14 Patterns of Biophilic Design: Presence of Water

Water – from crashing waves to trickling streams, wading pools, and water fountains – enhances the experience of a place.

Pattern 5: Presence of Water

The Presence of Water biophilic design pattern has evolved from research on the health and wellbeing benefits associated with access to water, including reduced stress, lower heart rate and blood pressure, increased feelings of tranquility, positive emotional responsiveness, improved concentration and perception, and memory restoration. The general take-away from the research is that a frequent multisensory experience of clean water is very good for our psycho-physiological wellbeing.

More so than many other patterns of biophilic design, designers and owners are often wary of introducing Presence of Water into their projects. Some of the most common concerns are cost, sanitation, water scarcity, or cultural appropriateness of water features. However, there are many ways to incorporate Presence of Water into a design that overcome these challenges and provide multiple benefits.

Cost & Scale

Cost is among the most common deterrent to incorporating water features. Large or extensive water features can have a high first cost with continuous maintenance requirements built into the design. While thoughtful design should be able to mitigate concerns for energy intensity, risk of leakage, or humidity balance, large awe-inspiring water features are not always the most appropriate solution for optimizing health impact at a project site. For instance—when not value-engineered out—large water features are often situated in spaces where people don’t spend a lot of time (e.g., lobbies and other low density spaces), and as a result they tend to be a missed opportunity for engendering cognitive restoration and other benefits to our wellbeing.

When larger features are deemed appropriate and financially feasible, they should be placed in locations where the maximum number of people can experience them for a prolonged period of time, perhaps in locations with adequate seating. Smaller water features are often a good alternative, since they require less energy and maintenance, are generally self-contained, and can be designed to be mobile, allowing flexibility in space planning. Strategically situated, small fountains or water walls can serve multiple purposes, such as providing visual and speech privacy, increasing concentration, and supporting relaxation.

Art Aqua Office

Modular water wall at the office of ArtAqua, Bietigheim-Bissingen, Germany Photo: Bill Browning


Sanitation is a frequent concern with the presence of active water features, particularly for healthcare and food processing facilities. In spaces where such features cannot be introduced, projections and representations of water can provide some semblance of the presence of water and associated health benefits, while both minimizing first costs and maintenance and meeting health and sanitation requirements.

An operational water feature in an adjacent reception area or outdoor courtyard may serve as source or inspiration for indoor representations; for instance, light reflections from a water feature can be projected onto a ceiling or wall, and the sounds of a water feature can be broadcasted deep into a space or building. Sound and light originating from a small or distant water feature can alter the perception of its size and proximity. Awareness and novelty of the experience can be elevated by limiting auditory access to the most impactful locations within a space (i.e., not uniformly distributed) for targeted outcomes, such as to engender concentration or speech privacy in designated zones, or to draw pedestrians through the space toward a destination.

Kogod Courtyard

Water scrims and reflections at Kogod Courtyard, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Photo: Tim Evanson

Resource Sensitivity

Resource sensitivities, particularly in water-poor regions, tend to place limitations or restrictions on engineered water features. Securing community acceptance and meeting sustainability goals are justifiably prioritized, though the value proposition of a presence of water is not always fully articulated. Projections and imagery of water are often a viable solution for water-sensitive sites. However, the presence of an active water feature also presents an opportunity—through responsible design—to educate users on issues of water scarcity and water efficiency, while optimizing positive health impacts and fostering a connection to place.

Chi Spa

Rainchain at CHI, The Spa, Shangri-La Rasa Sayang Resort, Penang, Malaysia, Photo: Catie Ryan

Small features can celebrate water as a precious resource. For instance, cyclical or closed-loop systems (e.g., modular or portable water fountains) that do not create a significant water burden, as well as naturally occurring or engineered ephemeral water features (e.g., rain chains, seasonal arroyos, rain gardens) can provide a restorative experience and help connect people to natural systems, while highlighting the seasonality or scarcity of water on the site.

Water Management Integration

Flood mitigation, surface drainage and quality control, and groundwater aquifer recharge are common site management concerns with water. Open-air rainwater management is an effective way of integrating the Presence of Water pattern for the benefit of both the landscape and the people who experience it.


Stepwell in Nandi Hills, Karnataka, India

Rainwater retention, harvest and reuse strategies provide prime opportunities for enhancing the human experience of a place. Historic management practices, decorative or spiritual applications, or passive cooling strategies can be designed to emphasize the functionality and climatic or cultural responsiveness of a space. At the site scale, a reflection pool or stepwell may double as a gathering place. An engineered wetland may enhance biodiversity and encourage groundwater recharge, while improving our access to nature for reflection or learning. At the building scale, the combination of an ornamental scupper with rainchain and French drain can serve as a practical drainage mechanism and, when clearly visible to the observer, can double as a seasonal Presence of Water intervention.

Water features can be used to directly bridge the gap between human experience and building or site performance, such as when the feature becomes integral to outdoor rainwater management or indoor humidity control or acoustics. Systems integration for water resource management can also help justify the cost of water features, but necessitates early phase coordination with the MEP design team and facilities management, as well as possibly a landscape architect, environmental engineer, acoustician, or artist, depending on the strategy being pursued.

Water Strategies

Example strategies supporting a biophilic experience of water, courtesy of Terrapin Bright Green

This is just a quick look at some of the possibilities for integrating a presence of water. There are many more! Water-based interventions can seem unnecessary or environmentally burdensome; however, in many cases, designers can still find interventions appropriate to their project, site, climate and cultural challenges. See the chart for water strategies that both support wellbeing and meet the needs of challenging or unique projects. Water-based interventions should be used to creatively overcome building design, environmental engineering and resiliency planning challenges while also providing significant health and wellbeing benefits.

Share with others

2 responses to “14 Patterns of Biophilic Design: Presence of Water”

  1. K.P.NAGARAJ says:

    A very nice article. Would have been complete if you could also add features of indoor types of plants for different climatic conditions.

  2. Gayle Souter-Brown says:

    Awareness of the health-giving potential of Biophilic design is important. Civic leaders, landscape architects, urban planners, developers, architects, clients, ecologists and public health practitioners need to collaborate. When we work together we can create an effective health promotion tool. Urban planning and design offers an opportunity to ensure Biophilic design elements are placed where people will absorb a daily ‘dose’.

    Dose response analyses of Biophilic design interventions show significant cost benefits. Health care costs for lifestyle related disease are reduced. Economic productivity is improved as attention is restored and cognitive function enhanced. Social benefits ripple out through communities, build local resilience, boost mental health and well-being.

    Biophilia, our innate love of living things, feeds into a Salutogenic urban design approach.
    Without ecological health there can be no human health and well-being. Water is essential for all life. As such adding water to a design scheme, in any of the formats listed above, humanises space in a profoundly simple way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Nature by Design: the Practice of Biophilic Design

June 1, 2015

The challenge of biophilic design is to address prevailing deficiencies of contemporary building, landscape and interior architecture by initiating a new framework for the beneficial experience of nature in the built environment (Kellert et al 2008, Kellert 2012, Kellert and Finnegan 2011). Biophilic design is about creating good habitat for people as a biological organism…

Share with others

An Introduction to Biophilia

November 10, 2014

Chances are, you enjoy a sunny spot at the windowsill, a crackling fire, a lush pocket garden, a richly patterned rug, or a cascading water fountain. These might seem like indulgences, elements you desire but find no justification for purchasing for your office, demanding in your child’s school or expecting in your hospital room. However,…

Share with others