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Biophilic Design is Good Design, Everything Else is Worthless

Originally published on Sourceable, by Jock Gammon, 10 April 2019

There’s been increasing chatter around the concept of biophilic design lately and while it’s great to hear, I wonder if we are all-talk, no action. Think about it.

Harbord Diggers

Harbord Diggers

Where are you now? In an office perhaps? Maybe on public transport? Are you outside? Do you have a view to the outside world at all? Statistically, it’s likely you’re indoors. After all we spend about 90 percent of our day inside. At home, at work, at school, in shopping centres and gyms… When you’re not in a building, how much time do you actually spend outdoors in the natural environment? Maybe you walk to your car or the train station on the way to and from work each day? Is that it? Would you call that a connection to nature?

We spruik biophilic design as a benefit or nice amenity, when it is really an essential human need like food, water, shelter and safety. There is no alternative to biophilic design – there is either good design (that is biophilic and therefore, fit for humans) or poor design (that is fit for no-one). Which one are you paying for?

What is biophilic design?

In practice, biophilic design seeks to create an optimal ‘habitat’ for humans (as a biological organism), one that advances our health, fitness and wellbeing through the built environment.[1] By integrating natural processes (weather, the passing of time, seasons, smells and sounds) and ecology into our built environment, biophilic design speaks to our genetic attraction to nature. It appeals to our senses and breaks down the stark distinction between natural and man-made.

The theory

It all starts with the biophilia hypothesis posited by biologist Edward O. Wilson in 1984. Wilson describes ‘biophilia’ as the innate human tendency to affiliate with life and the life-like processes of nature.[2] But why? Why the inherent pull toward nature and living things?

Lendlease head office

Lendlease head office, Barangaroo

Stephen Kellert suggests this ‘tendency became biologically encoded because it proved instrumental in enhancing human physical, emotional, and intellectual fitness during the long course of human evolution.’[3] Our species, having evolved over thousands of generations, has developed a genetic advantage through ‘planned modifications of the environment’[4]. We are drawn to nature because it sustains us, but also because we wish to master it in the pursuit of our own constant advancement.[5]

Now this is a bit of a double-edged sword isn’t it? Our love for, and ability to recognise the potential of, the natural environment has come at a cost. As Wilson notes, ‘we are killing the thing we love’.[6] Our domination of nature has resulted in its overall degradation, but if we follow this trajectory, we can see that the solution is a return to nature. Biophilic design turns back toward nature and applies human ingenuity to recognise and mimic the cyclical processes within nature, repairing the damage our love affair has caused.

The evidence

Biophilic design aims for the deep integration of nature and the built environment. It is good design. Using the natural world as the ultimate guide for our man-made additions enables us to improve our practices and the materials we use. Our output becomes environmentally friendly and sustainable. At its peak, it is restorative.

It might sound a bit ‘new age’ but there’s growing evidence to support the ‘ancient assumption that contact with nature is critical to human functioning, health, and well-being.’[7]

Read the full article with case studies on Sourceable.


[1] Kellert, S. and Calabrese, E. (2015). The practice of biophilic design. www.biophilic-design.com

[2] Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia: The human bond with other species (p.1). Cambridge, USA and London, England: Harvard University Press.

[3] Kellert, S. R. (2008). Chapter 1: Dimensions, elements, and attributes of biophilic design. In S. R. Kellert, J. Heerwagen, & M. Mador (Eds.), Biophilic design: The theory, science and practice of bringing buildings to life (p.3). Hoboken, USA: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

[4] Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia: The human bond with other species (p.12). Cambridge, USA and London, England: Harvard University Press.

[5] Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia: The human bond with other species (p.10). Cambridge, USA and London, England: Harvard University Press.

[6] Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia: The human bond with other species (p.12). Cambridge, USA and London, England: Harvard University Press.

[7] Kellert, S. R. (2008). Chapter 1: Dimensions, elements, and attributes of biophilic design. In S. R. Kellert, J. Heerwagen, & M. Mador (Eds.), Biophilic design: The theory, science and practice of bringing buildings to life (p.4). Hoboken, USA: John Wiley & Sons Inc.