Biophilic design honors our innate need to connect with the natural world.
By Robyn Griggs Lawrence
Morning sunlight streams through an east-facing window as a breeze gently lifts gauzy curtains. Hummingbirds flit to and from a feeder; bluebirds splash in a birdbath; the honeyed scent of sweet alyssum draws bees and butterflies.
Connecting with nature—whether you live next to a vast open field or cultivate geraniums on a balcony—is the ultimate luxury. The simple pleasures of seeing greenery, hearing running water and feeling the sun warm your skin make you feel calm and happy, fully alive.
We understand this intrinsically. It’s why we nestle our homes near streams in mountain nooks and create backyard paradises in suburbia. It’s why we’re willing to pay a premium to live next to open space or catch a glimpse of the Flatirons. Nature keeps us well.
This is the basis for biophilia, a mashup of architecture, psychology and biology that honors our innate desire to connect with nature and natural systems. Biophilia has been guiding good design since humans built their first structures, but it was first codified as a philosophy by social psychologist Eric Fromm in 1964. Popularized by biologist Edward Wilson in the 1980s, it bubbles up as a major design movement every few decades.
Biophilic design is, not surprisingly, top of mind again.
“Covid really brought to light the importance of living healthy and well,” says Frank Romero, co-founder of Boulder-based RomeroFord Architects, who studied biophilia as an undergrad at the University of Colorado-Boulder and as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico. He’s been integrating biophilic principles into the homes and buildings he designs for more than a decade. (Romero is teaching a course titled “Biophilic Emergence” for CU’s Environmental Design School this fall.)
“Biophilia doesn’t take one shape,” Romero says. “It’s about really connecting and being mindful of your surroundings—where you place a home and connecting to the opportunities of that setting.”
Biophilic design brings nature’s forms and patterns into buildings through views of greenery and vegetation, natural light, organic materials, fountains and aquariums, courtyards and terrace gardens, potted plants, and living green walls. Less literally, it can be found in furnishings, décor and art patterned after nature’s shapes—a shell-shaped bowl, a driftwood bench, a tree-like column.
Much more than an aesthetic, biophilia has been proven over and over again to support cognitive function, physical health and psychological well-being. According to the American Psychological Association, simply being able to look out a window or hear the sounds of nature improves attention, positive emotions and our ability to reflect on life’s problems.
“By connecting people to their subconscious need to connect to the natural world,” Romero says, “biophilia helps them live healthier, more productive, more fruitful lives.”
6 Principles of Biophilic Design
sunlight, vegetation, fresh air, water features, natural colors and materials
Natural shapes and forms:
eschewing straight lines and right angles; mimicking shapes found in nature, such as spirals, shells, botanical motifs
Restorative patterns and processes:
natural environments that stimulate the senses and reflect the passage of time, such as running water and aging wood
Light and space:
dynamic and diffuse natural light through windows and skylights; open, uncluttered spaces with views
connection with local ecological, cultural, historical and geographical features; use of indigenous materials
Evolved human-nature relationships:
providing safe refuge and places to retreat and heal