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Evolving our connection with nature: Six principles of biophilic design and biophilic design elements

by Sonja Bochart
What makes the spaces we envision indelible, serene, restorative—places where people and communities thrive?

Biophilia—our intrinsic human connection with the natural world—continues to guide our design thinking and process at Shepley Bulfinch. We are intrinsically linked to nature and the living world, so wouldn’t it make sense that our spaces reflect these connections in order to foster health and wellbeing?

Biophilic design elements are shown to reduce stress, increase cognitive performance, improve healing, and positively affect emotion, mood, and preference (Browning et al., 2014). Biophilic design integration in our spaces supports the whole person. Recognizing the importance of applying these principles and our commitment to advancing the field of biophilic design, we have recently begun leading an educational, accredited session nationally to our industry partners, clients, and consultants entitled The Great Indoors: The integration of Biophilic Design to Support Human Health and Wellness in the Built Environment. The session offers the foundation of biophilia and related research, explains its primary elements and attributes, outlines the associated requirements for green building certification programs, highlights a recommended integration process, and provides comprehensive case studies, often customized to the attendee’s area of interests, geography, project, or practice.

Here are six principles of biophilic design applications we highlight at these sessions:

1. Environmental features

Direct contact with vegetation, in and around the built environment, is one of the most successful strategies for fostering human-nature connection in design. The presence of plants can reduce stress, improve comfort, enhance mood, and prompt healing. Through including these outdoor gardens, we offer patients, families, and staff green spaces with native plants, walking paths, and a variety of seating, which—when woven together—create nature-filled spaces for moments of connection, reflection, and respite.

Learn more about the Boston Children’s Hospital Hale Family Building


2. Natural shapes and forms

Natural environments show complexity at varying scales, from the vast openness of the sky to the dense complexity of the pattern of a single leaf. This range of variance feeds our need for the diverse forms found in nature—it is something to which we humans are attuned. The biophilic element of natural shapes and forms is well-represented in this library space we developed in collaboration with Frederick Fisher and Partners.  Large-scale detail in ornamentation and pattern is crafted in the sculptural ceiling plane and again in a smaller repeated scale of richness of detail at the metal stair railing. In between these two levels of design detailing within this sunlit space, we see a vividness and variety in pattern represented in large mural artwork, complemented by decorative suspended lighting. The resulting spirit of the space provides richness of detail and the many scales in which our humans bodies find delight and comfort.

Learn more about the Firestone Library at Princeton University

3. Restorative patterns and processes

According to Dr. Stephen Kellert, human evolution and survival have always required managing highly sensuous and variable natural environments, particularly responding to sight, sound, smell, touch, and other sensory systems. It is essential to find opportunities to connect to the richness of our sensory system, in and around the built environment. This outdoor respite space, part of a garden at a cancer treatment hospital, offers restoration through the inclusion of natural sensory variability. A central focal point offers reflection, stillness, and the chance to experience the soothing tones of wind chimes.

Learn more about Yale New Haven Health’s Smilow Cancer Hospital

4. Light and space

This element of biophilic design focuses on the many diverse qualities of light and spatial relationships. This LEED Platinum library, overlooking Shoal Creek and Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas, is shaped by light. The building, designed through a joint venture with Lake |Flato Architects, is considered the most daylit public library in the country. The heart of the library is its six-story atrium, which offers daylight for more than 80% of regularly occupied spaces.  The integration of abundant natural light in this cultural public space creates stimulating, dynamic, and sculptural forms. The design response spurs imagination, movement, and exploration.

Learn more about Austin Central Library in Austin, TX

5. Place-based relationships

Considering place as a doorway to caring, this element focuses on connection to ecology and prominent biogeographical features (e.g., mountains, deserts, estuaries, rivers, and plants).  This space of reflection, within a major healthcare facility, draws inspiration from the local Sonoran-desert; specifically, the colors and form of the native Ocotillo tree. The decorative art glass frames the space, echoing the light to dark green form, accents of red blossoms, and expansive blue skies. The artwork was intended to quietly and subtly diffuse sunlight, offering local desert color and unique form to frame the reflective and meditative space. Designs that speak to us in these ways can evoke a sense of hope and healing.

Learn more about Banner University Medical Center

6. Evolved human-nature relationships

Areas of refuge, a primary associated attribute, help to provide a safe place for retreat.  Refuge spaces are considered important for restoration and relaxation (Browning et al., 2014).  As demonstrated in this student housing space, a resident in their place of refuge can still feel some connection to the larger space.  Together, prospect and refuge in this space offer areas that improve concentration, attention, and perceived safety (refuge) (Browning et al., 2014).

We look forward to continuing to evolve and support human-nature connections in the built environment in meaningful ways and walking this path towards a restorative future with our partners, clients, and communities.

Biophilic design classification by Dr. Stephen R. Keller

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