An Introduction to Biophilia

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, growing evidence from psychology and neuroscience would challenge your quick dismissal.

What is biophilia?

The practice of incorporating nature and natural elements into the built environment — known as biophilic design — has been proven to measurably reduce stress, enhance cognitive function and creativity, and expedite healing. And this translates to increased productivity, healthcare cost savings, and reduced turnover.

Biophilic design, however, must be implemented correctly to optimize health benefits and potential monetary savings. Not all interactions with nature provide restorative, stimulating experiences for humans; in fact, some nature interactions can even induce stress or fear responses. Fortunately, an emerging number of studies teach us which specific interactions with nature are restorative and which are stressful. Understanding how people viscerally respond to nature and how such beneficial experiences can be supported in urban settings is essential to shaping a healthy and vibrant society.

Paper by TERRAPIN BRIGHT GREEN | 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design

“14 Patterns of Biophilic Design” publication by Terrapin Bright Green.

In an effort to define what constitutes good biophilic design, our consulting firm, Terrapin Bright Green, has distilled research from a number of fields, including environmental psychology, endocrinology and neuroscience, to develop the 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design. These patterns serve as guidelines for applying biophilic design to both interior and exterior environments and are adaptable to just about any design project.

The 14 patterns of biophilic design

The 14 patterns are organized into three broad categories. “Nature in the Space” patterns entail direct contact with nature or natural systems. “Natural Analogues” patterns relate to representations and abstractions of nature. “Nature of the Space” patterns are spatial conditions derived from nature.

Nature in the Space

  • Visual Connection with Nature
  • Non-Visual Connection with Nature
  • Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli
  • Thermal & Airflow Variability
  • Presence of Water
  • Dynamic & Diffuse Light
  • Connection with Natural Systems

Natural Analogues

  • Biomorphic Forms & Patterns
  • Material Connection with Nature
  • Complexity & Order

Nature of the Space

  • Prospect
  • Refuge
  • Mystery
  • Risk/Peril

Each of these patterns can be implemented in spaces of many scales, contexts and climates to elicit positive health responses. Some patterns can be applied fairly intuitively, whereas others require more careful planning. The most successful biophilic spaces tend to employ more than one pattern for maximum impact. For instance, prospect and refuge pair nicely to create protected viewing conditions. Each of these patterns will be discussed in detail in an on-going series of articles. Today, we start with pattern one.

Kikugetu-tei in Takamatsu, Japan is an excellent example of the Visual Connection with Nature pattern, Image copyright wakiii/Flickr

Pattern 1: Visual connection with nature

“Visual Connection with Nature,” the first pattern nested within “Nature in the Space,” is relatively simple to implement. Spaces exhibiting this pattern have a view to nature, natural systems or living elements. This pattern evolved from the many studies on visual preference and responses to views to nature that demonstrated reduced stress, increased positive emotional functioning, improved concentration, and expedited healing rates. Biederman & Vessel in their 2006 study demonstrated that people prefer viewing a natural scene over a man-made environment, and viewing a natural scene repeatedly does not significantly diminish in pleasure over time (ie. a natural view doesn’t bore you as quickly as a man-made view).

An excellent case study displaying the potency of Visual Connection is the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s LEED Gold certified call center in California. Lisa Heschong found that all the employees had great access to daylight, but because the workstations were perpendicular to the window employees had to move their chairs to see the view to the trees outside. When the workstations were re positioned at an angle such that employees could see the trees in their peripheral vision, the $1,000 investment led to a 6% gain in call handling efficiency, or a $2,990 return (i.e., 299% ROI).

Implementing biophilic design strategies, such as for Visual Connection with Nature, doesn’t have to be complex or expensive. Aquariums, potted plants, green walls, views to gardens and distant landscapes, and artwork of natural scenes all satisfy Visual Connection. Strategic and mindful design that (re)connects humans with nature does not just improve the habitability of spaces — it transforms them into rejuvenating, inspiring places that support enhanced health, productivity and learning for all. Biophilic design should be a core strategy for any designer, planner or business endeavoring to make people — and the planet — more healthy, happy and whole.

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12 responses to “An Introduction to Biophilia”

  1. Oliver Heath says:

    Great introductory article to this fascinating report. I think this is an area that many designers will already instinctively understand but may yet to have fully realised the whole concept and the variety of benefits it can bring.
    I look forward to the other summaries!

    • Catie Ryan says:

      Thank you, Oliver. I can only hope that these summaries help engage people more, particularly those many designers not instinctively designing with nature, but who may be inspired by the science and the possibilities.

      • Raviranjan says:

        Prof Beatley’s presentation bgnris to life the creative potential in green building. Pictures from the around the world demonstrate that biophilic design and green building only reinforce benefits in there joint application. Where law and policy can facilitate the greening of cities, the pictures from Prof Beatley’s presentation will not be oddities, but the norm.

  2. Kamsin Mirchandani says:

    I’m currently reading this book. Thanks for your summary. =)

  3. shraddha says:

    Hi Catie ,
    Thank you for your enlightening blog! I am currently researching Technologies available to implement biophilic strategies in the built environment. I was wondering if you had any literature suggestions for me ? Or anything you have come across that could help me.
    I look forward to your next article 🙂

    Shraddha xx

    • Catie Ryan says:

      Hi Shraddha,
      There are a lot of options out there, but they are not always explicitly identified as being biophilic, so it would help to know what type of strategies you’re focusing on and whether you are taking a programming approach or a user-type approach to identifying technologies. For instance, if you are investigating strategies for enhancing the biophilic experience of a retail showroom your technologies may differ from those for a nursery school playroom or a dentist’s waiting room.

      Sometimes it is helpful to assess what your design goals are, beyond biophilia, such as to improve humidity levels or acoustics in an open floor plan, and then identify technologies and materials that could help overcome the design challenges with a biophilic strategy. In this case, an indoor water feature with the right frequency and decibel level could serve as an acoustical barrier and temper the humidity, while adding the visual, auditory and tactile experience of water that reduces stress.

      I hope to discuss strategies a bit more in upcoming posts.

      • Richard says:

        I don’t leave feedback on sites tcplyaily but I had to leave a comment on yours. You write with a lot of interest. It has been a terrific read. Thanks a lot for sharing with us

      • James says:

        Hi Catie. You make mention of technologies differing dependent on the context and space, in particular, nursery school playrooms. I’d like to know a little more about strategies for enhancing biophilic experiences specific to this type of environment, pardon the pun. I’m based in Australia and would enjoy speaking with you. James

    • Ajin says:

      It may sound like fantasy or a nice dream: a city sudrnuored by trees, with a stream running through its center, but as Professor Beatley explained, this dream is not just realizable, it actually exists in many places around the world. As things currently stand, people are detached and steadily moving away from the natural world. The therapeutic influence of the environment on human existence is being lost. But perhaps all this can change with the incorporation of nature into our daily lives, into our streets, our buildings, into our very urban existence.

  4. Priscille says:

    Hello Catie,

    Thank you for this explanation. I’m an undergrad student currently writing my thesis on biophilic design in the healthcare environment and this post has given me such insights. I’m using the 14 Patterns of Biophlic Design as one of my sources so this explanation was much needed.


  5. Priscille says:

    Hello Catie,
    Thank you for this explanation. I’m an undergrad student currently writing my thesis on biophilic design in the healthcare environment and this post has given me such insights. I’m using the 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design as one of my sources so this explanation was much needed.


  6. […] have evolved an instinctual, genetic attraction to life and nature – this is referred to as biophilia. It is therefore believed that looking at, or hearing sounds of nature, reduces stress and allows […]

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