Biophilic Architecture: Finding Values Within Sustainaibility

Biophilia in architecture features the idea of making a sustainable space essential for physical, mental and spiritual well being of the occupants. Here’s a description of the term as well as how it does that.

Biophilic Architecture

“We will never achieve an ethical architecture that is beautiful and sustainable until nature is integral and at the core and the substance and being of the architecture, not added on. If it’s beautiful, it can’t be sustainable. Buildings must shelter and inspire.”

– Steve Kieran, architect. (words from his lecture on ‘Toward an Ethical Architecture’)

The two most significant and complementary goals of the restorative-environmental design are avoiding, minimizing, and mitigating the harmful effects of building construction and promoting positive interactions between people and nature in the already built environment. Out of these two, the most neglected option is the second one. I have seen in many residential and commercial buildings that the architects barely have anything to do with nature, which even affects the lives of people there. The natural environment is the growth stimulator that enables humans to develop biologically, both physically and mentally. And the separation of this nature from our lives has significantly affected our quality and character of living. Hence, to keep the label “positive environmental impact” or “Biophilic” in our mind is cardinal. Now, before you start confusing the terms, let me tell you that Biophilic plays a significant role in describing the second dimension of a comprehensive approach to restorative environmental design. The fundamental objective of Biophilic architecture or design is to provide a positive and valued experience of nature in the human-built environment. Hence, to resolve all our problems related to the state of our living, we must incorporate Biophilia in architecture.  

What is Biophilic Architecture?

By now, some of you have already got an idea of the term, Biophilic architecture. To be clear, let me explain what it is and why it matters to us.

Biophilic architecture integrates nature into the lives of occupants to create a healthier and more productive environment. The importance of incorporating this into modern development cannot be overstated. When developments lack significant biophilic features and characteristics, we have seen that very few low-environmental impact designs prove sustainable or contribute significantly to a more benign society over the long run. People are rarely motivated to invest the resources and energies needed to sustain buildings, landscapes, and places if they are not emotionally and intellectually attached to them. As our world changes rapidly, innovations with low environmental impact will become conventional, if not obsolete. Is it likely that the occupants of a building will be sufficiently motivated to maintain and restore the structure, or will they neglect it and abandon it eventually? Landscapes and buildings that don’t inspire positive experiences of nature will almost always be discarded over time since they aren’t perceived as aesthetically pleasing or as contributing to people’s emotional and intellectual well-being. Architecture and design that focuses only on avoiding harm to the environment and human health fail to provide a tangible vision for how we can live and enjoy the natural world more fully. Hence, creating mere sustainability in buildings can not solve our long-run problems of healthy living. This is where Biophilic architecture steps in.

As psychologist Judith Heerwagen argues,

“Human performance and well-being… depend not only on the absence of significant environmental problems but also on the presence of particular kinds of features and attributes in buildings… The challenge of green design is… to integrate into buildings the positive biophilic features of our evolved relationship with nature and to avoid biophobic conditions.”

Hence, I conclude this section with a few words. Achieving a sustainable design or architecture is okay, but it must have greater solutions to create something into solving specific problems, resulting in a beautiful place for the people’s long-term physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

Attributes of Biophilia in Architecture.

As you know the brief meaning of Biophilia in architecture, let me now tell you how it is incorporated into our lives. A building’s facade, interior environment, decorative features, and exterior landscape can all exhibit biophilic design. There are many ways in which it can be revealed, whether directly or indirectly, or symbolically, and it can also occur unconsciously, without any deliberate intent or even recognition. Biophilic architecture often taps into human affinities for nature that people frequently fail to recognize, which underscores its ancient qualities. Due to this, many of the world’s most admired buildings and landscapes possess prominent biophilic features that are often overlooked but exert powerful effects on us nonetheless. Hilderbrand suggests that biophilic design has a more subjective quality. He says,

“We are biologically predisposed to liking buildings and landscapes with prominent natural elements. When we cannot actually place ourselves in a natural setting, we make some effort to provide ourselves with substitutes. There is evidence that we like to have around us natural archetypes or stimulations of them. The point is not that a building or landscape resembles nature but that some architectural scenes accord (e.g., in form and space, in light and darkness) with an archetypal image of the natural world.”

Now, before we go into further details, let me first tell you a few biophilic features. They include natural lighting, natural materials, natural ventilation, shapes and forms that mimic natural features and processes, views and prospects of nature, and more. Psychologist Judith Heerwagen developed a list of its features, which gives the best synopsis of Biophilic architecture. 

Elements of Biophilic Design Architecture.

Prospect (ability to see into the distance)Brightness in the field of view, Ability to get to a distant point for a better view, Horizon/Sky imagery (sun, mountains, clouds), Strategic viewing condition, View corridors.
Refuge (sense of enclosure or shelter)Canopy Effect (Lowered ceilings, screenings, branchlike forms overhead).
Water (Indoors or inside views)Water (Indoors or inside views) – Glimmer or Reflective Surface (suggests clean water), Moving water (Also suggests clean, aerated water), Symbolic forms of water.
BiodiversityVaried vegetation indoors and out (large trees, plants, flowers), Windows designed and placed to incorporate nature views, Outdoor natural areas with rich vegetation and animals.
Sensory VariabilityChanges and variability in environmental color, temperature, air movement, textures, and light over time and spaces.
BiomimicryDesigns derived from nature, Use of natural patterns, forms, and textures, Fractal characteristics (self-similarity at different levels of scale with random variation in key features rather than exact repetition).
Sense of PlayfulnessIncorporation of decor, natural materials, artifacts, objects, and spaces whose primary purpose is to delight, surprise and amuse.
EnticementDiscovered complexity, Information richness that encourages exploration, Curvilinear surfaces that gradually open information to view.
Source: Adapted from J Heerwagen and B. Hase, “Building Biophilia: Connecting people to nature” Environmental Design + Construction

Dimensions of Biophilic Design.

To understand Biophilic architecture broadly, we have to look at its two dimensions- Organic design and Vernacular design.

1. Organic Design.

Organic designs are the building shapes and forms which possess natural features and processes of human affinity, either directly, indirectly, or symbolically. For instance, the direct experience would be large self-sustaining features of the natural world, such as natural wooden landscapes, streams, unfiltered air, light, etc. The indirect experience is the contact with the natural elements, which require human input, such as a potted plant, manicured lawn, etc. 

A little history tells us that the term organic design originates with the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, though he described it in an obscure way. He directed the discussion in two significant respects. First of all, he stated that buildings and landscapes are attractive because of their connection and relationship with the natural environment. As a second suggestion, he proposed that most successful architecture possesses harmony and integrity derived from nature or, as he suggested, a characteristic of being true to itself. The best examples where one can see these organic qualities are architectural structures like Fallingwater (located in Bear Run, Amsterdam), Johnson Wax Office Building (Racine, Wisconsin), and Taliesen West (Scottsdale, Arizona).

When Wright’s residential structures were examined, several significant organic design features emerged, like the emphasis on natural materials, natural lighting, and qualities of the enviornment incorporated into building interiors and experiences through exterior views. He suggested,

“Nothing is more difficult to achieve than the integral simplicity of organic nature amid the tangled confusion of the innumerable relics of forms that encumber life for us. To achieve it in any degree means a serious devotion to the underneath in an attempt to grasp the nature of building a beautiful building beautifully, as organically true in itself, to itself and its purpose as any tree or flower.”

Some of the features which further enhance the affinity for nature in Wright’s residential designs include the following- 

  1. High ceilings and a sense of spaciousness in the main living areas
  2. Extensive natural lighting and vistas of the exterior landscape
  3. Living spaces high above the terrain that provide extended views
  4. The play of natural light seen through a clear and decorative glass
  5. Fireplaces within low-ceiling interiors create a feeling of refuge
  6. Large overhanging eaves and cantilevers engendering a sense of connection to the exterior landscape
  7. Conspicuous terraces offering distant views and a feeling of peril and excitement
  8. Winding paths and concealed entryways foster feelings of safety and security
  9. Buildings integrated into the landscape through the use of long horizontal planes
  10. Visual connections between interior rooms, many with outside views, and few closed interior spaces (or what Wright called destroying the box).

Some of the best examples of this design include the International Netherlands Group Bank’s complex of office, commercial and residential buildings in Amsterdam, an atrium of the new Parliament building in London designed by Hopkins Architects, and The University of Michigan Law Quadrangle.

Portcullis House by Hopkins Architects Biophilic Architecture

2. Vernacular Design.

The building and construction of landscapes that connect to the place where they are located is an essential aspect of restorative environmental design. Vernacular design refers to tailoring the built environment to the physical and cultural context of where people live and work. Vernacular in the Oxford English Dictionary is described as,

“native to… a particular country or region, endemic, characteristic of the style of architecture and decoration common to a particular region, culture, or period.”

In a particular biogeographic context, effective vernacular design combines culture and ecology. This accomplishment reflects the wisdom accumulated by people and their environment in adapting to one another. The development of successful vernaculars is a reflection of people’s iterative evolution in response to both natural and social forces. By effectively expressing this vernacular, culture, and nature are modified and even enhanced. The following section describes each of the four critical elements of vernacular design. These elements included the need to design:

  1. Concerning the ecology of a place
  2. Concerning the cultural and social traditions of a place
  3. In a manner that fuses culture and ecology, thus creating an emergent property within a biogeographical and historical context 
  4. In ways that avoid placelessness, in which a distinctive culture and ecology become so subverted that an area loses its special identity and spirit of place.

In this sense, vernacular design reflects an emergency state in which people are neither biologically determined nor culturally determined. In a particular locale, the vernacular describes the subtle process of interaction, adaptation, and exchange of culture and nature.

A Way Forward.

Environmental restoration seeks to restore the relationship between nature and humanity in a world increasingly plagued by environmental degradation and psychological alienation. This achievement will not be easy nor painless and will require considerable knowledge, motivation, and skill. In terms of Biophilic architecture and design, there is a lot to learn. Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the topic. For further study, I have included references below.


1. Biophilic Design – The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life.

2. Nature Inside: A Biophilic Design Guide.

Frequently Asked Questions.

What is Biophilic architecture?

Biophilic architecture is a sustainable approach to architecture that improves the Human built environment by integrating emotional and intellectual elements into it for a better living.

What are the two dimensions of Biophilic design?

The two dimensions of Biophilic design are Organic design and Vernacular design with specific features listed in this read to determine a Biophilic space.

What are the elements of Biophilic Design in architecture?

There are eight elements in total that determine Biophilia in architecture, i.e., prospect, refuge, shelter, biodiversity, water, biomimicry, sensory variability, sense of playfulness, and enticement.

What is an example of Biophilic design in architecture?

One of the great examples of Biophilic design in architecture is Portcullis House designed by Hopkins Architects in London.

What is the difference between Biophilic and green architecture?

A vital difference between Biophilic and green architecture is that the latter focuses only on avoiding harm to the environment and human health while the former incorporates several elements to let the resident enjoy nature in its fullness.

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