We often get asked whether we do Biophilic Design. It’s a trend that people are hearing more about, and a term that is getting tossed around more and more. First off, the answer is, of course, yes, we can incorporate the principles of Biophilic Design into your project. But it quite quickly evolves into a more profound and significant conversation, because, although the concept is simple, it covers a broad range of topics and strategies, and there is no single prescription for how to apply it to your design.

The Six Principles of Biophilic Design were defined by Yale professor Stephen R. Kellert, and serve as the foundation for the concept, guiding architects and designers in creating spaces that deeply resonate with our innate need to be in harmony with nature. Through the thoughtful application of these principles, architecture sets goals that go beyond shelter, performance and style. It strives to create a place that inspires creativity and fosters well-being. For us, Biophilic Design is a key component of our Wellness Architecture practice and our holistic approach to design.

What is Biophilic Design?

In Kellert’s book, ‘Biophilic Design,’ he opens with the definition:

Biophilic design is the deliberate attempt to trans-
late an understanding of the inherent human
affinity to affiliate with natural systems and
processes known as biophilia (Wilson 1984, Kellert
and Wilson 1993)-into the design of the built envi-

As such, Biophilic design is an approach to architecture and interior design that emphasizes nature and a natural state, and how we relate to our surroundings intellectually and sensually. It stems from the concept of ‘biophilia,’ a term popularized by Edward O. Wilson, suggesting that humans are healthier and happier when they are connected to nature and the greater environment.

By integrating aspects from Kellert’s ‘Six Principles’ into architecture and interior design, biophilic design strives to create a holistic environment that nurtures the human spirit.

How Does Biophilic Design Benefit Humans?

Kellert argues that a connection to nature is not just beneficial, but is a ‘biologically encoded’ need. This means that a general disconnection from nature is detrimental. It means that some degree of biophilic design is essential for us to thrive.

‘The emergence during the past roughly 5,000 years of large-scale agriculture, fabrication, technology, industrial production, engineering, and the modern city constitutes a small fraction of human history, a period that has not substituted for the benefits of adaptively responding to a largely natural environment. Most of our emotional, problem-solving, critical thinking, and constructive abilities continue to reflect skills and aptitudes learned in close association with natural systems and processes that remain critical in human health, maturation, and productivity.’ — Kellert, Biophilic Design

Biophilic design’s benefits are rooted in aligning us with patterns that have shaped our development over the entire course of history. Experiencing our world the way we did as foragers puts things right throughout our entire being. As abstract as this sounds, this concept has been well studied. Even small exposure to fresh air, views of natural scenes, interactions with natural materials and textures, have dramatically positive effects on a person’s health, recovery, psyche, inspiration, productivity, stress levels and creativity.

Physical health benefits are equally notable, with improvements in air quality, noise pollution reduction, and natural ventilation promotion contributing to overall well-being. For instance, use of natural light and an overall lighting concept tuned to a person’s natural circadian rhythms has been linked to better sleep patterns and vitality. A well designed courtyard, garden, promenade or park encourages physical activity and social interaction, further enhancing health and happiness.

Moreover, biophilic design principles can contribute to a sense of belonging and community when they create more inviting and comfortable spaces that bring people together. This sense of connection and engagement improves personal health and happiness and promotes a stronger, healthier community fabric.

Introducing the Six Elements of Biophilic Design

There is more to Biophilic design than putting in some plants; it is a holistic approach that integrates natural patterns into the fabric of built environments through interpretations of Kellert’s strategic design principles. It is also a very personal process. These elements are principles to be interpreted in a way that makes sense to you and your project. Here is a summary:

1. Environmental Features

The first principle, Environmental Features, means to directly integrate natural elements into built spaces. Kellert breaks down each principle into a list of ‘attributes’ that break down the concept into a tangible idea that can inspire the design. On the list for this principle are: Color, Water, Air, Sunlight, Plants, Natural Materials, Views, Facade Greening, Geology/Landscape, and Fire.

Because this principle involves a direct use of the features listed in the attributes, it’s easy to imagine how they can be incorporated.

Intentional use of color; water features, ponds and fountains; plants, gardens, Ivy covered walls; a fireplace or firepit, can be added to the design scheme in creative ways that fit with space, site, style and budget.

2. Natural Shapes and Forms

Whereas the first element was about putting the actual natural features into your design, the second Element is about symbolic representation and motifs.

The list of attributes includes Botanical and Animal Motifs, Columnar Supports, Arches, Vaults and Domes, Biomimicry and more.

It is interesting to note that historic architecture was loaded with nature-inspired symbolism. Egyptian architecture used columns with leaf patters at the capital. Greek and Roman architecture had elaborate carvings at the cornice and frieze featuring acanthus and laurel, egg and dart, and personalized animal motifs. Renaissance architects built on this, adding layers of detail and elaborate fresco painting. Japanese wood structures carved patterns of plants and animals into columns and beams and cut curves into their rafter ends. Islamic architecture used geometric representations of nature in carvings and mosaics. Gothic architecture used treelike fanned vaults, stone tracery and carvings throughout. Virtually every culture had its own way of employing its craftsman to add natural shapes and forms to their buildings.

The modernists classified all of this as ‘ornament’ and wrote it off as being frivolous, theorizing that humans prefer basic rectangles with no details, and that buildings should be inspired by machines rather than nature or history.

Whether it’s the use of columns, wallpaper, tile patterns, furniture and fabric with nature motifs, or carved mouldings, there are many ways to add Natural shapes and Forms to your biophilic design.

3. Natural Patterns and Processes

The first two elements covered the literal and representative use of nature and natural forms. The third principle of Biophilic Design is about the use of natural properties to bring the experience of nature to the built form. It is the design of fluid and temporal sensations and feelings rather than physical constructions.

The list of attributes for this category includes: Sensory Variability; Information Richness; Aging, Time and ‘Patina’; Bounded and Transitional Spaces; Contrasts; Balance and Tension; Fractals; Hierarchical Organization.

This layer of Biophilic Design involves nature’s dynamic and transient aspects. How do you play with shadow, use materials and details that look better as you age, and engage the senses in a way you would when outside, while recognizing the realities of built indoor space? This is where a project starts to come to life, visualizing the changes of time throughout the day and season and beyond. Think of how a textured floor feels different under your feet; how this sensation is different than on a polished floor, and how your body processes this information. This is one small example. Think of how many ways your senses are engaged when you are walking through the woods. How can you bring even some of this richness through design?

4. Light and Space

Virtually every designer considers light and space to be at or near the top of the list of key elements to their design. The fourth principle considers these elements as they connect to our primal, natural, ancestral experience of Light and Space.

The list of attributes for the Light and Space category include: Natural Light, Filtered and Diffused Light, Light and Shadow, Reflected Light, Warm Light, Spaciousness, Spatial Variability and Harmony.

How can light and space be used to give us the feeling of freedom, but also comfort? How do we use it in accordance with our natural rhythms, especially in a world with so much unnatural interference? How do we use light and shadow to differentiate spaces? Designing around our circadian rhythms is, in and of itself, a large topic that comes up with our clients, and is something we consider in different ways depending on the needs of a project.

Not every room wants bright, direct sun. In fact, most people in most cultures would seek out shade during the brightest, hottest parts of the day. Some rooms want indirect light. Some spaces want the interplay of diffuse shadows. Some rooms want to be intimate and cozy. All of these would have factored into our natural experience, and are opportunities to add richness to a design.

It is also important to think about how light works at various scales. It’s easy to picture the big moves, the overall lighting condition, the beams of light coming in through windows, how that reflects off the floor to light the ceiling and bounce deep into a room. But light is also what defines our experience of the small details, and these have a profound impact on how our senses interpret a space. Theorists describe how the interplay of sharp edges and soft curves on a moulding profile gives sharp lines against gradients to subtly define the edges of a room, giving it life and scale. Think also of how light shines across a plaster wall with a slight organic texture, and how that compares to a perfectly painted and finished gypsum board wall. The plaster wall has an added layer of depth and character for us to connect to.

5. Place-Based Relationships

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

The fifth Principle of Biophilic Design scales out to look at how we relate to our surroundings, and how they influence our design. It is our biological need to feel connection to a place, our comfort in the familiarity of our ‘home.’

The list of attributes that define this principle includes: Geographic, Cultural, Ecological and Historic Connection, Indigenous Materials, Landscape Orientation and Features, Spirit of Place, Avoiding Placelessness.

The last attribute, Avoiding Placelessness, sums up the category quite concisely. ‘Placelessness’ doesn’t feel good. Modernity, ‘International Style’, city planning, suburban sprawl, chain retail and mass production have created generic environments. This is antithetical to our Biophilic needs. Incorporating this principle makes the places we design and live in more special; unique in accordance with the natural world and our historical experience of it.

Seeing architecture and design as part of a ‘Living Tradition’ benefits our health and wellbeing in many ways and is a critical element of the Biophilic Design process. Think of how a town on a hilltop, or a slope down to the sea is designed around the conditions of the landscape, and how the architecture embraces and enhances these challenges. Or how stone cottages with thatch roofs used the materials of the place and address the needs of the climate to inform their design. Compare this to a generic, modern world where the buildings and spaces look and feel the same, no matter where they are dropped down, no matter the history or climate. It’s easy to imagine the benefits the richer spaces have on how we feel.

6. Evolved Human-Nature Relationships

The final element of biophilic design is about the big picture, zooming out to look at our fundamental and foundational relationship to the natural world.

On the list attributes for this principle are: Prospect and Refuge; Order and Complexity; Curiosity; Change and Metamorphosis; Security and Protection; Affection and Attachment; Attraction and Beauty; Exploration; Information and Cognition; Awe and Reverence.

This principle digs into our deep psyche, forcing us to ask big questions about why we are making our design decisions, and who we are making them for. Security, comfort, adventure, excitement, spirituality: A great design can tap into all of these human needs.


As designers, moving through the layers of the Biophilic Design process is complex and intricate, but this is also where it gets fun. As you can see, it’s much more than plants and views. As we go through the early phases of design, we are getting to know you—our client—the site, the history, the culture, the climate, and considering how we design for richness and harmony. Making a beautiful design is one part, one step. Following the principles of Biophilic Design help make the design come alive.