Story at a glance:

  • Biophilic design has become one of the most prominent recent trends in architecture.
  • Biophilic design can be achieved many ways, from incorporating timber to installing living walls.
  • Biophilic design increases the health and productivity of a building’s occupants.

Popularized by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in the 1960s, biophilia (literally meaning “a love for life”) is the idea that, like food and water, humans rely on a connection to the natural world.

Saying that nature is good for someone is hardly a groundbreaking revelation, even for the most devoted urbanite. But public health researchers have found that besides reducing stress and improving mood, exposure to nature “contributes to your physical well-being, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones.”

While biophilia has existed since the 1960s, its application to the design of the built world is an emerging trend in architecture that has evolved rapidly in the last couple of years.

How has Biophilic Design Evolved?

Facebook headquarters

Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park boasts a botanical garden of sorts in The Bowl, an amphitheater-style courtyard on the rooftop. The Bowl features 400 trees and a half-mile walking loop. Photo courtesy of Facebook

Americans spend approximately 90% of their time indoors, according to the EPA. This, coupled with the known benefits of a proximity to nature, has led architects to find ways to blur the lines between nature and the interior.

Biophilia in architecture has become an emerging trend in workplace design, first getting its start with the tech sector. Apple converted a parking lot into a 20-acre forest, with interiors furnished with maple finishes, for its new Cupertino headquarters. They’ve also introduced trees into many of their retail stores. Google converted a freight terminal in New York City to be a biophilic environment complete with birds, bees, caterpillars, and a “resident praying mantis.” The Gehry-designed extension to Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park boasts a 3.6-acre rooftop garden that blurs the inside and outside of the office.

This embrace of biophilic architecture is good for the city and planet, but there’s a big reason companies are willing to spend so much on these projects. Biophilia improves employee’s physical and mental health, making them more productive.

Ways to Incorporate Biophilic Design

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Photo courtesy of Ambius

Any step made to connect the inside of a building to the natural world is biophilic. The International Living Future Institute curates an extensive list of resources for how to push biophilic design even further in urban environments.

Here are just a few ways to incorporate biophilic design.

Add a Green Wall

Biophilic design can be as simply as adding a variety of potted plants or as intensive as installing a large green wall. “When you see a green wall you’re immediately drawn to it. It’s alive, it’s interesting, and it fulfills our biophilic needs. Plants make places nicer to hang out in, and they also help clean the air,” Matt Hills, a vertical garden and green wall expert at Ambius, previously told gb&d.


Maximizing natural light versus artificial isn’t just good for plants, but for people as well. When designing for Oregon State University (OSU)’s Cascades Campus, the architects found “that good daylighting and access to views improve productivity and learning outcomes.”

Use Wood

Plus, using a natural material like wood stimulates an innate and positive biophilic response in building occupants, writes Scott Mooney, senior associate at SRG Partnership, who worked on the Cascades Campus project. The OSU project combines daylighting techniques with mass timber construction to great biophilic benefit.

Mass timber, besides providing a sustainable alternative to the less sustainable materials of concrete and steel, adds a natural quality to spaces. At Clemson University in South Carolina, the Wood Utilization + Design Institute looks to combine the state’s overabundance of locally sourced timber with new applications in construction.

Add a Green Roof

Green roofs can be an ultimate amenity for buildings, both beloved by a building’s occupants as well as birds and insects. Better yet, designers might ditch the Bermuda grass for a healthy diversity of indigenous plants and wildflowers.

Many projects also want green roofs for their traditional benefits like improving wellness, ROI through reducing energy costs, and increasing property value, according to Adrian Wilton, CEO of Greensulate. He says they also help people feel better. Hospital systems with multimillion-dollar capital budgets are looking at neighboring and parking garage roofs, seen from patient rooms, as a way to reduce hospital stays and employee turnover. Some studies show patients who look at gardens and plants experience more favorable clinical outcomes.

Future of Biophilic Design

People today are thinking about their interior spaces differently, and biophilic design is no longer a luxury for most; it’s a must. A recent Ambius survey of 3,000 North American adults showed 93% of Americans want companies to invest more in healthy indoor environments.

As biophilic design continues to become even more popular, it’s important to note that it’s not necessarily synonymous with environmental sustainability.

Biologist Anna Zakrisson researches the quantitative return on investment from incorporating biophilic design in projects. She has found that it’s more than just an amenity. Views of and access to nature increases the desirability of a home, increasing rental rates. Studies have indicated patients spend 8% less time in hospitals that are biophilic, and “Another study showed that 10% of employee absence could be attributed to a failure of the architectural design to provide the employees with the five most vital requirements for basic functioning, established by the American Association for Psychology.”

5 Projects that Incorporate Biophilic Design

Projects all over the world are incorporating biophilic design in innovative ways. Here are five projects that blur the line between the built and natural environment in different ways.

Toronto Region Conservation Authority’s Administrative Office Building

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The architecture of TRCA’s new office responds sensitively to the ravine context while expressing the mission of the organization. An urban woodland will be included as a new public space adjacent to the main entrance of the building. Rendering courtesy of ZAS Architects

A new government building designed by ZAS Architects in Toronto is made nearly entirely out of wood, including the structure, staircases, and even the elevator core. It also has a green roof, rainwater harvesting, low impact landscape development, and solar chimneys that will generate 5% of the building’s electricity.

The exposed mass timber structure, wood staircase, and elevator core provide a strong biophilic work environment and act as repeated visual reminders of the building’s connection to the natural environment. Sitting adjacent to the Black Creek ravine system, the building’s geometry follows the natural topography creating terraces that move with the ravine edge. At each level, views from the south-facing facade pull the ravine edge visually into the core of the project, providing opportunities for employees and visitors to engage with the natural landscape.

Andy Quattlebaum Outdoor Recreation Center

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The Andy Quattlebaum Outdoor Education Center at Clemson University, a 2021 WoodWorks Design Award winner. Photo by Jonathan Hillyer

This recreation center at Clemson University designed by Cooper Carry emphasizes natural materials—most prominently mass timber—as the project sits on an expansive site in a forest and lake area. The building is designed as two wings that stretch along the lake’s edge. Large porches and patios are located along the building, too.

No matter where you look, you’re reminded of nature. “These biophilic elements are emphasized to encourage student wellness, activity, and interaction. We believe the center will become a hub for those looking for an on-campus escape,” says Brian Campa, principal at Cooper Carry, the architecture firm behind the center on this South Carolina campus.

Fifth + Tillery
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Today’s workplace is turned inside out with Fifth + Tillery, designed by Gensler. Its palette was kept intentionally utilitarian and natural, with a hybrid timber structural system. Photo by Ryan Conway

Gensler reimagined a post-industrial site in East Austin with a large, outdoor entry plaza that seeks to invert the program of a typical office building. “After studying skylights, lightwells, and atriums we posed a question to the client: What if we just turn the building inside out?” asked Gensler Design Director Michael Waddell.

Khoo Teck Puat Hospital
Khoo Teck Puat Hospital

Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. Photo courtesy of International Living Future Institute

Singapore’s building code, which effectively mandates biophilia, has led to many stunning buildings like the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, a place where green areas are four times the size of the site.

The abundance of greenery gives the hospital, designed by architect Stephen Kierana rainforest-like quality that’s heightened by the dragonflies, birds, and butterflies attracted to this oasis in the city. The hospital, which opened in 2010, also won the Stephen R. Kellert Biophilic Design Award recognizes exemplary projects.

Burwood Brickworks
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Home to Australia’s first rooftop farm in a shopping center environment, Burwood Brickworks was designed around a civic boulevard fronting the al fresco dining precinct of the integrated retail center. Photo courtesy of Frasers Property Australia

Some are calling this project the world’s most sustainable shopping center, and with a 6,500-square-foot rooftop urban farm, solar panels, and a bevy of sustainable building materials, Burwood Brickworks in East Melbourne, Australia may well be.

The Burwood Brickworks shopping center, designed by Melbourne-based NH Architecture, incorporates sensory elements inspired by the Living Building Challenge. The building itself addresses four of the challenge’s seven petals: Place, Materials, Health & Happiness, and Beauty. The other three—Water, Energy, and Equity—are earned over time with the building’s operation.