The six elements of biophilic design

The purpose of biophilic design is to create spaces that deliver benefits for both human health and the environment by nurturing people’s innate affinity for nature and creating harmony within the built environment. As a producer of wood, the world’s foremost natural building material, Thermory is a big supporter of biophilic design – although the principles of this wide-ranging discipline go way beyond material selection.

In this article, we explore the concept of biophilic design, in particular examining its six key elements.

What is biophilic design and where do the six elements come from?

Biophilic design is a methodology for designing buildings and landscapes that nurtures the relationship between people and nature by introducing various natural features into the built environment. The six elements of biophilic design were conceived by Stephen Kellert, a social ecologist and prominent biophilic design advocate who wrote extensively on the subject.

According to Kellert, although the concept of biophilic design is itself relatively straightforward to grasp and we can easily appreciate how and why it creates positive outcomes, applying it in reality is challenging. This is because we don’t fully understand the biological workings of our affinity for nature or how to incorporate any understanding we do have into physical buildings. The six elements seek to create a framework for us to successfully apply biophilic design in the built environment.

How does biophilic design benefit humans?

Having evolved in a natural world for the vast majority of our history, humans have a biologically encoded affinity for nature and a sense of dependence on it. Kellert claimed that contact with the natural world is not just beneficial for our well-being, but essential to it. In Biophilic design, he cites studies that have found the following benefits of contact with nature and natural features:

Enhanced recovery from illness and surgery

A reduction in health and social problems

Improved performance and motivation and reduced stress among workers

Improved cognitive functioning

Healthier development and maturation in children

Superior quality of life and a stronger sense of place in communities

Introducing the six elements of biophilic design

Kellert identified two dimensions of biophilic design, which he calls the organic, or naturalistic, dimension, which relates to shapes and forms in the built environment that in some way reflect the human connection to nature, and the place-based, or vernacular, dimension which describes features that connect a landscape or building to the culture and ecology of its local area. These two dimensions are broken down into six elements, each of which is further split into a number of attributes. Let’s take a closer look at those six elements and the attributes that fall within them.

1.   Environmental features

Simply put, the biophilic design element of environmental features relates to characteristics of the natural world found in the built environment. People are naturally drawn to features of the natural environment such as plants, animals and natural materials. A sense of connection to nature can also be created with colors, water and sunlight, while well-ventilated spaces promote well-being. Buildings that work in harmony with the surrounding nature, for example, ivy-covered walls or buildings that complement local geological features, also tend to be well received.

Attributes of environmental features:

Color

Water

Air

Sunlight

Plants

Animals

Natural materials

Views and vistas

Façade greening

Geology and landscape

Habitats and ecosystems

Fire

2.   Natural shapes and forms

The element of natural shapes and forms includes representations and simulations of the natural world on buildings, both internally and externally. This can include shapes, forms and patterns found in vegetation, trees and leaves, and motifs of animals and the structures they create such as hives and webs.

Spaces that simulate natural features or imitate the flowing, organic forms of nature rather than sticking to the straight edges and right angles typically found in modern architecture are also preferred, as are designs that mimic local geology or even those that “accidentally” resemble living forms.

Attributes of natural shapes and forms:

Botanical motifs

Tree and columnar supports

Animal (mainly vertebrate) motifs

Shells and spirals

Egg, oval and tubular forms

Arches, vaults and domes

Shapes resisting straight lines and right angles

Simulation of natural features

Biomorphy

Geomorphology

Biomimicry

3.   Natural patterns and processes

Distinct from shapes and forms, this element focuses on how incorporating properties found in nature enhances our built environment, for example, variations and richness of detail in things we perceive with our senses like light or sounds, changes in the qualities of materials over time, central focal points, spaces and passageways with clear boundaries, and a sense of pattern, contrast or connection found among different spaces. People also prefer to have a perception of wholeness or completeness in places that are made up of several distinct parts.

Attributes of natural patterns and processes:

Sensory variability

Information richness

Age, change and the patina of time

Growth and efflorescence

Central focal point

Patterned wholes

Bounded spaces

Transitional spaces

Linked series and chains

Integration of parts to wholes

Complementary contrasts

Dynamic balance and tension

Fractals

Hierarchically organized ratios and scales

4.   Light and space

The use of light and space is a crucial element of biophilic design, and there are many ways they can be incorporated into a space. Both natural and filtered daylight can provide benefits, while reflected light, the interplay of light and shade and the manipulation of light to create shapes or visual features all offer value. Meanwhile, space can be used to create a sense of openness, diversity, harmony and a link between indoor and outdoor environments, and to define surrounding shapes and areas.

Attributes of light and space:

Natural light

Filtered and diffused light

Light and shadow

Reflected light

Light pools

Warm light

Light as shape and form

Spaciousness

Spatial variability

Space as shape and form

Spatial harmony

Inside-outside spaces

5.   Place-based relationships

The element of place-based relationships refers to a linking of culture with ecology. People have a strong sense of connection with places due to our desire to secure resources and ensure safety through territorial control – this explains why we get homesick or miss places where we feel good. Our connection to places can relate to geographical and historical features, local ecosystems, cultural elements and materials, as well as landscapes. Having an emotional connection with a place gives people a protective sense of stewardship over it.

Attributes of place-based relationships:

Geographic connection to place

Historic connection to place

Ecological connection to place

Cultural connection to place

Indigenous materials

Landscape orientation

Landscape features that define building form

Landscape ecology

Integration of culture and ecology

Spirit of place

Avoiding placelessness

6.   Evolved human-nature relationships

While all of the elements we’ve described reflect the human connection with our natural environment, this one is focused on fundamental aspects of our relationship with nature and how they can be reflected in the built environment. This can include a sense of safety and protection, a balance of variety with regularity, fostering curiosity and exploration and engendering a sense of accomplishment and mastery over our environment. Our attachment and attraction to nature can also be tapped into through biophilic design.

Attributes of evolved human-nature relationships:

Prospect and refuge

Order and complexity

Curiosity and enticement

Change and metamorphosis

Security and protection

Mastery and control

Affection and attachment

Attraction and beauty

Exploration and discovery

Information and cognition

Fear and awe

Reverence and spirituality

This brief introduction to the six elements of biophilic design is a useful starting point for anyone interested in exploring this fascinating topic. For more practical ideas on how to incorporate these elements in architecture, read our blog article “Implementing biophilic design in public spaces”.

Further reading: Biophilic design: the theory, science, and practice of bringing buildings to life by Kellert, Heerwagen and Mador

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