Biophilic Design: A Framework for Architects

April 16, 2024

What An Architect DoesBiophilic DesignEco DesignGreen Architecture

The idea that nature, however we define it, is good for us, and is the primary source of inspiration for design, is not new. What is new is the study called biophilic design, specifying how beneficial natural elements should be incorporated into the environments we create. This field was not necessary just a few generations ago when the population was largely rural, and people spent much of their time outdoors. As we’ve become predominantly urban, and, according to the EPA, spend over 90% of our time indoors, we’re beginning to realize a nature deficit disorder due to our poor environments.

Our genes expect the natural world; our bodies and minds are getting drywall boxes, bereft of the rich sensory input that can help keep us healthy in body and mind.

Since the 1980s there have been numerous scientific studies quantifying the positive effects of “forest bathing,” views to nature, non-rhythmic sensory stimuli, and the like, and there have been books and web resources summarizing them. The Living Future Institute began a Biophilic Design Initiative, but to my mind there has been a disconnect from theory to practical application: how do we as designers actually do it? 

In our latest project we set out to create a framework for ourselves and other designers to use as a guide. As we got into it we realized that this practice really is an art, not something that can have a simple prescriptive how-to guide. It’s similar to learning good composition in painting: there are some general pointers, but many of the “rules” can be broken, and in the end it has to be brought together as an organic whole. I find this to be exciting, since it connects the aesthetic and the natural–it’s about creating certain types of experiences, more like a piece of music than a merely functional engineering diagram. 

Probably my best guide as an architect was Grant Hildebrand’s “The Wright Space” book. Since I know Wright’s work so well, this helped me see how Wright was intuiting biophilic principles, and how he shaped space and experience to create the impacts his buildings are famous for. Hildbebrand makes that case, as I interpret it, that probably the most important principle of biophilic design is “Prospect and Refuge,” the desire to find a place of vista with safety, a view to abundance from a place of security, perhaps with the ability to see without being seen. This experience should be created as the central goal of the design, the destination space or spaces, around which other elements form. With this as the starting point, we developed what we’re calling the Five Elements of Biophilic Design:

  1. Prospect and Refuge: the sense of orientation that allows us to feel safe and free at the same time, through spatial characteristics that organize circulation and the main spaces of the building. The first step is to identify where on the site this can and should happen. Refuge will be lower, darker, more enclosed, architecturally a solid element–for Wright it was the hearth usually, but there are many options. Prospect will be taller, brighter, with views ideally to a vista including greenspace and water. It’s inspiring to see this happen in a Japanese courtyard ten feet square; it doesn’t necessarily have to be a lake view!
  2. Nature Sensed: in this principle we summarize views to nature, tactile experiences (natural materials), rhythmic and non-rhythmic sensory stimuli, sounds (water fountain, for instance), and smells (especially botanicals). These should be experienced from the places where the most time is spent and/or the most intimate connection can be had. Wood, stone, water, plants, animals, and the design of airflow can all have a role.
  3. Dynamic Light: natural and artificial light are varied as in a landscape, with emphasis on light from above, and light is used to signal pathways and goals. One strategy is to think of nature analogies: the forest edge is a great inspiration for light (also a prospect/refuge landscape moment of ancestral memory). Conversely, avoid ubiquitous lighting–if you were on the beach, you’d want an umbrella if you were going to spend any length of time there–all-over lighting is dull. 
  4. Complex Order: this is another principle straight from Hildebrand–the idea that the building has a perceptible order, but that order flowers into complexity. It is usually not a rigid, imposed geometry, but flexible and responsive. Like an organic being, this allows integration of all systems (structure, circulation, thermal control) while responding to the site and allowing for variety. This is also where nature analogues come into play, incorporating design elements that reflect natural patterns (branching, fractals, growth spirals, etc.).
  5. Enticement and Discovery: this is a fun one for the designer, as it’s about engaging the minds and imaginations of occupants, hitting their dopamine receptors. Having established the primary Prospect and Refuge space(s), entering and using the building is choreographed to provide the experience of discovery, finding the goal spaces that are suggested from outside–like finding a creek in the woods or a clearing around the next bend. Again, Wright’s hearth projected the chimney as a signal of that space, but it can take many forms. 

As mentioned above, this type of design is an integrative activity, an art of visualizing possibilities and orchestrating experiences. There is no one right way, and it will vary according to project type, site, and climate. We feel that these Five Elements are a clear and simple starting point and guide for designers, as they have become for us. They also allow for a shared language so that stakeholders beyond the design team can participate, as required for ILFI’s charrette process

Keep in mind that these principles can be employed on renovations as well as new projects. While a new building can be a purer and more complete expression, subtle changes to older buildings can reshape the experience significantly.