What is biophilic design, and how can it improve our well being?


The term “biophilia” was first used by 18th century psychoanalyst Erich Fromm to describe humanity’s “passionate love of life and of all that is alive”.

Biologist Edward O. Wilson later used it to explain humanity’s tendency to gravitate towards nature, its forms and creatures. Wilson believed biophilia to be innate, originating on a biological level. 

Today the term is used to define our enduring connection to living things, our deep yearning to be surrounded by the natural world. 

Biophilia explains why human beings appreciate the sound of the waves crashing on the shore, rain on the corrugated iron roofs, and birdsongs. It clarifies our desire to bring plants into our offices, to let natural light flood our homes, and keep animals as treasured pets. 

In the built environment, biophilic principles have been shown to have positive effects on our psychological, physical and social well being. For example, in public spaces with more greenery, trees and vegetation, crime rates are lower. Studies have also shown people waiting at a bus stop experience less stress and perceive the waiting time as shorter when the bus stop is surrounded by nature. 

Surrounded by nature

Biophilia has also prompted us to take engineering inspiration from nature. From the design of aeroplanes to the invention of velcro, humans have been mimicking nature’s intelligent designs to better our world for time immemorial.

James Murray-Parkes is no stranger this practice, known as biomimicry. He has been taking cues from nature in his building designs for years. For example, he devised an algorithm that mimicked the elliptical movement of a blade of grass to remove flexion as well as excess materials from buildings.

  • Read more about biophilia and biomimicry in The Fifth Estate’s latest eBook in Tomorrowland 2018.

The influence of the natural world on human design can be further seen in the materials we frequently use – from timber to clay and every natural fibre in between. The use of these natural materials also has the added benefit of being renewable resources, and in the case of timber and bamboo, storers of carbon.

“Improved use of less energy-intensive construction materials, such as wood and bamboo, will continue to contribute to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions when they substitute for energy-intensive materials, such as iron and concrete,” the UN’s latest Food and Agriculture Organisation report found. “Harvested wood products can also play a role in carbon storage, providing greenhouse gas sequestration benefits.”

Biophilic design is important for its ability to connect humans with place. By bringing natural influences into our homes and offices through architecture and design, we are maintaining a link to the environment these spaces are built on. One study suggests this link works in a similar way to social connectedness in that “a rich and fulfilling social life is a commonality found in the lives of very happy people”. 

Dr Phillip Roös, senior lecturer at Deakin University, says this relationship to place is an extremely important element to consider when creating spaces with biophilic influence. 

“Architecture, landscape architecture and planning need to acknowledge the importance of country, land and place,” says Dr Roös. “The city is an intrusion on country. We need to change the concept of how we design and plan our cities to acknowledge those connections.”

This idea of a deep connection to country has always been vital for Australia’s First Nations people. Dr Roös says that in trying to emulate this bond through the biophilic design we could also be celebrating and showing respect for our Indigenous people and culture.

How can you reap the rewards of biophilic design in your life?

  1. Bring the outside in by keeping greenery in your home. Plants can have positive effects on your mental well being as well as your physical health by purifying the air you breathe. 
  2. Let in as much natural light as possible by opening windows and doors, or by simply going outside. 
  3. Opt for natural materials wherever possible, swapping plastics for things like timber or glass.
  4. Let natural sounds keep you grounded, incorporating things like water features, wind chimes or white noise tracks into your soundscape. 
  5. Respect the environment your space is situated by using local materials, native plants and other reminders of country wherever possible.