Biophilic design is the practice of reconnecting people and nature within the built environment. Biophilic design involves translating elements derived from nature, into design outcomes that ultimately improve the health and wellbeing of occupants and foster a connection with nature .
There are numerous philosophers that suggest our attraction to nature is ingrained in our evolutionary origins, from evolving in a largely natural environment. This theory, put forth by E. O. Wilson- who instigated biophilia- explains that we have a subconscious desire to connect to nature and to embrace natural systems. This concept underpins Biophilic Design, and supports the hypothesis that humans have an inbuilt emotional affiliation to other living organisms, and “are intrinsically connected and linked to visible and non-visible geometric forms and patterns in nature” .
An increasing amount of scientific research suggests that people are more productive, creative, happy and healthy when they experience a daily connection with nature, and are interconnected with natural systems   . Over the past decade, researchers, theorists, and leaders of the built environment have been working to establish attributes of biophilia that can be applied to design that enhance our connection to nature and ultimately improve our wellbeing.
The '14 Patterns of Biophilic Design' is a publication that presents a series of tools for understanding elements of Biophilic Design, as well as the science behind them. These patterns describe the relationships between nature, humans and the built environment, and offer avenues for design opportunities that can enhance the benefits of biophilia, and ultimately improve wellbeing.
1. Visual Connection with Nature
2. Non-visual Connection to Nature
3. Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli
4. Thermal & Airflow Variability
5. Presence of Water
6. Dynamic & Diffuse Light
7. Connection with Natural Systems
8. Biomorphic Forms & Patterns
9. Material Connection with Nature
10. Complexity & Order
A visual connection to nature is a view to natural elements, processes and living systems. This connection to nature has yielded the highest restorative effects when compared to all other biophilic patterns. Scientific evidence has supported that a visual connection to nature can reduce blood pressure and heart rate, improve mental health and attentiveness, and increase our overall attitude and happiness.
Non-visual Connections with Nature encompass sounds, scents, tastes and textures that are indicative of being amongst nature. Examples of this pattern include, flowing water, scented flowers, textured and natural materials, gardening, natural ventilation, pets, and audible sounds either simulated or natural, reminiscent of nature (Browning et al. 2014).
Non-visual connections with nature have been associated with reductions in systolic blood pressure, and cortisol levels- related to stress (Park et al. 2009). Additionally, improvements on cognitive performance and psychological health.
Non-rhythmic Sensory Stimuli are distractions offered by nature that promote restoration and a break from a task. The main health benefits are experienced while completing tasks at a short visual focus, such as using a computer, where by the use of natural sensory stimuli subconsciously attracts attention and promotes a short mental breaks away from the task. These brief distractions (of up to 20 seconds) can increase a person's capacity to focus on a task by relaxing the eye muscle and as a result the lenses flatten. Alternatively when eye muscles stay contracted by focusing for a while (for periods longer than 20 minutes) headaches and fatigue can result.
Thermal and Airflow Variability pattern is considered to be slight variations in airflow, temperature, relative humidity, and differing thermal materials that mimic being in nature. Thermal comfort is a crucial factor that governs the productivity levels, serenity, and health of occupants in the home.
Thermal comfort is subjective, and this principle works by providing variable thermal conditions and airflow within a space, so the occupant can control their thermal comfort by moving around a space. Research conducted by Heerwagen (2006) indicates that humans prefer moderate levels of sensory variability, including variations in light, temperature and sound. Environments lacking in sensory variability can reduce productivity and result in boredom. The intent is that the occupants can make adjustments to their comfort level by moving seats (relocating to the sun or shade), and by opening windows.
The Presence of Water can enhance a space through the visual, tactile, and acoustic connection to water. A presence of water has the potential to lower heart rate and blood pressure, improve cognitive performance, increase tranquility, and to positively impact emotions (Biederman & Vessel, 2006; Alvarsson et al., 2010).
Multi-sensory experiences with water amplify perceived health benefits- an auditory coupled with a potential tactile connection with water- can reduced stress levels (Alvarsson et al., 2010) and incorporating just one small water feature can promote this multi sensory experience. Interestingly, an experiment found that over time, repeated experiences of the same body of water did not decrease interest levels, and can improve cognitive performance through memory restoration and increased concentration (Biederman & Vessel, 2006). Exploiting the sounds created by water, the potential to touch it, and views across water are all potential opportunities for creating a Biophilic connection.
Dynamic and Diffuse Light influences varying amounts of light and shadow to reflect changing light conditions that are present in nature. Daylight is often highly desirable in the built environment, and dynamic and diffuse light can positively impact on the human circadian rhythms (Browning et al.2014). The purpose of this pattern is to stimulate the eyes so that a positive psychological response is produced as well as maintaining circadian rhythms. Design considerations suggest balancing dynamic and diffuse light to improve the interstitial spaces when transitioning outdoors, and to include circadian lighting in spaces that are occupied for most of the day.
Over the past decade knowledge regarding the impact light can have on regulating circadian rhythms has increased. Our circadian clock regulates the timing of many biological functions, which can influence our wellbeing and impact sleep patterns (Figueiro et al, 2010). Sunlight colours vary throughout the day, ranging from yellow in the morning, blue during the day, and red/orange during the afternoons/night. This change in colour impacts our heart rate, and overall circadian functioning. Higher amounts of blue light trigger the body to produce serotonin, and during the night when we are devoid of blue light, the body produces melatonin. This balance of melatonin and serotonin can influence many health conditions including; depression, overall mood, and quality of sleep (Tibbetts, 2013).
Connecting with Natural Systems stimulates a wholesome connection between humans and nature. This connection promotes seasonal awareness, temporal changes, and a relationship with natural processes. The experience is often predictable promotes relaxation for the observer (Browning et al., 2014). This pattern is intended to reinforce ones awareness of natural process and to promote humans to care for the environment and ecosystems. Integrating the pattern can involve, quite simply, viewing out to a deciduous tree or constructing with materials that age and change over time
It is possible that a connection to natural systems can enrich positive health responses. The key feature of a connection to natural processes is aging and changes that occur over time, known as temporal changes. Natural systems (specifically age, change and the patina of time) evoke a “sense of familiarity and satisfaction among people” despite the inevitable and subsequent death and decay of all natural things (Kellert et al. 2011, p.23).
Biomorphic architecture and patterns encompass symbolic representations of nature through patterns, textures and elements that exist in nature. These forms are often abstract elements that evoke naturally occurring forms such as vegetation, shells, branches and organisms. Humans have a preference to view biomorphic and organic configurations, however the scientific evidence to substantiate this is not profound. According to Vessel, from New York University Center for Brain Imaging (2012), the human mind is aware that organic forms are not living, but some feel they form a symbolic representation of living things, and subsequently establish a symbolic connection to nature.
The aim of this biophilic pattern is to introduce representational design elements that provoke humans to make a connection to living things. Ideally these will be introduced and establish a visually pleasing environment for the occupant, that may enhance cognitive performance and decrease symptoms of stress (Browning et al. 2014).
The Fibonacci sequence is a fundamental biomorphic form, which represents a numerical pattern (that is perceived as a purely organic form) that occurs in several living things. It occurs in many flowers, and plants, and its result is that new vegetation doesn’t shade the old vegetation, or prevent it from accessing rain, due to the spacing of leaves. The golden ratio is also linked to the Fibonacci sequence, and is a ratio of 1:1.618 that is seen in many living things that grow in rotation. Seashells and flowers are examples that grow following the golden ratio.
A Material Connection with Nature encapsulates the materials, grains, textures and elements in design that are derived from nature that reflect the local ecology and establish a sense of place.
The aim of this pattern is to stimulate positive cognitive responses through the incorporation of different materials from nature. Materials from nature that are introduced into design are usually partially manufactured and differ from their natural state. Nevertheless, this altercation allows for natural materials to be utilised in more ways, such as in the form of marble bench tops and timer flooring/ wall paneling.
A study by Tsunetsugu, Miyazaki & Sato (2007) examined brain activity and psychological responses in relation to the amount of natural materials (timber) used in a room. The results from the study indicated that a room with approximately 50 percent timber coverage demonstrated reductions in blood pressure and increases in pulse. While a room with roughly 90 percent timber coverage, decreased brain activity. The results show that a high amount of timber can be either highly restorative (if introduced into a day spa) or very unproductive in an office environment.
Complexity and Order is filled with engaging “sensory information that adheres to spatial hierarchy similar to those found in nature” (Browning et al. 2014, p.42). This pattern aims at forming symmetries and fractural geometries that are stimulating to the eye and will promote a positive psychological or cognitive outcome (Salingaros, 2012). The challenge of this pattern lies in establishing a balance between an environment that is complex and visually nourishing, and one that is overwhelming and induces stress. Research behind this pattern has grown from reviewing fractal geometries and view preferences, as well as the positive physiological responses to the fractals present in nature (Joye, 2007).
The term “fractal” refers to broken, and in this case relates to designs or patterns that are similar and are geometrically magnified and repeated by a scaling ratio. Mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot, who coined the term “fractal”, defined the fractals of nature as “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole” (Burn & Mandelbrot 1984, p.71). These nested fractals that are conveyed with a scaling factor of 3 are likely to appear more complex, when compared to those scaled at by factor 1 or 2. Fractal patterns can be found in vernacular architecture such as the colonnade capitals in ancient Greece and Islamic art, or in vegetables such as cauliflower.
The Prospect pattern argues that we are predisposed to prefer expansive views across landscapes, because throughout our evolutionary history they offered us surveillance and planning opportunities, and increased our chances of survival (Beatley, 2016). Prospect can be defined as an unobstructed view over a distance, that provides a sense of safety and allows one to view potential hazards and opportunities (Browning et al. 2014). Prospect relates to wider-frame views of our environment both internally and externally. The inclusion of prospect in interior design relates to mezzanine levels, open-planned offices, windows that view out to distances over 6 meters, and glass or transparent partitions that offer unimpeded views.
Recently, the potential benefits associated with prospect include decreases in fatigue, feelings of vulnerability, stress, and enhanced levels of comfort (Browning et al. 2014). According to Hertzog & Bryce (2007) outlooks or vistas above 30 meters are preferred over shorter outlooks (around 5 meters) as it creates an increased sense of understanding and awareness of the surrounding environment. The benefits from a greater outlook are feelings of comfort and reductions in stress levels, especially in an unfamiliar space.
InThe Experience of Landscape, geographer Jay Appleton coined the Prospect-Refuge theory by highlighting the correlation and interconnectivity between the patterns Refuge and Prospect (Appleton 1975). This theory argues that our chances of survival throughout evolutionary history increased by having both an outlook across an expanse, and also by taking refuge in caves and in cliffs (Beatley 2016). Therefore the refuge experience is heightened when coupled with prospect. The theory behind the prospect-refuge concept proposes that restorative effects- feelings of safety and protection- are experience in environments that offer enclosure (ideally on 3 sides) coupled with outlooks (Dosen & Ostwald 2013). Arguably, the most quintessential unification of Refuge and Prospect, is a tree house- where occupants are partially concealed (protected) from perceived danger- yet have views offering surveillance to the surrounding environment.
The purpose of this pattern is primarily to offer occupants an easily accessible and secure space- a little area within a larger room- that supports restoration. Secondly, the purpose is to minimise views into the place of refuge. In architectural terms, the greater the amount of sides (protection) the greater the restorative experience, however too much protection - complete closure- that doesn’t affiliate to its surrounding space is not effective at establishing refuge.
Mystery in design engenders a sense of anticipation that encourages one to travel further into the space to explore and is often achieved through partially obscured views (Browning et al. 2014). The main health benefits are experienced through the predicting or anticipating of what might be revealed in the space. A quality mystery condition promotes curiosity, and as a result strong pleasure responses are activated in the brain (Fujii & Kudo, 2012). These pleasure responses are seen through VTA dopamine neurons activating, and this commonly happens when something unexpected yet good occurs.
The mystery pattern encourages movement and exploration through a space, which aims to reduce stress and promote cognitive restoration. Unsurprisingly this pattern can be weakened over time with regular exposure. Japanese gardens are an example of Mystery, with various winding paths, obscured key focal points and mazes- drawing visitors through the gardens.
Risk/ Peril can be defined as an environment that has an element of risk, combined with a reliable safeguard. The purpose of this design pattern is to trigger responses relating to problem solving skills, curiosity, and risk assessment skills - developed during our childhood.
Awareness of a manageable threat can trigger pleasure responses, and the result is increased levels of dopamine (similar to the thirteenth pattern Mystery). Therefore, introducing risk into design can have positive health outcomes, for adults this can result in lower amounts (short stints) of dopamine being produced that triggers the fight-or-flight reaction, increases motivation, and improves memory (Fujii & Kudo, 2012).