What Is Biophilic Design? (3 Key Concepts To Know)


When designing a building, it is important to consider not just the structural integrity, but the comfort of the inhabitants.  Biophilic design attempts to create buildings that provide a space that improves the health of anyone who visits.

So, what is biophilic design?  Biophilic design creates spaces that connect people with nature, improving health & well-being. Buildings that follow biophilic design principles include natural elements (such as sights, sounds, scents, etc.) Green walls, planters, fountains, & herb gardens are all ways to promote biophilic design.

Of course, there are many ways to incorporate biophilic design into new or existing buildings.

In this article, we’ll talk about what biophilic design is and how you can use it to create a space to improve human health and well-being.  We’ll also give you some ideas about what you can use to add to a space that follows biophilic design principles.  

Let’s get started.

What Is Biophilic Design?

Biophilic design is a way to design buildings that incorporate nature.  These buildings are often net positive, which means they produce more resources and energy than they use.

Longwood Gardens green wall living wall
Biophilic design is intended to help humans reconnect to nature in the buildings that they use.

For example, a building with enough solar panels on the roof to generate its own electricity and living walls (green walls) to give a more natural appearance, cleaner air, and cooler temperatures.

Buildings with biophilic design in mind also contribute to the health and wellness of their inhabitants.  They do this by echoing things we would normally see in nature, including:

  • Light (such as filtered light through a forest canopy, etc.)
  • Air (such as wind, scents of earth after rain, etc.)
  • Water (such as pools, ponds, etc.)
  • Plants (such as vines, shrubs, trees, etc.  This can also help to provide insulation against extreme temperatures.)
  • Animals (such as fish, turtles, etc. in water or birds, rabbits, etc.)
  • Weather (variability in heat, air flow, light levels, etc.)
  • Natural Landscapes (such as dry, wet, plains, forests, etc.)
  • Fire
living wall green wall
Living walls (green walls) can help with biophilic design.

Biophilic design may use both visual and non-visual aspects of nature:

  • Visual – the appearance of pools, plants, and animals in the space.  Natural colors like green and blue are comforting.
  • Non-visual – the sounds, smells, temperature, air flow, etc. in the space
indoor pond
An indoor pond can provide both visual and non-visual aspects of nature.

It may also use random patterns so as to be unpredictable (just like nature).  These random patterns could be used to add variability for things like:

  • Temperature – the air can be cooler in the morning and warmer later in the day.
  • Humidity – there can be dry or humid conditions.
  • Airflow – artificial “wind” can pick up and die down during the day.  Place windows and HVAC systems strategically to create varying airflow during the day to mimic changing wind direction and speed.
  • Light – lower in the morning and evening, brightest during the day, but with periods of shade to account for clouds passing in front of the sun.  Strategically placed windows will go a long way towards implementing natural light.  The use of lighter paint colors indoors will also help to reflect light.
sunny window
Place windows strategically to improve light in a building with biophilic design.

Biophilic design might also incorporate natural shapes to remind us of nature.  For example:

  • Spirals (such as those we find on certain plants and shells in nature – the “golden ratio” spiral)
  • Branches (such as on trees and shrubs)
  • Circles or spheres (such as a pearl in an oyster or bubbles in water)
mulch piles near trees
Biophilic design can also incorporate natural patterns, such as tree branches.

Biophilic design can even include “false” reminders of nature that have a similar effect.  According to the University of Central Arkansas, seeing pictures of nature (plants, mountains, deserts, forests, lakes, etc.) have some of the same benefits as seeing the real thing.

What Are The Benefits Of Biophilic Design?

Biophilic design has several benefits, including: (see PDF)

  • Improved lighting – both natural and artificial light sources are optimized for human performance.
  • Improved air quality – natural and artificial “wind” circulates air more often, and plants absorb VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that can affect health.
  • Energy efficiency – green walls (living walls) help to insulate against temperature changes, saving on heating and cooling costs.
  • Improves the well-being of inhabitants – from offices to hospitals, being in nature improves overall health.
green wall in madrid living wall
Outdoor green walls can help to insulate a building and reduce its energy needs.

According to Terrapin Bright Green, biophilic design has several important health benefits, including:

  • Reduced stress (including lower blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormone levels)
  • Heightened mental state (including better attentiveness, concentration, and overall cognitive performance)
  • Improved mood

You can learn more here.

How To Incorporate Biophilic Design

Biophilic design can include both indoor and outdoor features of a building.  Indoor features help to keep people happy when they have to stay indoors (such as during inclement weather), while outdoor features encourage them to venture outside and get some exercise.

Here are some good ways to incorporate biophilic design into a building:

  • Windows
  • Floors
  • Walls
  • Ceilings
  • Features

Windows For Biophilic Design

You can use windows to help with biophilic design in may spaces.

If you are designing a new building, make sure to include enough windows to provide some natural light for everyone.  In an existing space, make the best use of existing windows.

window frame
Make the best use of existing windows to improve biophilic design.

To help with this, paint the walls and ceilings in light colors to reflect both natural and artificial light.

Another option is to add automatic shades or blinds that raise in the morning and lower at night.

These shades or blinds could also have images of nature on them.  For example, you could buy window shades with a pattern of plant shadows or a nature scene (desert, forest, etc.).

During daylight, everyone in the building will get natural light.  When it is dark outside, they will get images that remind them of nature.

Floors For Biophilic Design

You can also use the floor to help with biophilic design.  One idea is to add artificial turf to give the feeling of walking on grass.

grass
Use artificial turf indoors to give the feeling of walking on grass.

You could also create floors that are made of (or have the appearance of):

  • Wood
  • Rocks/Stones
  • Forest Floor
  • Earth
  • Sand

Hallways could also slope gently up and down to provide some natural variability.

Walls For Biophilic Design

There are several options for biophilic design when it comes to walls, including:

  • Living Walls (Green Walls)
  • Vertical Herb Gardens
  • Murals with nature scenes

Green Walls

A living wall (also called a green wall) is covered with plants.  This gives it the appearance of a hedge that incorporates many different plants.

living wall green wall
A living wall can contain multiple types of plants, depending on the space.

A living wall might have:

  • Moss (to cover areas between other plants)
  • Herbs (you could create a wall with all the herbs you need for cooking!)
  • Succulents (their low water requirements make them ideal for a low-maintenance wall)
  • Vegetables (you could an edible living wall that you can harvest from!)
  • Vines (flowering ones will add dazzling color to your wall)
succulent echeveria
Succulents are a good choice for a living wall in a space that needs to stay dry.

A living wall may use soil or a non-soil medium (hydroponics or aeroponics) to grow the plants.

Living walls have several important benefits, including:

  • Better health at home (connection to nature, less anxiety, faster recovery).
  • Cleaner air (plants can remove air pollutants)
  • Increased workplace performance (reduced fatigue and tension).
  • Soundproofing (some plants cancel noise quite well, and they can be used to create private quiet areas in an office).
  • Cooler temperatures (plants reduce air temperature when water is evaporated).
  • Easier access to fresh food (if you grow herbs or vegetables on your wall).
  • Natural Beauty (adds to any indoor setting or outdoor landscape).
  • Endless customization options (there are too many combinations and arrangements of plants to count!)

Vertical Herb Gardens

In addition to providing a connection to nature, a vertical herb garden provides a harvest for the inhabitants of the space! This could be a wonderful feature for a restaurant.

You can use wall-mounted planter boxes, ladder planters, trellises, or bookshelves for a vertical herb garden.

painted wooden trellis
Use a trellis mounted on a wall to give herbs a place to grow indoors or outdoors.

You can find more ideas for a vertical herb garden here.

Murals

Maybe you can commission a local artist or talented students (high school or college level) to paint murals of nature scenes on the walls.

nature mural
This mural works with the surrounding landscape by “completing” the appearance of the trees seen overhead.

You could even have a different theme for each room:

  • Desert
  • Plains
  • Mountains
  • Tundra
  • Forest
  • Lake
  • Ocean (Beach)
nature mural
A mural can be a forest, lake, or any other landscape (or combination) that you can think of.

The mural could contain both plants and animals, in addition to landscape features (hills, valleys, trees, deer, etc.)

Ceilings For Biophilic Design

You could have the ceilings painted the color of the sky, along with clouds to add to the effect.  Skylights might not be possible for an existing building, but a new building could include them.

You could also put up pictures of a forest canopy (viewed from below) to add to the feeling of being in nature.

forest canopy
A forest canopy (viewed from below) can contribute to biophilic design.

Use your imagination and you can use every part of a space (ceiling, walls, and floor) to follow biophilic design principles.

Features For Biophilic Design

Here are a few ideas for features that you can add to a space for biophilic design:

  • Water Features
  • Living Columns
  • Planters

Water Features

Water features are probably best for the ground-level floor of a building, since a large pool of water is heavy.

However, you have lots of options when it comes to water features, such as:

  • Fountains – this creates the sound of running water and gives something tranquil to look at and listen to.
  • Pools – this creates a peaceful space to reflect.  You can also use a pump to create slow or fast-moving water to create a natural sound.
  • Fish Ponds – koi are very popular, but you could also keep other types of fish in a pond (make sure they are compatible!)  An aquarium is also a possibility in some spaces.
water fountain
A fountain provides both visual and auditory cues from nature.

Living Columns

Support columns for a building are ugly, but necessary.  Since you can’t get rid of them, you might as well decorate them!

You can start off by painting columns green, or covering them with a green fabric.  Then, you can cover them with living things, such as:

  • Moss – this is a good “filler” for the space between other plants
  • Vines – you could have edible plants such as green beans, cucumbers, or others climbing up a support column.
  • Succulents – this is a good option if your space is very dry and has to stay that way (to prevent mold or other problems)
moss
Moss is a good filler for a living column, since you can make it fit between any other plants you use.

Planters

With planters, you can create two or more “lanes” for foot traffic while also providing natural beauty.  Planters can provide a home for ornamental plants or for those that provide a harvest, including:

  • Fruit (dwarf citrus trees are a good choice for indoors)
  • Vegetables (tiny tomato or pepper plants would work indoors)
rustic planter box
You can use planters mounted on the wall or put them on the floor to separate a hallway into “lanes” of foot traffic.

Just remember that several planters full of soil can get heavy, especially when they are wet.  Your best bet is to put the taller planters on a ground-level floor.

Use shallow planters with only a few inches of soil on upper-level floors.  You can still grow shallow-rooted plants, such as spinach, lettuce, succulents, bonsai, and others.

Conclusion

Now you know what biophilic design is and how it strives to incorporate nature into building design and construction.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

Here are some more resources on biophilic design, compiled by the University of Minnesota.

You might also be interested in learning about vertical farming.

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here.  Enjoy!

~Jonathon

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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