Amazon Spheres
Bruce Damonte | Architectural Photographer
Amazon Spheres
Seattle, WA

What Is Biophilic Design?

Modern-day humans spend upwards of 90% of their time indoors—and it’s no wonder that our incidence of illness has increased as we’ve moved inside and become more sedentary. But a 2018 comprehensive analysis of evidence from more than 140 studies of over 290 million people in 20 countries found that “Living close to nature and spending time outside has significant and wide-ranging health benefits,” including reducing the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, premature death, stress, and premature birth. This is an issue that interior biophilic design tackles head-on.

What is biophilic INTERIOR design?

In its simplest terms, this design concept seeks to increase human connectivity to the natural environment by creating a porous boundary—the ability to “step outside,” even while indoors. This, in turn, improves physical and mental health, and creates a sense of personal well-being. Although the name is relatively new, the concept has been around for many years. It gained steam as the green building movement transitioned from the mid-1990s and into the early 2000s, with designers and biophilic architects recognizing the need for spaces that weren’t just efficient and kinder to the environment, but also that directly benefited the people who used them. Over the past decade, as technology has advanced with lightning speed and people have begun to feel more disconnected—from both the planet and from each other—biophilic design has moved to the forefront of commercial interior & architectural design.

Seattle Spheres, located in downtown Seattle, WA, is an example of biophilic interior design in action: three conservatories consist of related and complementary elements that create an interconnected “habitat” at Amazon’s corporate campus. This design cohesion allows employees to interact with nature and each other on a daily basis.

The complementary repetition of natural materials and industrial elements create an interactive space that leads to an enhanced sense of comfort, security and emotional attachment to the space. Our natural teak and stainless steel coffee tables and side tables were used throughout, forming a subtle connection between the structural elements, the furnishings and natural plantings.

Since the beginning of time, humans have been intuitively predisposed toward adapting to and reacting with the natural world. But in the quest for the bigger, more densely packed buildings to accommodate a larger number of people, many designs have ignored this. Instead, they’ve created sensory-deprivation settings that lack natural light and ventilation, that bunch people together in close—and unnatural—quarters like walled cubicles, or that eschew organic shapes, forms, and materials. Studies over the past few years have shown that environments like these, with no outside views, natural light, or plants, and the isolation tension created by unnatural separation, can actually increase the incidence of fatigue and the symptoms of illness, and reduce performance.

How can you incorporate Biophilic design in interiors?

Biophilic design stands to play an important role in human well-being. But it’s not about simply including a few potted plants in a design; instead, biophilic design principles are that the entire design must be made up of related or complementary elements that create an interconnected “habitat.” This repetition encourages interactive spaces, from person to person and person to environment, which leads to an enhanced sense of comfort and security, and even an emotional attachment to the space itself. Users then experience more positive social interactions, which fosters community—and enhanced productivity and performance. 

Seattle Magazine

However, as Stephen R. Kellert, Professor Emeritus at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental studies, cautions, the end goal of biophilic design shouldn’t simply be about making people more productive at work. He says, “It is important to realize that biophilic design is more than just a new way to make people more efficient by applying an innovative technical tool. . . The successful application of biophilic design fundamentally depends on adopting a new consciousness toward nature, recognizing how much our physical and mental wellbeing continues to rely on the quality of our connections to the world beyond ourselves of which we still remain a part.”

What is included in biophilic design?

A successful biophilic interior simulates the feeling of an exterior setting within an interior space by mixing direct experiences with indirect experiences.

Direct experiences include:

  • Natural light from windows or skylights
  • Views of the natural environment
  • A feeling of spaciousness
  • Vegetation, from gardens to trees, shrubs, potted plants, green walls, or landscaping
  • Water features

Indirect experiences include:

  • Biodynamic lighting, which is not only more efficient, but also mirrors natural lighting conditions, helping to regulate circadian rhythms and improve mood and sleep
  • Green wall dividers, which create private spaces, reduce noise, and enhance the space within an open-plan office
  • Construction and flooring choices like cork, wood, and natural stone, which evoke the outdoors; reclaimed woods are especially popular at the moment
  • Wood furniture, especially sustainably sourced and reclaimed woods like bamboo, teak, and oak (teak furniture is particularly valuable here, for both its eco-friendliness and its hardiness)
Left: Bruce Damonte, Architectural Photographer | Right: Jeff Reynolds, Urban Condo Spaces

As biophilic design has become more sophisticated, customers and employees have latched on. Many now make purchasing or employment decisions based on not only the brand or business’s environment, but also its commitment to the ongoing support of eco-friendly policies. Human resources, school administration, and change management professionals are listening, and are beginning to advocate for biophilic office designs, municipal buildings, and higher-education institutions. It’s all part of the movement toward making people feel more connected with the natural environment, with their own wellness, and with each other, even in a high-tech, high-stress world.

The journal Biophilic Cities is a great resource if you’re interested in learning more about biophilic design, how it is being implemented in cities around the world, and how to get involved in your city.