Designing with Nature in Mind

A Discussion about “Biophilic Design”

In 1984 Dr. Edward O. Wilson, an entomologist, Harvard professor, and celebrated biodiversity advocate wrote Biophilia and proposed that humanity has an inherent biological affinity for living organisms and systems. In other words, we humans have a deep connection to the natural world that is essentially hardwired into our DNA. 

While some embrace this connection more than others, I think we can all agree that there is a certain feeling that emerges when we are exposed to some of the world’s natural wonders. Close your eyes for just a moment. Imagine a place you have visited before that left you speechless, awestruck. Perhaps, it was a sunset along a beautiful ocean coastline, standing among towering pines deep in a wooded forest, or looking out over a vast mountain range… there is no denying the liminal sensation that humans feel when in direct communion with the natural world.

During my college years, I have many fond memories of walking out of my front door to head to class and looking up at the towering Flatiron mountains in Colorado. The view would send chills down my spine almost every morning.


These experiences, no matter how frequent or infrequent, leave lasting impressions on us. One would only hope that we can make these experiences a more common occurrence in our lives. What might life be like if our built environment brought about these experiences daily? How different might humanity be?

E.O. Wilson offers us clues to a better reality. He says that “nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” 

Some of the best examples of architecture, design, art, and music can be directly tied to the inspiration we find in nature, as they often satisfy the golden ratio… that beautiful mathematical order of the universe.

So, how does all of this tie into the world of design and construction? At first blush, the answer may seem clear, or not; it depends entirely upon who you ask. To those who recognize the importance of improving and advancing the human experience, the path forward is simple– increase our connection to nature when we develop the built environment. Humans are a part of the natural world, so shouldn’t we be designing and building places that are better connected to it? 

     Unfortunately, this has not been the case in the modern era. History has shown, we have slowly moved towards developing environment(s) that are completely devoid of nature. One could argue exactly when this move started, but the point where it seemed to accelerate is right around the turn of the century when the world began its forward march into the Machine Age, a period where, on a large scale, humans initiated the exploitation of natural resources, with little concern for the ecological consequences. During this time, designers placed ideological primacy on function over form. The result brought us many cities, towns, neighborhoods, and buildings that are neither beautiful nor functional, a type of biophobic environment so to speak.

As we have forged ahead and continued to develop land rapidly without regard for the environment, we have seen the emergence of a sustainability movement that questions our practices. Part of this movement is a concept known as Biophilic Design. The design philosophy is inspired by basic principles that E.O. Wilson outlines and seeks to re-establish our connection to nature. In his book Nature by Design: The Practice of Biophilic Design Stephen R. Kellert lays out the 8 biophilic principles and their benefits:

1. Affection: The human tendency to express strong emotional attachment and at times love for features of the natural world. Commonly associated benefits include the ability to bond, care, and connect emotionally with others.

2. Attraction: People’s inherent aesthetic attraction and ability to perceive beauty in nature. Associated benefits include feelings of harmony and symmetry, emotional and intellectual development, and enhanced capacities for imagination and creativity.

3. Aversion: The inclination to avoid aspects of nature that generate feelings of anxiety, threat, and sometimes fear. Benefits include enhanced safety and security, coping and competitive skills, and sometimes a sense of awe and respect for power’s greater than one’s own.

4. Control: The tendency to master, dominate, and, at times, subjugate nature. Benefits include the enhanced mastery and problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and cognitive development.

5. Exploitation: The tendency to utilize the natural world as a source of materials and resources. Commonly associated benefits include enhanced security, extractive abilities, practical skills.

6. Intellect: The inclination to use nature as a means for advancing rational thought and intellectual development. Benefits include cognitive skills, empirical and observational abilities, critical thinking, and learning.

7. Symbolism: The tendency to employ the image of nature to advance communication and abstract thought. Important benefits include the capacities for language and culture, intellectual development, and enhanced imagination and creativity.

8. Spirituality:  The inclination to experience nature as a means for achieving a sense of meaning, purpose, and connection to creation. Associated benefits include feelings of meaningful and purposeful existence, enhanced self-confidence, and bonding with others.

Incorporating biophilic principles into design and construction isn’t an “all or nothing” approach. Designers and builders can use biophilia as a compass that informs their work. We don’t need to say “this is going to be a biophilic design project.” As the owner of a small design + build company and a principal at an architecture firm, I include biophilic thinking in my design process. I pay close attention to the context, site, and environmental impacts of a project. Working strategies anyone can employ are:

  1. Natural Light – an abundance of it to help minimize the use of artificial light and improve mood and energy.
  2. Fresh Air – encourage the use of operational windows for cross ventilation and passive cooling during warmer months, and incorporate fresh air systems into homes to improve indoor air quality.
  3. Views – try to provide views to the outdoors in a thoughtful way. e.g. a small window that looks onto a garden or a specific tree.
  4. Natural Materials – as many people do, I find the warmth of natural wood and other natural materials to provide a more comfortable environment.
  5. Nature Indoors – as designers we always create floor plans with furniture placement in mind, and I also like to include indoor plant placement/built-in planters as well for certain species of plants.
  6. Outdoor Space – include outdoor space as part of the design whenever possible and make access to it available at almost every room or level. I see outdoor space as an opportunity to create outdoor rooms. The rooms providing serving a different use, providing an alternative experience.
  7. Renewable Energy Sources – utilize, whenever possible, renewable energy sources to offset energy use and reduce carbon footprint.

Below are some examples of recent projects that I have worked on, that incorporate some of the ideas above into them:

Northfields Townhouses, Salem, MA

Two-Family Residential Renovation


-Increased natural light into interior space by +/-40%

-Created over 1,000 s.f. of outdoor space (2 outdoor patios and 1 roof deck)

-5 megawatt solar array hidden on flat roof, provides +/-50% energy needs

Brothers Taverna Patio, Salem, MA

Restaurant Outdoor Dining Patio


-800 s.f. outdoor dining area

-Use of natural wood decking

-Integrated planters with over outdoor 40 plants surrounding outdoor patio

Twin Lakes Retreat, Twin Lakes, CO

Single Family Residence and Retreat


-Over 2000 s.f. outdoor space

-Abundance if natural light using curtain wall system

-Sweeping lake and mountain views

-Minimal impact to site to preserve existing pine trees


Twin Lakes, CO

Following our Instincts

The rise of biophilic design is an indirect admission that we have lost our primal connection to the natural environment. Real-world constraints mean that we can’t always incorporate all of these principles in design. I’m the first to admit that in the past I have been involved in design and construction that is divorced from the natural environment. Like most of us in this profession, I am constantly seeking to learn new ways to improve. Whether it’s materials, methods, or an entirely new thought process, there is always room for change in this industry, and that will always remain constant. With all that has happened over the past year, we have certainly gained a new perspective on how important the spaces we inhabit are, and are currently in the process of reflecting on how we inhabit them.

Student Residence Hall, Libson, Portugal


   The Rain Vortex in Jewel Changi Airport


In the future, I hope everyone can recognize the importance of the natural world and that we continue to thoughtfully develop the built environment to reflect that. Designers and builders should keep their minds open to new methods and approaches to their work… for “there is no better high than discovery.” – EO Wilson

What are your thoughts on biophilic design? Reach out to Lee on Linkedin or to share your thoughts.

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