Biophilic Design

By our very design as humans, we are a product of our natural environment over generations.  The spaces which our society creates to promote healing and wellness should embrace this intrinsic connection – though many healthcare facilities are sterile, cold and cut off from the natural environment. Research shows that this cold environment creates stress.

Informed healthcare design practices seek to bring the built environment back to nature in order to increase connection with the natural world and decrease stress. This design practice is called Biophilia. In his book, Biophilia, Edward O. Wilson coins the term - defining it as: “A hypothetical human tendency to interact or be closely associated with other of forms of nature.”

Biophilic systems have been observed to induce positive cognitive, psychological and physiological responses to varying degrees.  They have been shown to reduce stress, enhance creativity, increase clarity of thought, improve mental well being and expedite healing.  Connections to nature are vital for maintaining a healthful and vibrant existence.
— 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design by Browning, W.D., Ryan, C.O., Clancy, J.O.

We believe that the tenants of Biophilic Design are applicable to any project, but we have found them to be especially well suited to the healthcare industry and have used them most recently in the design of the Health and Wellness Clinic for the Nisqually Tribe.  We worked closely with healthcare providers and the community to integrate Biophilic design principles into the design of the facility which complement the traditional tribal healing practices and Pacific Northwest influences.


A summary of the 14 patterns can be broken down into three categories.

  1. Nature in a Space

  2. Natural Analogue

  3. Nature of a Space


Nature in a Space | A direct sensory experience with the natural world.

Interior corridors lined with indoor landscaping give the space an “outdoor” feel.

Interior corridors lined with indoor landscaping give the space an “outdoor” feel.

Visual Connection with Nature

Bringing natural elements inside a building, such as plants, running water, daylight, wind and rain, material and textures, even animals and artifacts such as driftwood, dried grasses and stones adds complexity to a space.  Humans thrive in complex environments, especially if we can control our level of exposure at any one time. Have you ever visited a bookstore or a hotel with cats present? My daughter would tell you we come away richer for the experience.

Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli

Rhythmic and predictable sound often associated with the HVAC system, external traffic or the buzz of electrical fixtures are usually considered white noise, which our brain expends energy blocking out over time or perceives in an irritating or negative way.

Birdsong, the sound of water over stones, the sway of grasses in the wind, clouds moving across the sky, a gust of fresh air through the window are welcome and unpredictable events that energize us and may allow for a higher level of thought and creativity. Subtle changes in temperature, humidity and air flow can mimic the natural environment.

Non-Visual Connection with Nature

Even without seeing the outside world, natural sounds such as rain on the roof, wind, and flowing water reduce stress.  Smells of earth, flowers, and plants also have health benefits. The sound and smell of a fireplace evoke a warm feeling of hearth and home even before you are close enough to feel the warmth. We are drawn to a patch of sunlight on a cool day. Even natural textures in a space and a variety of textures such as wood, stone or natural weave or fibers are considered healthful.

Presence of Water

Seeing, hearing or touching water provides a positive experience.  In Japan, a fish tank is essential furniture in any medical waiting room.  A space with moving water feels compelling and captivating, but also calming.

Dynamic and Diffuse Light

Varying intensity of light and shadow mimics conditions that occur in nature and provides visual interest.

Circadian lighting slowly varies the color of the light throughout the day to mimic sunlight and can ease visual fatigue even on work surfaces requiring steady light levels.

Large windows and dynamic shadows provides natural, dynamic light throughout the day.

Large windows and dynamic shadows provides natural, dynamic light throughout the day.


Natural Analogue | Indirect evocation of nature.

Biomorphic Forms and Patterns

Textures and patterns create visual interest in a space whether they are created by the arrangement of structure and spaces, enhanced by articulating built elements such as ceiling design, columns, railing, stairs etc. or applied as a finish. An interesting and creative use of forms and patterns can change a monotonous space into a cognitively rich space.

Waiting room interior design concept features repeating pattern using bright colors and varying shapes to create a rich and vibrant space.

Waiting room interior design concept features repeating pattern using bright colors and varying shapes to create a rich and vibrant space.

 Complexity and Order

All living things follow a design pattern, from a beetle’s wings, the shape a tree takes, or our own fingerprints.  In nature this pattern is often repeated and duplicated at larger and smaller scales.  These designs are called fractals.  Providing an ordered system within the complexity of a building will provide interest and even delight.  Providing levels of complexity within the built environment will enhance the experience if not taken to extremes.

Material Connection with Nature

Using local, natural materials such as wood and stone, or even man-made objects known for being local, such as textiles or pottery, in the design can tie a building to its location and assist the occupants in feeling comfortable in their environment.  Using local color palettes can also assist to a lesser degree.


Nature of a Space | Spatial configurations evoke a human response, based on natural analogies.


A sense of discovery or anticipation as one traverses a space is exciting. The building must warrant wanting to be discovered in the first place.  Elements that can create a sense of mystery include restricted views, peek-a-boo windows, curved walls, strongly shadowed spaces, and narrow transition spaces can all add to a sense of mystery.  Make sure the discovery is worth it.

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A place of withdrawal can feel safe and protective.  This can be true for a single space or a small group space.  Every small child can tell you the nooks and crannies of a room are the places that need to be experienced and explored. In your home, this is often your bedroom or a reading nook.  In a large medical facility, this may be the waiting room or the chapel, an eddie in the stream of circulation and activity.  In a school, this is characterized as a breakout space. In a casino, a trellis is often provided over table games to provide that sense of shelter from the chaos of the larger room. 

Open floor plan and covered walk ways maximize patient view. Platform with handrails provides “Risk” intrigue.

Open floor plan and covered walk ways maximize patient view. Platform with handrails provides “Risk” intrigue.


An unimpeded view inside a space either internally for way finding or externally for orientation imparts a sense of safety.  In nature we gravitate to the high points or open spaces to obtain this same sense of understanding the space around us. This is especially important in potentially crowed civic spaces such as airports or highly used government buildings. Low walls, open floor plans, floor to ceiling windows, elevated platforms and walkways should be considered.


A space with a perceived level of risk and safeguards can feel exhilarating. Glass bottomed balconies were recently installed at the Space Needle. Cantilevered decks with railings, docks, boardwalks through wetlands, infinity pools located on the roof, stepping stones across a water feature all thrill us with the perception of risk.

Biophilic design concepts create an opportunity to drastically improve the patient experience through architectural and interior design. Research continues to explore the health and happiness benefits of design which bridges the gap between the built and the natural world - especially the impact our environment makes on the healing process. In order to improve the patient experience, we need only look to our very nature as human beings.