Why We Crave Biophilic Design

Photo courtesy of Clif Bar & Company

During last month’s sold-out event, Innovations in Biophilic Design, Jonce Walker (Terrapin Bright Green) and Susie Teal (COOKFOX Architects), shared with us the science behind biophilic design and its practical implementation. As leaders in the field, they also walked us through a few exciting projects they’ve worked on that take the idea further.


When it comes to building inhabitants’ health, Walker and Teal believe that letting nature in leads to increased wellbeing. As the Director of Sustainability at Terrapin, Walker’s work focuses on creating inventive solutions that borrow cues from nature. Teal, who has over ten years of experience in sustainable architecture, has played a vital role in developing projects for COOKFOX, a firm specializing in high-performance, environmentally integrated design. Both advocate for the use of the intentional inclusion of natural elements—biophilic design—across the built environment.

A tenet of this approach is a body of work suggesting that ‘green’ can help people heal. Edward O. Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis states that humans are innately drawn to other living organisms—that we draw more pleasure from nature than from any other stimuli.

And that pleasure can help us stay healthy. One key study[1] of postop patients found that a natural view through a window resulted in shorter hospital stays, fewer negative comments and fewer requests for morphine or other strong analgesics.

Similar research has indicated that the ability to view nature, even through a window, lowered blood pressure[2] and increased productivity. Even natural scenery in artwork has the ability to increase physical and psychological health, though participants could distinguish between biomimicry and “the real thing” — so, maybe you can enjoy that apple, too.


Because biophilia is linked so closely to health and wellbeing, the design community has been steadily paying more attention.

Architects, planners and designers tend to consider three ways in which they can incorporate nature into their projects:

  • Nature in the Space: This refers to the physical presence of or exposure to organic elements like plants, water and animals in the built environment.
  • Natural Analogues: When direct access to nature is not an option, biomorphic forms, patterns or materials can provide a “natural” complexity or order.
  • Nature of the Space: Used to describe a built environment that provides what we seek from nature — prospect, refuge, mystery and/or risk.

According to Walker, the best projects incorporate a mixture of all three. Take, for example, the Kickstarter Headquarters in Brooklyn, NY. Previously a 1920s pencil factory, the building was converted to an office space in 2014. It’s now characterized by organic patterns, reclaimed biological materials and warm tones, as well as a green roof and seasonally changing central courtyard.

To take that idea one step further, Terrapin designed the Clif Bar Bakery in Twin Falls, Idaho using biophilic themes as their core approach. Terrapin began with a landscape plan, around which the rest of the design was developed in order to maximize the access and fluidity between inside and outside. The team focused on action—incorporating stairs and photo ops wherever possible—and mystery, using an open floor plan to suggest endless depth.

Teal stressed the importance of integrating these features in our residential environment, as well. She points to City Point in Brooklyn where two mixed-use buildings offer greenery and daylight to shoppers and residents. As the project architect, Teal focused on nature first, though artificial elements were chosen specifically for their biomimicry—for example, interior lighting is attuned to circadian rhythms and natural patterns are used when real wood or stone cannot be. These holistic approaches to biophilic design ensure that projects look and feel harmonious — but they do require dedication and planning.


How much green does it take?
For many architects and designers, cost is a huge — and sometimes prohibitive — factor. Citing the notion of natural analogues, Teal and Walker advocated for the use of natural patterns and finishes, encouraging the smart and judicious selection of materials. Another tip, they said, is to get the best “bang for your buck” by using authentic materials in areas where inhabitants can touch and feel them, versus where they may be out of reach.

With proper vision and planning, biophilic design does not need to be costly. By introducing biophilic concepts early on in the planning stages, clients can also ultimately save money. Clif Bar Bakery clients and project leads were mindful of budget; early on they made tradeoffs in design as an investment in their workers’ health and productivity.

Are there major maintenance issues to be aware of?
With an increased number of natural elements, like plants and water, there can come complications. Walker and Teal stressed the importance of involving a landscape architect in projects that blur the lines between indoors and outdoors. Landscape architects can help to ensure that organic matter is smartly incorporated and will be well-maintained.

What about retrofits?
For many green builders, retrofitting comprises the majority of their work. While it can be useful to start from scratch when planning a biophilic project, there are written guidelines available for full portfolios, from small homes and offices to entire cities.

More and more firms are dedicating their projects to increased health, healing and wellbeing, and biophilic design is one of the fastest-growing ways to achieve this.

Thank you to Emerging New York Architects, AIA NY (ENYA) for joining us for a lively discussion inspired by these exciting case studies.


[2] Kahn et al., 2009. Current Directions in Psychological Science. https://depts.washington.edu/hints/publications/Human_Relation_Technolog...