innate desire to be able to see beyond our immediate surroundings, our fascination with the slightly dangerous or unknown; obscured views and revelatory moments; and sometimes even phobia-inducing properties when they include a trusted element of safety. The strongest Nature of the Space experiences are achieved through the creation of deliberate and engaging spatial configurations commingled with patterns of Nature in the Space and Natural Analogues.

Nature of the Space encompasses four biophilic design patterns:

  1. Views. An unimpeded view over a distance, for surveillance and planning.
  2. Refuge. A place for withdrawal from environmental conditions or the main flow of activity, in which the individual is protected from behind and overhead.
  3. Discovery. The promise of more information, achieved through partially obscured views or other sensory devices that entice the individual to travel deeper into the environment.
  4. Risk. An identifiable threat coupled with a reliable safeguard.

These fourteen Patterns of Biophilic Design focus on psychological, physiological and cognitive benefits.

IMPLEMENTING Biophilic Patterns

Biophilic design patterns are meant to assist in the design process.  They offer 14 ways to incorporate nature into the built environment.  It is also important to understand how people react to and benefit from these patterns.

  • How might the pattern impact the way a space feels?
  • what are the health or performance priorities of the intended users?
  • Roots of the Pattern highlights key scientific evidence that relates human biology to nature and the built environment;
  • Relation to Other Patterns provides opportunities for integrative biophilic design strategies.  Using Patterns in combination tends to increase the likelihood of health benefits of a space.  For example, vegetated spaces can improve an individual’s self-esteem and mood, while the presence of water can have a relaxing effect.