Nature-led Architecture: Biophilic Design

If this your first time hearing the term “Biophilic design” then I’m excited to be the one to share it with you! This is one of my core passion and sincerest beliefs; architecture should not only be inspired by nature but designed to benefit it. We as humans are a part of nature, not something outside of it. If we were, wouldn’t that make us the aliens? Why do we allow ourselves to be forced into drab little boxes? This is one thread in my series of “Thought Projects” to explore the possibility of what could be and I would argue, what should be!

My introduction to Biophilic Design came eight years ago when I watched the documentary: Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life. You can get a good idea about what Biophilic Design is by watching the trailer. There is also a book by the same name. In it Stephen Kellert offers a personal vision of what our cities could look like. I enjoyed those parts of the book. Since then I’ve looked to Stephen Kellert, Edward O. Wilson and Judith Heerwagen as role models. Sadly, Stephen Kellert passed away of cancer on Nov. 27th , 2016. I will always be grateful for his passion on this subject.

Now when I look at a building I look at it with new eyes. I think about what’s been done right and what could be improved to make it more welcoming to people and nature. It should be noted that biophilic design doesn’t always follow sustainability practices. I would like to see a more cohesive model that encompasses both. While this term “Biophilic Design” may be relatively new, the pursuit of working with nature is not. In fact, I believe it is one of our most innate traits when not suppressed by greed. The lowest bidder wins the contract, the developer that can squeeze the most amount of people per square footage at an affordable rate gets to make blocks upon block of housing units. I’ve looked upon street after street of uniform single-family homes and apartments complexes and wanted to weep. In my darkest thoughts it feels there’s nothing left to build except Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon in the center of it all. We’re left constantly overwhelmed, falling blithely into the role of prisoner in the name of capitalism, safety, and convenience.

Is the design inherently wrong? No, but architecture is like the clothes we choose to wear. It makes a statement about who we are as a people and what we value. There are a lot of sustainable buildings being built by Scandinavian architects and while I want to like them; I find the clean lines, muted colors and sparse, low furniture too cold. I prefer the warm colors and arches of Latin American architecture and the clever, functional designs of East Asia architecture.

Elements of Design include: Natural materials, natural shapes, colors, lighting and space.

  • A source of water and a source of fire or a representation of these elements through color or texture
  • Air or airflow; ventilation, temperature control or represented by light “airy” textures and elements (subjective)
  • Earth is represented by wood, concrete, rock or rammed earth
  • Metal commonly in doorknobs, hinges and railing. Uncommon ways to use metal include textured metal pictures.
  • Glass, wonderful glass, sand heated in the fire until its molten, worked with air and cooled with water. Gives us the windows we need to see the environment around us and beyond.
  • Mirrors or other reflective surfaces are great for bringing light into interior rooms by enhancing lighting sources already present.

Feng shui and Ayurvedic or Vastu Shastra practices are types of biophilic design, but biophilic design is not a religious or spiritual belief in itself.

Biophilic Design at home:

Author’s Living Room

The skylights have a light fabric covering (hand sewn by me) to diffuse the daylight, add softness to the wood ceiling and hide whatever grime or water spots are on the glass. I can peek to the edges to see if its raining or not. The downside is that skylights are noisy during heavy rains and you do lose some insulation value as a trade off for all the natural light. One alternative would be Clerestory windows, which are high sheltered windows that allow the light without being directly impacted by the weather. This would be an a better solution especially in areas that receive a lot of snow.

When we moved into this house the wood on the sides of the fireplace were a very dark wood stain. It made the whole wall heavy in an otherwise light-filled room. By painting the horizontal boards a light green the room became more balanced and brightened the color of the wood and brickwork with warmer tones that you couldn’t see before.

Inside plants, only cacti and succulents can survive me because I often forget to water.

More to Explore:

Chihuly Garden and Glass:

Little Boxes Written and Performed by Malvina Reynolds (1900-1978) American Folk/Blues Singer-Songwriter and Political Activist. (Not related to this Author.) Song rediscovered by younger generations when it was used for the intro of the American hit show Weeds by Jenji Kohan. Link: malvina reynolds – little boxes – YouTube

A panopticon is a building design where a guard/observer has a 360 view of prisoners in an institutional setting. It always make me think of the Tower of Mordor in Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. Link:

18 thoughts on “Nature-led Architecture: Biophilic Design

    1. Yes, it looks out over our field which is a work in progress. Some owners before us used it as their own personal dumpsite. We’ve had to remove three full trucks worth of crap, mostly vehicle parts and construction waste. I keep my windows embarrassingly dirty by most people’s standards so they don’t reflect and cause the birds to hit them and die. I wrote a white paper on living roofs in college and I too hope to have one, but that’s a post for another day.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This is my first time hearing/reading the term “biophilic design”, but I’ve long been fascinated with architecture that works with and blends in with the natural world. I shall now have to try and find the photos and articles that I know I’ve saved somewhere about houses built around rocks and caves, or partly submerged in a hillside or lake. I might be some time…

    Oh, and just take a look at my sideboard. It is green!*

    * And I love it! And Ms Scarlet will probably laugh.

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    1. We are playing webpage leapfrog! I’ve just returned from your page! How funny! Oh yes! I would love to see these pictures you mentioned! I was so frustrated that I couldn’t find the image I really wanted to share. I spent so much time looking for it! It’s a restaurant in Mexico that matches the curves of the rocky overlook it sits upon and looks out over the ocean. It’s a true cohesion of complimentary form. I should like to save some money just to take a trip to visit the place and experience it for myself. Many bonus points that it serves food with a view and isn’t just some rich person’s private getaway!


    1. Yes, It definately does! I think when we look at buildings with a biophiliic lens they become more like living organisms where we become the cells within them, instead of structures that only exist to house things. The textbook: Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of bringing buildings to life, pages 123-125 cites mutiple research to support that more fresh air ventilation helps reduce influenza rates among institutional settings such as nursing homes and hospitals. I do think what we learn from the Covid-19 pandemic will futher support this. The caveat will be the future effects of climate change with increased days of wildfire smoke and 100+ degree temperature days.

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      1. But don’t fabric coverings, like yours, perhaps help mitigate both the smoke entry and maybe also the heat (in a dry climate, if the cloth is dampened regularly, a bit like a swamp-cooler, if I understood correctly?)?

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      2. The water would likely evaporate too quickly and exhaust the person climbing up and down the ladder to keep re-wetting them. In a hot dry climate operable clerestory windows (protected on the sides under the eaves) would be a better solution to allow airflow, ventilation, and passive cooling.

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      3. Ah! Good point!
        Very cool!

        I really hope you get to implement some of your ideas on a wider scale, and I wish I could be able to live in one of those (tiny) houses.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, yes new word, Melanie, and new perspective, for me: Thank you!
    I especially love that your skylight covering is “hand sewn by” you!
    Super cool!!
    This is what humanity should aspire to doing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I like to sew, think, and listen to music. It’s very meditative. Sometimes I mend things for neighbors and other people in my community just because. They say “I can’t sew”, but they don’t even try.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Me, too!
        It is meditative, at least when I sew by hand, which I prefer. I can understand why they’d find it difficult: I had my great (adptive) grandmother to teach me, and I still feel terror any time I think of cutting into a new bolt of fabric! 🙂

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