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Biophilic Design: How to Naturally Improve Your Health and Well-Being at Home

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What is biophilic design? You may have heard of the term before, but you're not quite sure what it means.

Biophilic design is a type of interior design that focuses on bringing nature into the home. This can be done through the use of plants, natural materials, and colors, as well as by incorporating elements of nature into the design of the home itself.

The term "biophilic interior design" is relatively new, but the concept has been around for centuries. Biophilic design is based on the idea that humans have an innate need to connect with nature.

There is a growing body of research that shows how biophilic design can improve our health and well-being. Most often this research is done in commercial settings such as hospitals where patients health can be easily monitored.

But the same research can be applied within the home to cultivate an environment that can improve well-being and even help prevent illnesses. In this article, we will:

  • explain what biophilic design is

  • explore the benefits of biophilic design

  • and give some examples of how you can implement it in your own home décor and design

What is Biophilic Design?

The concept of biophilic design is based on the idea that we can create environments that support this natural human need to connect with nature. By connecting with nature, we aren't merely bringing the outside in, but we immerse ourselves in a state of being that allows us to feel more grounded and more connected to other living things.

Biophilia is a term coined by E.O. Wilson, who was an American biologist, in his book Biophilia (1984). Wilson argued that humans have an innate need to connect with nature and other forms of life. Biophilia has since been used in a number of different ways, but generally it refers to the human-nature connection.

When we connect to things that are larger than ourselves, we can create a sense of belonging. By harnessing the connection we feel toward nature, biophilic design has the expressed interest in deepening that connection, which will promote our physiological, psychological and cognitive well-being.

Benefits of Biophilic Design

There are a number of ways in which biophilic design can improve our health and well-being. One way is by reducing stress levels. Studies have shown that exposure to nature can lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and blood pressure, while also increasing positive moods and feelings of relaxation.

In one study, office workers were given the opportunity to work in a "green" office with plants and natural light, or a traditional office without these features. The workers in the green office reported lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as less fatigue and more energy.

Another way biophilic design can improve our health is by improving cognitive function. One study found that students who had views of nature from their classroom performed better on tests than those who didn't. Another study found that patients in hospitals with views of nature had shorter hospital stays and required less pain medication than those without.

One reason is that it can help reduce stress and anxiety, which can free up mental resources that would otherwise be focused on managing these emotions. Another reason is that nature can provide a sense of calm and relaxation, which can improve focus and concentration.

By transferring these findings from commercial settings to within our homes, we can achieve these positive and healing attributes of biophilic design in our daily lives. By incorporating elements of nature into our homes, we can create a space that is not only more visually appealing, but also has a positive impact on our health and well-being.

Achieving Flow in the Home

Directed attention is energy intensive, meaning it takes a lot of energy out of us. This includes anything that takes a lot of brain or physical power to execute the task.

By having strong and/or routine connections with nature it provides opportunities for mental restoration. This can allow our brains to take a break from other high-cognitive functions we need to do, and rest. By doing this, our capacity for performing difficult tasks becomes greater.

When we feel like we are performing tasks at a higher state of efficiency, we have what positive psychology calls flow.

Flow is a mental state of peak performance, fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Being in a state of flow can have you feeling so immersed in a blend of happiness, striving, and succeeding that time seems to fade away.

By incorporating biophilic elements into the design of our homes, we can more readily tap into this state of flow. This human-nature connection is essential for our mental and physical health, and can be constructed through biophilic home design.

Examples of Biophilic Design in the Home

There are a number of different ways to incorporate biophilic design into your home. The one that may come to mind first is houseplants. And here at Inspired Design Inc, we sure do love houseplants. (I have over 40 of them currently in my house!)

But Biophilic design is much more than just adding more plants within the home.

According to Terrapin's extensive research efforts outlined in their published paper titled, 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design: Improving Health and Well-Being in the Built Environment there are patterns, or forms of biophilia, that can be used to create this human-nature connection in the built environment.

The patterns can be classified into one of three categories:

  1. Nature in the Space

  2. Natural Analogues

  3. Nature of the Space

Below I'll be discussing these 14 patterns in depth with examples of how to incorporate it into home design as well as the effect it has on the person within the space.

Nature in the Space

Nature in the Space is the most literal of the biophilic design elements. These are direct presences of nature in the space that can be physical and ephemeral.

One of the most obvious ways to bring nature into your space is by adding living elements such as plant life.

But you can also incorporate other natural elements such as water, air, sounds, scents and even light. The more direct connections with these natural elements, and the more diversified, the greater the impact it has on giving a biophilic connection.

Visual Connections with Nature encompass things that you can see and touch. Physical life beings, such as plants, that create a direct connection to nature.

That's why at Inspired Design, we always try to incorporate as many plants into our projects as possible. Not only do they add a pop of color and life to the space, but they also help improve air quality.

Color itself can lend an opportunity to further the connection to the outside natural world. As I've mentioned in the Color Psychology article, color can have a large impact on your emotional well-being, too.

Non-Visual Connections include our other senses like sounds and scents. Keeping windows open to hear a bird sing its song or playing nature sounds on Pandora is a great way to bring in more nature.

Natural scents can be incorporated into the home environment by using essential oils in diffusers.

Often, I suggest to use bright, lively scents like orange and mint throughout the workday and switch to lavender to mark the end of the day as a olfactory-driven cue to wind down for the day.

Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli is a bit of an ephemeral connection, but I most commonly see it as the connection to watching an other living being's movement. Think of tree branches swaying in the wind, or a squirrel climbing up the tree...movement that can't be anticipated or known.

Through scientific studies, it's been shown that adjusting your eyes to these non-rhythmic movements in nature for just twenty seconds every twenty minutes can improve cognitive function and promote better flow.

One way I often suggest to my clients to utilize this is to shift their work desk from facing a wall to facing a window. Being able to glance up from our screens regularly and have the non-rhythmic movements to focus on can have a great impact on their daily lives.

Thermal & Airflow Variability is not as often found inside our homes, especially if we live in an environment that is either too cold or too hot.

However, whenever it is feasible to do so, opening windows to allow for sensing natural airflow and temperature changes is a direct connection with nature. Homes that are designed with passive cooling systems in mind can be both energy efficient and help us connect with nature even more.

Presence of Water can be found when we experience water through seeing, hearing or touching water. Not everyone will have an opportunity to have a pool with a fountain in their backyard, but what about a small water feature within the home?

Besides being a connection to the water element, even a small water fountain can increase humidity levels (Thermal and Airflow Variability) and produce sounds that are non-rhythmic. As you can see, water features can tick a lot of boxes when looking for ways to use biophilic design elements in the home.

Dynamic and Diffuse Light utilizes the range of intensities of light (and shadow) that change over time. Being in a space that casts light and shadows that change as the sun moves, grounds us in the many moments of now that comprise a single day. It shows the passage of time.

Connection with Natural Systems is taking this connection with time one step further. It's our connection to natural processes that occur, especially seasonally that are characteristic of a healthy ecosystem.

We tend to fall into our own rhythms seasonally by what we do, what we wear, what we eat, and the more connected we feel to these big systematic shifts, the better and more whole we feel.

Large windows that let in light and access to viewing trees that change with the seasons is one of the most simple biophilic design ideas. Planting a tree that changes color outside of that window will connect you seasonally to nature. And creating an opportunity to let interesting shadows be cast across the space can help with incorporating nature fully.

Natural Analogues

Natural Analogues refers to the organic and non-living presence of nature. These elements can be found throughout the home from the building materials to even the furniture and décor selected.

Biomorphic Form and Patterns draws a connection to shapes and patterns found in nature. The hexagon is a popular shape right now, and when used in groups, it fulfills it's connection by being reminiscent of a bee's honeycomb pattern. Artwork that has a more gestural form (not linear and rigid) tends to have that biomorphic effect as well.

Material Connection with Nature is one of the most common aspects of biophilic design that I incorporate.

Showcasing natural materials such as wood, granite, marble, and metals creates that natural material connection to nature.

During the building process that could mean selecting granite or quartz countertops or adding wood beams to create a visually stunning ceiling.

For the decoration of the space that could mean selecting uniquely crafted wood furniture with wool fabrics, carved stone décor pieces or pops of golden metal accent tables with dark marble tops.

Using the material connection with nature is one of the most exciting elements of biophilic interior design. It can transform even the most bland spaces into one that is filled with life.

Complexity and Order is a detail of biophilic design that helps to make spaces feel balanced (or naturally off-balanced!) so that the space feels like it adheres to a spatial hierarchy.

Making sure the dining room table and chairs fit the size of the room appropriately without crowding or underwhelming the area. Having the dining room chandelier then be balanced with size of the table. And lastly creating a connection with natural elements that fill the void between table and lamp to draw your eye easily within the space.

These are all examples of the complexity of spatial hierarchy as well as the order and balance to be achieved.

Nature of the Space

The last category of biophilic design, Nature of the Space, draws upon our innate desire to be able to see beyond our immediate surroundings, feel a sense of security and safety within our environment and even a fascination with the slightly dangerous or unknown.

Prospect is the unimpeded view over a distance. Humans like to be able to surveil a large area, and having a view that creates distance can do this.

However, in today's world of mass-produced subdivision, this isn't always a possibility for everyone. In that case, bringing in landscape artwork can help to create that feeling of distance within the home itself.

Refuge is the opposite of prospect. Where we wanted depth and expansiveness feelings with prospect, refuge is gained by having a place to withdraw from harsh environmental conditions or the main area of activity within the home. This is the area that you feel most protected, specifically from behind and overhead. A place to feel safely secluded.

Finding a place of refuge is a crucial design component of holistic design as well as biophilic design. Having a place to relax and find moments of respite can significantly boost your mental and physical well-being.

For a book reader, this may mean creating a reading nook with a comfy chair that backs to a wall and has natural sunlight pouring in. For others, this may mean creating a spa bathroom to immerse yourself in a healing Epson salt bath with essential oils.

Whatever you enjoy doing to take refuge, focusing on creating space to allow for more opportunity to do it more, is a cornerstone to a successful outcome with biophilic and holistic design.

The last two are less-commonly used, although they're still worth mentioning:

Mystery is the promise of more, which can be achieved by partially obscured views that entice you to look around the corner, to venture further in. Japanese gardens tend to have winding paths that, depending on which direction, unique views can be seen. A home that is divided, yet unified, by uniquely shaped hallways and niches would be one way to incorporate mystery.

Risk or Peril, with a reliable safeguard in place, can instill completely different feelings, but these are feelings that we do encounter in nature.

Think of walking out on a precipice of rock that overlooks a large valley. How close to the edge do you get?

Your mind figures out where it feels safe enough to stand, while still feeling a bit of risk to enjoy that view. It's finding the balance between risk and safety.

An example of this can be floating stairs that jut out from the wall with nothing underneath them and no railings on the other side. A more tame version of that would have the railings, if the feeling of an unconfined staircase was too great for the person living there.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, there are many different ways to incorporate biophilic design into your home. And while some may be more subtle than others, each one has the potential to improve your well-being.

When considering which route to take for your own home, it's important to keep in mind what kind of feeling you want to achieve and what sort of environment you feel most comfortable in.

Do you prefer wide open spaces or do you find yourself looking for places to hide away? What room do you want your best state of flow to be in? What activities do you enjoy that provide you with restorative effects?

Answering these questions can help you decide what elements of biophilic design are best suited for you and what areas of the home to focus on. When you decide to incorporate biophilic elements into your home and make conscious design decisions, you create a space that is supportive of your well-being in mind, body and spirit.

Stay well and be inspired,

If you're ready to begin your journey into a home that is supportive of your well-being, schedule a complimentary phone call with us to get started.

Amy Farnum, Owner and Lead Designer of Inspired Design Inc

Hi, I'm Amy!

I'm a knowledge seeker, dog parent, nature lover, and a big fan of bubbly water. I'm also the owner of Inspired Design Inc, a biophilic interior design and flooring company in Kansas City. I help homeowners wade through the many decisions needed while renovating their homes, including how to add more natural elements into the space. Let's find the perfect solutions so you can finally be living in the home you've been dreaming of that improves your well-being.


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