Biophilic Design - The Basics

I discovered an amazing discipline, Biophilic design, some years ago now. It’s all about how our vital connection to nature can be carried into the design of our homes. Far more impactful than bringing a plant indoors or installing a wall of windows, understanding and implementing Biophilic principles and patterns in our work has vastly improved the lives of our clients. I hope you become as fascinated with this field of science as it collaborates with art and design, as I am!

Stacey Lapuk, ASID

Our inherent love of, and connection with nature has given rise to a design discipline known as Biophilia. Research has identified 15 specific patterns that have proven positive and measurable impacts on us as human beings. Applying these patterns to the built environment, including your home, will result in creating the types of environments where people are healthier, happier and more productive. Understanding that we are biological organisms that have genetic propensities to prefer certain types of ecosystems help us design the most effective, and affective environments for homes, offices, healthcare and hospitality.

Whether consciously or not, when we see natural geometric structures in our environments we think and perform better, we feel better and stronger, and we’re more “anchored” in our lives. We’re proactively living our lives, rather than reacting to billions of bits of information with which we find ourselves constantly bombarded.

Biophilic design reflects this human-nature connection which has been integrated into our living spaces from ancient stylized animals and plants adorning temples to garden courtyards, decorative ponds and natural motifs painted on china. We’ve always surrounded ourselves with nature; now we have the science to help us understand how to deliberately implement these “tools”. The use of light, air, water, mystery, rhythm, circadian color references and the like can be addressed and designed for our greatest joy.

The patterns of Biophilic design can be organized into 3 categories:

● Nature In The Space

● Nature Analogues

● Nature Of The Space 

Nature in the space.

These are actual, natural elements that are felt in an environment. Complex and variable views, sounds or smells that are deliberate can provide positive reflections of nature, feel familiar and are comfortable. A varied cluster of plants, the periodic streaming of bird songs, the soft sound of a water feature that can be heard from a nearby room or an indoor herb garden near a kitchen are examples.

Changes in our environment that, though brief and unpredictable but provide us with experiences, are fresh and energizing. Subtle shifts in airflow and temperature that mimic nature, and creating a movement of light and shadow that change over time are welcome, comforting distractions. Even an awareness of seasonal shifts and other natural phenomena help us feel right in a space.

There are 7 specific Patterns to this first category of Nature in the Space. Visual connection with nature, Non-visual connection with nature, Non-rhythmic sensory stimuli, Thermal and airflow variability, Presence of water, Dynamic and diffuse light and Connection with natural systems.

Nature Analogue.

Non-living and indirect evocations of nature, analogue patterns can be objects, colors, shapes, materials or patterns that are found in nature, and interpreted as elements in the built environment. Examples can be found in artwork, textiles, or furnishings, such as the pattern of a tile installation or the carving in woodwork reflecting natural patterns.

There are 3 Patterns within this group of Natural Analogues. First are Biomorphic Forms and Patterns. We have a visual preference for organic and biomorphic forms. Natural geometries such as the golden angle (137 degrees), curves and angles of 120 degrees, Fibonacci number series and the Golden Mean (1.618) can all enhance cognition and reduce stress.

The Second Pattern is Material Connection with Nature. Utilizing natural materials creates a distinct sense of place, and a feeling of authenticity. Natural textures and colors improve creative performance and comfort, decrease diastolic blood pressure and enhance calm.

Lastly are Patterns of Complexity and Order; the balance between boring and overwhelming. Spatial hierarchies found in nature, including simple fractal geometries that can exist in any scale, are shown to reduce stress. Bear in mind, classical geometry produces “smooth” shapes, such as circles, squares and triangles, which are never actually found in nature. When you look at trees or mountains or river systems, they don’t resemble any shapes one sees in classic geometry.

Fractal geometry on the other hand, produces shapes that are natural. With simple formulas copied multiple times, fractal geometry can model these natural phenomena. Somewhat like the pieces of a broken hologram all containing the full hologram, fractals model nature.

Nature Analogue.

The 5 Patterns of this category are Prospect, Refuge, Mystery, Risk/Peril and Awe. The Prospect nature of a space is its unimpeded view over a distance. A space with good Prospect feels open and alive, yet there is still a sense of safety, of control. With a grand enough view, one has an awareness where surprises are limited. Our comfort with good Prospect is thought to have evolved from our beginnings on a savannah, an environment with an open landscape and groups of shade trees for safety.

Using transparent materials and open floor plans are examples of ways to optimize visual access, and provide greater depths of view, enhancing the Prospect.

Refuge is a space that feels separate or special, and away from the primary environment. Here one feels a sense of safety and calm. Refuge has a stronger response than Prospect, improving concentration, reducing boredom, even feeling contemplative, without completely disengaging from the space as a whole. It is strongest when there is protection from behind, and above an individual. These spaces are known to reduce blood pressure and heart rate as well. Think of an alcove off a larger room, or even a child’s tree house.

Mystery is exciting, anticipatory, and usually very pleasurable. Mystery is a space that encourages exploration, promising additional information. A partially obstructed view, a curved edge, a pleasing scent or the sound of water draws one’s attention and compels investigation.

The Risk/Peril pattern is defined as an identifiable threat, coupled with a reliable safeguard. An infinity edge pool, for example, or a clear glass floor open to the stories below can feel exhilarating and intriguing. Risk/peril environments provide improved risk assessment, a shot of dopamine creates pleasure. Other attributes include memory and motivation support and increased problem-solving capabilities.

Finally, awe is a powerful emotional reaction to that which is an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration or the sublime. Imagine an amazing sunset or view, a spectacular piece of art, or the company of a great thinker. It can be the presence of something vast, that transcends our understanding of the world. A sense of wonderment.

These feelings humble us. They shift our focus from exclusively ourselves, to the bigger context of the world and those around us. This results in more social behavior, more kindness and empathy. All positive societal values.

Awe causes our heart rate and breath to slow. It can put us in a healthy, meditative state. Architecturally, when we experience a compression in a space, and then a release as, for example, we move into a larger space, produces an experience of awe – the magical expansion of a space. The feeling you get when walking into a grand cathedral, changing patterns of light to blur distinctions between spaces are other “moments” caught in this pattern.

Determine and understand the design intent, use a combination of biophilic design patterns to increase the likelihood of health benefits, and consider that Biophelia is just one piece of the environmental design puzzle. Know that certain patterns work wonderfully together, their relationships to one another add yet another dimension to the power of great design.

For more information about Biophilic Design, please visit Terrapin Bright Green ( a sustainability consulting and strategic planning firm; “Forging connections with nature to improve health and wellbeing in the built environment.”

To take advantage of this new science and art with interior design services properly utilizing elements of Biophilia, please call Stacey Lapuk, ASID, at 707-658-2670 or 415-320-0077, email to, or visit us at

Stacey Lapuk, ASID

Stacey Lapuk, ASID is celebrating her 30th year with her firm. Named “One of America’s Ten Designers To Watch” by Design Times Magazine, one of the “Top 100 Interior Designer in North America” by Blink Art Resources, and the winner of multiple national design awards.  Her goal is simple: To co-create with her clients the home of their dreams with responsive and comprehensive solutions, and timeless, beautiful results. 

Her full service firm attracts clients desiring the finest workmanship, materials and custom design. Facets of work include partnering with architects on new construction, remodels, kitchen design and bath design, color consultation, custom furniture, flooring, area carpets, wall and window treatments, lighting design, art procurement and antique acquisition.  Service areas include but are not limited to Marin County, San Francisco, Napa, Sonoma, Ross, Kentfield, Belvedere, Tiburon, San Rafael, and Pacific Heights.