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  • Writer's pictureLily Dittschlag & Dennis Dittschlag


Rich landscape, biophilia, biophilic design

Think of a place where you feel the most relaxed, calm, and happy --- any place that you would like to spend more time at.

Most likely, you are imagining a place that has a lot of natural elements in it, quite possibly a place outdoors. It's fascinating how that is. Human beings have a natural affinity to be in touch with nature.

In our search to find out what makes a comfortable home, it is the connection with nature that keeps coming up time and time again. There many different design inspirations and terminology floating around, but there is one design concept that summarizes it all; it's called Biophilic Design.

What is Biophilic Design?

dining room, biophilia, biophilic design

Biophilia translates to "love of nature". Biophilic design is a sustainable design concept centered around us as human beings and creating an environment that connects us with nature in a meaningful way to benefit our health and well-being.

It is about creating spaces for both restoration and stimulation. Whereas sustainability focuses on what impact we humans have on nature, Biophilic Design focuses on what impacts nature has on us.

Historically, this makes a lot of sense because humans have lived in nature for the longest time. It's only in the past two centuries that urbanization and densely built cities have dominated how we live. Today, it is being criticized that buildings can be very sterile, there is not enough green space in a city, and we are simply spending more and more time indoors.

Biophilic Design is all about bringing the connection with nature back into our lives and specifically into our manmade environment.

Why is this relevant?

restaurant, biophilia, biophilic design

There is a lot of science at work here, but in essence scientists and designers have concluded that there are significant benefits from the relationship between humans and nature. The main effects can be summarized as improved:

  • Cognitive functionality and performance, that is your ability to think, learn, and work;

  • Psychological health; this means your adaptability, alertness, ability to concentrate, emotion and mood, restoration and stress management;

  • Physiological health by relaxation of muscles and lowering of diastolic blood pressure and stress hormone (i.e. cortisol) levels in the bloodstream.

For these reasons, more and more companies include biophilic design elements into their office spaces, and there is an increased focus on public buildings, schools, and especially hospitals to make them more comfortable by connecting people with nature.

Different spaces or elements are designed to have a certain effect on us, but what they all have in common is enhancing our love for a place. And if we love being in a place, it is good for our mind and our body and therefore it is good for our health and well-being overall.

How do you go about it?

savannah, biophilia, biophilic design
Photo credit to Joyce Yu

One of the images often quoted by biophilic design experts is that of a savannah landscape. This image, like the one above, lets us experience all aspects of nature and it provides us an overview of a fruitful environment we can survive in (or better our ancestors could many, many years ago). We can see a lot of green vegetation as a sign of life. There are resources like water to drink, plants and animals to eat, and tree branches to build a fire. We can see predators, impending weather, and unsurmountable obstacles like the mountains in the background. We see spots for shelter and refuge.

That's nice, but how does this relate to buildings and design?

The concepts of what nature means to us in a modern-day living environment and how it affects us have been studied and classified into three main categories. For a successful implementation, we need a combination of:

  • Direct connection with nature

  • Indirect connection using analogues to nature, and

  • A good sense of space also referred to as the nature of a place.

The most practical report explaining these categories and how to implement them in the actual design has been written by the New York consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green in their "14 Patterns of Biophilic Design". These 14 patterns are grouped into the three main categories as follows:

14 patterns of biophilic design

Now, let's look at these categories are little more closely.

Direct Connection with Nature = Nature in the Space

Bringing nature into the living space and connecting the inside of a home with the surrounding outdoors are quite obvious factors for a direct connection with nature. It also means leaving the natural elements unchanged or in their original state. The most common examples are potted plants, natural light, flowerbeds, bird feeders, butterfly gardens, water features, fountains, aquariums, courtyard gardens, green walls, or vegetated roofs.

There are a few patterns here that we find more challenging to address in an indoor environment than the others:

  • Non-visual connection with nature via touch, smell, change of temperature, air movement. Without having the windows open, which is no problem in the summer months, some of these aspects are more difficult to reach. What will help in our house is the designation air ventilation system that is a mandatory design element in any Passive House.

  • Non-rhythmic sensory stimuli. In nature, most things move without a distinct pattern or rhythm, like the wind swaying tree branches, leaves falling, animals moving about.

  • Presence of water. This aspect not only means to have water present but all aspects of a healthy body of water, including the sight and sound of moving water.

  • Connection with natural systems and processes like the change of seasons. This also includes the change between day and night and the change in weather.

Some of the examples we listed above can be used indoors and outdoors, like a water feature for example, or bringing in natural light that gets diffused and casts shadows as the time of day changes. But not everything will work with your design scheme, the available space, or general layout. In this case, it's important to make this direct connection with nature through the views of nature from the inside of your home. From your living spaces, this could be with a flower box below your office window where the wind and rain move the flowers and bees come in the summer, or having a good view into your backyard with lots of natural greenery.

The direct connection with nature provides the best and purest experience of nature and the highest benefit. In your design efforts, you should therefore put the most focus on this category.

terrace door, biophilia, biophilic design

Indirect Connection with Nature or Natural Analogues

When a direct connection is impossible or to supplement it, the indirect connection with natural elements comes in. This can come in the form of objects, materials, colors, shapes, and/or patterns found in nature itself. Essentially, this means to imitate nature or use processed (and also unnatural) elements to remind us of real nature. "Biomorphic design" or "Biomimicry" are terms that are often used to describe this process.

The first things here to think about are the more permanent elements of your home, like wood floors, granite countertops, or slate tiles. While these are all elements from nature, their use is considered an indirect connection only, because they are not in their true natural state of a tree or a rock.

From there, many other elements qualify, like furniture with organic shapes, textiles of natural material like a sisal carpet, artwork, decorations, etc. Some of these items are also easy to change along with the change of seasons outdoors.

wall sticker, mural, biophilia, biophilic design

Especially when it comes to the use of forms and patterns that exist in nature there are endless options, like ornamental designs appearing to look like a ranking plant or an image of a seashell. One specific design approach is the use of "fractals". Fractals are repeated design patterns that look the same as a whole as they do highly magnified. Examples of fractals include branches of trees, snowflakes, or the veining in leaves. While these designs sometimes look highly geometric, there is a strong link to structures in nature.

floor tile, biophilia, biophilic design

Fractals and the image of the tile above provide us with another important aspect of biophilic design --- the complexity and order of things existing in nature. Complexity because it takes us a moment to appreciate all the details of the pattern and the different colors. Yet, it's not chaotic and there is an order to the whole thing when we look at it from a distance. It is this co-existence that provides us with both excitement and a calm sense of security.

The indirect connection with nature is an easy and fun way to bring us closer to nature, and with really unlimited options, there is a lot of room for design experiments here.

The Human Spatial Response or the Nature of the Space

To get the best response from any space we find ourselves in, the space should provide us with a certain experience. It needs to make us feel something. How we respond to a space is largely dictated by four elements:

  • Prospect, describing an unobstructed view over a distance, which is important for our surveillance and planning.

  • Refuge, having a place for withdrawal from environmental conditions or to be for ourselves and away from the main center of activity. Here, we want to be protected from behind and overhead.

  • Mystery, which describes a space where we are not quite sure what lies ahead but we are promised more by getting partial views or other clues that invite us to explore further into the environment.

  • Risk/Peril, where we perceive an identifiable threat but at the same time we have reliable safeguard to counter the risk.

In many aspects, today's detached home provides many of the aspects for prospect and refuge with the main floor level being raised a few feet off the ground and offering safe outlook posts from raised decks, porches, or balconies while overlooking the environment around us.

On a different note, the risk/peril relationship could be achieved with an open staircase for example...

open staircase, natural light, biophilia, biophilic design

Refuge on the other hand could be a comfortable reading nook, a smaller space with warm wall colors, and lots of upholstery.

Mystery on the other hand could be a hallway, like the one below, or having a space divider.

hallway, biophilia, biophilic design

Many of these ideas sound grand or seem to imply that you need a lot of space. But that doesn't need to be the case. Small spaces can bring us rich experiences of nature all the same. It also means that you should aim to have as many aspects as possible covered throughout the house, but that doesn't mean each room needs to have it all at the same time.

What is NOT Biophilic Design?

Not all aspects of nature are necessarily positive for us or classify as Biophilic Design. Let's remember that you want to make a meaningful connection with nature.

As humans, we have survived in certain natural environments, whereas others don't have much to do with our fitness or survival. What does this mean? Elements from environments where humans would typically struggle to survive are not generally part of Biophilic Design. Examples are desert or deep-sea environments, microorganisms we wouldn't directly relate to, or extinct plants and animals.

Simply putting a single plant on your desk doesn't cut it. A single natural element here or there is not enough to provide us with a meaningful experience. It's more about creating a habitat where all elements are connected and benefit from the sum of all the individual components. You could call this an ecosystem.

Biophilic Design needs to take the location into account. Picking elements that are local to the site or the immediate region is key here. When you think about our connection with nature as if you were to go for a walk outdoors, this makes a lot more sense. Growing a palm tree and having a bamboo wall feature is not local to Toronto, for example. Sustainability is a big aspect of Biophilic Design. Staying local in your design elements will further highlight this aspect and the connection between your interior and exterior should feel much more appropriate. It's all about the setting!

stairs, plants, biophilia, biophilic design

Putting It All Together

First and foremost, Biophilic Design needs to enhance your love of a place. It's creating spaces where you want to spend more time and where you feel the most comfortable.

For the most part, this is achieved by a balance between indoors and outdoors and a balance between humans and nature. How this balance is achieved is pretty flexible. A design for a traditional home office with a library will be different from a modern spa themed bathroom (it's considering the purpose and desired outcome). But it's all different per person and the setting of the house and its surroundings. There is no "one size fits all" approach to Biophilic Design, only the overarching design principles we discussed above and your unique approach to reaching the desired outcome.

The main strategy when it comes to the successful implementation of the biophilic design principles is to have a diverse approach of combining many natural elements --- but they must fit together overall!

Due to the use of natural elements, local sourcing, and general health and well-being, Biophilic Design is regarded as a very sustainable form of design. Many sustainability organizations have incorporated it into their guiding principles or even certification requirements, such as the International WELL Building Institute or the International Living Future Institute, ILFI.

What intrigued us, in the beginning, was integrating Biophilic Design with the Passive House principles. To us, this means experiencing the living comfort of a Passive House combined with the sustainability factors around the energy efficiency, and using Biophilic Design to support both. A Passive House with its clean airflow and ventilation, smart natural light that is used for heating and cooling, and our solar system will form a strong base to apply Biophilic Design elements. As a young family with a chance to build our dream home, this combination feels like a potential legacy that can proudly be handed down through the generations.

This does not mean that we will apply all suggested methodologies of a fully structured Biophilic Design approach, like bringing in experts to assess the geography, history, and biology of the site. But it does mean that we will make a concerted effort to come up with a holistic design scheme that will make use of as many natural elements as possible. We are firmly planning for things like a rain garden in the backyard, many more plants in the house than we have now, more natural color schemes, etc.

We couldn't be more excited to continue our research and discussing our next ideas.

Aside from the Terrapin Bright Green report referenced above, more research and recommendations can be drawn from:

  • Designing with People in Mind (R. Kaplan, S. Kaplan, & Ryan, 1998)

  • Patterns of Home (Jacobson, Silverstein & Winslow, 2002)


bathroom, biophilia, biophilic design

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