Humans spend a significant amount of time indoors, and, unfortunately, our buildings often seem divorced from their surrounding landscape.  Just about everyone has noticed that being outdoors can improve our moods, and just about every study undertaken has proven that interacting with nature has a positive psychological impact on human brains and bodies.

First made popular by biologist and Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson in the 1980’s, biophilic design stems from the idea of “biophilia,” a deeply innate human desire to connect to and with nature and other life forms. Biophilic design is an extension of that idea, and is one aspect of the larger sustainability movement, with a focus on the human experience in the built environment. (source)  Various studies have shown that exposure to nature elicits positive physiological and emotional reactions, including:

  • lower blood pressure
  • a 10-25% improvement in cognitive performance (function and memory)
  • reduced stress hormones, increased creativity
  • a 20-25% increase in learning speed
  • improved test scores
  • increased attendance at school and workplace
  • improved overall happiness

Biophilic design is achieved through the inclusion of nature and natural elements in interior and architectural design, thus connecting occupants of the built environment with their surroundings, lessening the feeling of being alienated from the outdoors while indoors. Simply put, biophilic design, according to an article by the Urban Land Institute, is “the practice of connecting people and nature within built environments and communities” – biophilic design seeks to reconnect people to nature within the built environment.

Successful biophilic design promotes continuous engagement with nature.  As defined by Terrapin in their seminal work 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, there are three overarching ways in which biophilic design is incorporated with building design:

 Nature in the Space by creating a direct, visual connection to elements of nature that can be active or passive. These types of connections include:

  • Visual Connection with Nature – Stimulating views to elements of nature, living systems and natural processes; such as a window with a garden or sea view, potted plants, flower-beds, courtyard gardens, green walls and green roofs.
  • Non-Visual Connection with Nature – Often undervalued design interactions that stimulate our other senses of sound, touch, smell and taste to remind us of our connection to nature.
  • Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli – The rich sensory stimuli of nature in consistent, yet unpredictable, motion; such as the gentle sway of grasses or leaves in a breeze, or ripples on water.
  • Thermal & Airflow Variability – The subtle changes in air and surface temperature, humidity and airflow across the skin that mimic natural environments.
  • Presence of Water – To see, hear or touch it.
  • Dynamic & Diffuse Light – Clever use of light and shadow to mimic the lighting conditions or circadian processes occurring in nature.
  • Connection with Natural Systems – An awareness or proximity to natural processes, such as seasonal changes, reminding us of the process of healthy ecosystems.

Natural Analogues that focus on incorporating patterns found in the natural world and provide an indirect sense of the great outdoors. Examples include:

  • Biomorphic Forms & Patterns – Symbolic representations within the design of the patterns, shapes, textures or numerical arrangements found in nature.
  • Material Connection with Nature – Using materials, grains, textures and elements in design that distinctly reflect the environment to create an overarching sense of the natural world.
  • Complexity & Order – An abstract but visually appealing concept that uses the rich sensory information of the symmetries, hierarchies and geometries found in nature, within design.

Nature of the Space addresses patterns of the built world around us and, more importantly, how we relate to it through spatial configurations that enable to see beyond our immediate surroundings and interact with the natural environment. Elements include:

  • Prospect – Providing an unimpeded view over a distance. Patterns consider a wider-frame or bigger-picture view of your environment such as floor to ceiling windows or open plan office spaces.
  • Refuge – The Refuge pattern provides environments that are contemplative and protective, where the occupants can withdraw from activity, whether for privacy or for more focused work.
  • Mystery – Replicates the excitement and unknown elements of the great outdoors in our built environment and offers a sense of anticipation that compels one to explore the space.
  • Risk/Peril – Environments that feel exhilarating and intriguing with an implied threat from an identifiable risk, coupled with the sense of a reliable safeguard.

L.R. Kimball has incorporated biophilia design elements in several projects including:

Sheetz Operations & Training Center

The Sheetz Corporation’s 115,000 SF, four-story Operations & Training Center houses offices, conference rooms, a learning center, data center, training kitchen, main kitchen, and dining room and an adjacent 13,000-square-foot daycare center. Flexibility and connection to nature were a key design drivers. Sited between two protected wetlands, the building provides a pastoral view from the majority of workspaces. The building’s massing is based on a simple, flexible, rectangular floor plan, reminiscent of the farm structures that dot the Western Pennsylvania landscape. The dining room is an independent pavilion that extends into the lawn, with exposed timber columns and a natural stone, gas-burning fireplace against the wall. A large, southern-facing glazed porch brings the outside in, encouraging employees to experience nature during the workday. Seamless meshing of prospect and refuge places allows employees a wide variety of spaces and experiences throughout their day.

Middlesex County College

Middlesex County College’s new 35,000 SF L-shaped South Hall Science Building features a courtyard space that extends the campus green and opens the building to the surrounding landscape. A two-story atrium at the intersection of the building’s wings becomes a glowing lantern at night, giving the building a strong identity. To achieve LEED Gold status, the building features an abundance of natural light for both user well-being and as a means of reducing energy costs for lighting.  Shaded glass on the South, East, and West facades minimize solar gain within the building, thereby reducing energy costs. Clerestory windows allow additional light into the classroom spaces and mark areas where students might sit and collaborate.

Dorothy Marron University

The 5,660 SF Dorothy Marron University Community Chapel at Georgian Court was developed as a large gathering space for worship, campus meetings, and other group functions. With capacity for 150, the chapel is situated adjacent to the Apollo Fountain and Lake Carasaljo and a full glass wall on the north side of the chapel overlooks Founder’s Grove and the Japanese Garden, creating a seamless connection with nature. Designed as a light filled house of worship, the chapel is well integrated into its natural setting.  The various gardens of this campus arboretum, visible through large glass windows, are used as the altar’s backdrop.  On the lake side, a wall of doors opens to allow the congregants access to an outdoor gathering space overlooking the lake.


14 PATTERNS OF BIOPHILIC DESIGN, Improving Health & Well-Being in the Built Environment
Terrapin Bright Green, LLC

THE ECONOMICS OF BIOPHILIA, Why designing with nature in mind makes financial sense
Terrapin Bright Green, LLC

The Biophilia Hypothesis
Edited by Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson

Nature in the Space
Natural Analogues
Nature of the Space

What Is and Is Not Biophilic Design?
Metropolis Magazine, Oct 26, 2015
Dr. Stephen R. Kellert, PhD

Biophilic design: What is it? Why it matters? And how do we use it?
Building Design + Construction, November 19, 2018
Kaitlyn Gillis, Stantec Blog

By: Joanne Pizzo, AIA
Senior Architect, Education Market Segment Leader
L.R. Kimball