Biophilic Design


At the building scale biophilic design can inspire, it can awe, and it can build connection to the emotive aspects of connection to nature. Yet it may be more subtle, biophilic design elements can just produce a symphony of stimuli that result in people being comfortable and able to perform at their most effective. That is fundamentally what connecting people to nature does, our need to connect stems from primal needs of safety, security, access to food, light water and shelter. Once these basic fears are allayed that part of the brain which is wired for survival can be at peace letting the higher levels of thought – creativity, concentration, innovation, learning, and so forth – occur. The reduction of stress that occurs through the provision of aspects that placate the primal brain means the ability to increase effectiveness, efficiency, healing, concentration and all other human attributes evidence of which can be found in the studies mentioned above.

The use of nature in the built environment should be approached from the view of an ecosystem with many layers and complexity. The integration, celebration and lessons of nature in design are not new; natural buildings, ecological design and biomimicry are all examples. Kellert has developed six dimensions of biophilic design encompassing seventy principles . As in nature these principles interrelate and should not be taken in isolation.

Kellert's six dimensions of biophilic design & 70 principles

Kellert’s six dimensions of biophilic design & 70 principles


Six biophilic design dimensions

Environmental features: If people love the space they will preserve and maintain it. Generosity of height, invisibility between inside and outside, colour, water, air, internal and external plants, views to vistas and potential for animals connecting to the local ecosystems, natural materials, geology and fire.

  • Colour: The relationship between humans and colour has links to evolutionary influences such as to locate food, water, danger, etc. People are attracted by bright colours such as Mediterrannean water, Uluru, red roses, etc. Research on colour use and people’s health and wellbeing have found that natural colours with earth tones with different zones that allow for visual contract receive the best results. Summary of colour issues and architects that have been used over time is explored by Scott Drake in The Third Skin (pp. 86-90). The book provides an introduction to the principles of environmental performance in architecture. It explores the way aspects of the built environment are experienced by the occupants, and how that experience is interpreted in architectural design.

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  • Water: Evolutionary relationship as survival. For this reason, water features have a provide calmness, movement, acoustics, sense of contemplation, humidity.
  • Air: Evolutionary relationship as survival. Natural air is recirculated and not blowing. Good diffusers to allow movement
  • Sunlight: Evolutionary relationship as circadian rhythm, heavily reliant on sight for securing resources and avoiding danger. People depend on visual acuity to satisfy physical, emotional and intellectual needs. Design must have indirect natural light with view and ability to shade. Comparing daylight spectrum and artificial light in an office
  • Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water Architecture

    Fallingwater was built between 1936 and 1939.

    Geology and landscapes: Evolutionary relationship is being part of nature, connection to the surrounding naturally. The design should be compatible to geology to make people feel buildings are grounded. The best example is ‘Fallingwater’. The name of a very special house that is built over a waterfall. Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s most famous architect, designed the house for his clients, the Kaufmann family. It instantly became famous, and today it is a National Historic Landmark. 1491 Mill Run Rd, Mill Run, Pennsylvania 15464, United States of America

  • Plants: Evolutionary relationship with plants as security and sustenance. People feel more satisfied if there are plants to filter the air. Plants also fall under the biophilic design element of environmental features, this is more than just external green features such as courtyards, water features, trees, grass, flowers and bushes; it is also green roofs, walls and facades and importantly also internal plants. Benefits are: reduction in urban heat island and atmospheric pollution, air ‘conditioning’ effect, reduction of toxins and particulates while increasing oxygen and the mediation of humidity. An office with plants had a 23 percent reduction in neuropsychological symptoms (tiredness and fatigue) and a 24 percent reduction in dry throats and coughs. Indoor plants should be considered for maximum benefit in internal environments.

Natural shapes and forms

The design initiatives described above, intersect with the biophilic design element natural shapes and forms. This includes botanical and zoological motifs, for example referencing trees through the detailing of columns, use of shells, spirals, ovals, vaults and domes in ceilings as biomimicry – mimicking of the function of a natural system ‐ crystal, web, hive and so forth.

  • Trees and columns: History, security and strength. Design columns, suggestions and metaphors
  • Animals: Vertebrate motifs
  • Shells and spirals: eOval, tube, egg
  • Arches, vault domes
  • Shapes resiting straight lines: Sinuous flowing
  • Simulation of natural features
  • Geomorphology: Mimic or incorporate local geological features
  • Biomorphy: unintended reference to nature. For example, the Sydney Opera House
  • BiomimicryAdaptation of design from nature. For example, termite mould, web crystal, shell

Natural patterns and process

The need for sensory variability and information complexity, so as to give richness of experience yet also to provide focus to facilitate movement through spaces with engagement and purpose. The importance of prospect and retreat is also an aspect of this element. This explains one of the strong architectural expressions of providing liminal space. The liminal space is what is variously termed a ‘third space’ or a space ‘in‐between’, it provides a place for pause and contemplation, whether conscious or not before moving forward.

  • Age, change and patina of time: Dynamic progression elicits familiarity and satisfaction in people. Artificial materials that do not age, weather or decay do not evoke a sustainable positive response.
  • Hierarchy, organised ratios and scales: Thematic congruence either arithmetically or geometrically allows assimilation of highly complex patterns that might otherwise be overwhelming. E.g. Fibonacci ratio
  • Fractals: Things in nature are never the same and are orderly variations based on a norm. Design to be repeated but varying patterns

Light and space

In design this means integrating natural light, thinking about how it is filtered, diffused, captured, reflected. Connected with this are ideas of water, plants, pattern and so forth. This element raises the importance of thinking about inside and outside spaces again. Connecting with external conditions enables participation with the external environment.

  • Quality of light: Natural light, filtered and diffuse light, light and shadow, reflected light, light pools, warm light, light as share and form
  • Spatial relationships: Spaciousness, spatial variability, space as shape and form, spatial harmony, inside-outside spaces

Integration of connection to place 

Place-based relationships are connections to history: human, ecological, hydrological and geological. This includes sensitivity to the spirit and story of the place and a grounded context to avoid the sense of placelessness. This is done by engaging many of the earlier mentioned elements, such as material selection, orientation, connecting to landscape and so forth. This connection to the geography of place provides a sense of territorial control as well as an emotional connection to home. A sense of belonging, of home, is central to fostering a sense of stewardship, care and participation that ensures contribution is not only possible but driven.

  • Historical connection to place
  • Geographical connection

Evolved human relationships

The idea of prospect and refuge again provides a sense of enclosure, shelter and safety, yet with the ability to see out and engage with the wider world from a place of relative control gives time to think and engage. This provides a sense of safety while allowing opportunities for seeing without being seen. Through designing to foster these relationships the occupants are free to explore, innovate, imagine, connect, feel secure yet have some ability to engage in unexpected opportunities. Aspects are design features that foster a sense of:

  • Prospect and refuge
  • Order and complexity
  • Curiosity and enticement
  • Mastery and control
  • Exploration and discovery
  • Affection and attachment: Loyalty and commitment
  • Fear and awe



One of the most intriguing and inspiring aspect of the connection to nature is its role in the development of children. Research has shown how crucial it is for children to experience nature, not just the well‐tended parks and gardens in our cities, but the wild, unexpected, slightly scary nature found in the ‘wilderness’. They show that engaging and playing in all aspects of nature is central for the development of motor skills, increased cognitive functioning and attention capacities, alleviating childhood stresses, and results in more social and creative play. If a child is active in nature and has an adult mentoring them in its exploration and nurturing, this influences a sense of ownership, connectedness and relationship with nature.



Integrate nature into building design, we have seen its benefits to adults and children alike, yet the greatest opportunity is at the urban scale. The effect of projects such as the High Line Park in New York City or the Cheonggyecheon River restoration in Seoul, South Korea shows how both the environment and people can benefit from bringing nature back into the city. Both places now see a great deal of engagement with families strolling, picnicking, getting their feet wet and wondering at the wildlife now in their midst. Both places have seen the increase in biodiversity from non‐existent to abundant with the increased biomass of living, active system estimated at close to that of the original location without human inhabitation, but not with the addition of sculpture, history, music, food and community. A hint of what working from an ecosystems worldview could achieve.



Biophilic design elements: environmental features, natural shapes and forms, natural patterns and processes, light and space and place‐based relationships; and attributes such as the use of liminal space, generous height, view, design with the natural context, the concepts of refuge and prospect and many others. Featherstone Home: Walsh Street, South Yarra, Melbourne

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For more information on how to apply environmentally sustainable design (ESD) to your home, see YourHome by the Australian Government.

Source: The Design Files (


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  1. Pingback: Biophilia | Energy Systems & Sustainable Living

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