Feature Article

How to Access the Full Power of Biophilia

People wither physically and mentally without nature. Biophilic design is a remedy and a foundation for regenerative design all at the same time.

Sakhi Arora contributed to this report with interviews from her Master’s thesis: “Understanding and Integrating Biophilia in Work Environments for Achieving a More Human-Centric Model: From Theory to Practice.”

A visitor sits in a warmly lit gallery space.

Windhover Contemplative Center and Art Gallery is designed to provide a sense of refuge and restoration. The dark interior composed of stained oak and rammed earth accentuates the ways that light is introduced—through skylights above each painting in the gallery and through the vertical louvers on the eastern wall, which mimic the non-rhythmic layering of tree trunks.

Photo: Matthew Millman Photography

Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera House.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.

The Ancestral Pueblo’s Mesa Verde cliff dwellings.

These are some of the most revered structures in history. They inspire awe and fascination. They speak to something deep and primordial within us.

Why do these buildings have this effect on us? One answer is that these structures have attributes of biophilic design. That is, they satisfy our innate desire, evolved over centuries, to affiliate with nature—summed up by the term biophilia, or literally, “love of life.”

The Paris Opera House’s extravagant ornamentation appears pleasantly detailed because it is dominated by curves and fractal patterns that one might see on a snail shell or in the winding path of a vine. Fallingwater is thrillingly perched within a waterfall, connecting the visitor to the sounds and the rush of water on its tumbling journey. And Mesa Verde awakes the tactile senses with indigenous earthen materials left exposed for the visitor.  

Features like these are not just aesthetically pleasing; researchers have found that patients heal faster, workers are more productive, and children learn better when more elements of nature are present.

And yet there are still very few projects developed today that inspire a connection to life and the natural world that are comparable to that of structures like the Paris Opera House. Some people, in fact, say biophilic design is being co-opted by companies and applied in a way that looks full of greenery, but ignores the regenerative and place-based qualities that are needed for biophilic design to live up to its true potential.  

This report explores what kind of benefits we would see—in people and in the environment—if we could more effectively tap into people’s innate affinity for nature. We identify the frameworks for applying biophilic design, and we bring you expert advice on how to unleash the full power of biophilia in your projects.

Originally published November 4, 2019 Updated October 22, 2019