IN APRIL 1984, the journal Science published
a study by behavioral scientist Roger Ulrich
that suggested something rather remarkable.
Analyzing the recovery times of patients at
a Pennsylvania hospital, Ulrich found that
those who had a view of nature—even a small
copse of trees—experienced shorter hospital
stays, fewer postoperative complications, and
were generally described by nurses in more
positive terms. In other words, just looking
at nature somehow helps us heal.
That same year, biologist E.O.
Wilson published the hugely influential book Biophilia, in which
the Harvard researcher argued
that human beings have an innate
connection with the natural world.
In the years since, the evidence
for nature’s impact on the human
brain and body has only grown. A
number of influential studies have
shown that the presence of water,
natural light, and a view to the
outdoors can reduce stress, lower
blood pressure, improve cognitive
function, and enhance memory.
This growing body of research
quantified what designers have
long intuited. It also inspired a
new term: biophilic design, a way
to capitalize on the human-nature
connection to create more healthful
spaces. In recent years, groups such
as the Academy of Neuroscience for
Architecture and the International WELL Building
Institute, combined with an increasing focus on
human health and well-being in the built environment, have helped biophilic design attain an almost
In practice, however, biophilic design can be an
elusive thing. “It’s not a very complicated concept in
a definitional sense. It’s complicated when you try to
execute it,” says Stephen Kellert, a professor emeritus and senior research scholar at Yale University
and the editor, with E.O. Wilson, of the seminal book
The Biophilia Hypothesis.
In 2014, sensing a need for a contemporary guide,
veteran sustainability strategist Bill Browning (see
“ICONic Profile,” page 52) co-authored 14 Patterns
of Biophilic Design: Improving Health and Well-Being
in the Built Environment, a widely circulated, data-driven report that boiled biophilic design down to a
relatively simple pattern language. The 14 patterns
were grouped into three broad categories: Nature
in the Space (“the direct, physical, and ephemeral
presence of nature in an environment”), Natural
Analogues (“nonliving and indirect evocations of
nature such as objects, materials, colors, shapes,
sequences, and patterns”), and Nature of the Space
(“spatial configurations in nature”).
If the report was meant as a primer and playbook, it could also be read as a refutation of the
one-dimensional application of the biophilic design
concept. Search “biophilic design” and Google
returns pages and pages of greenery: lush interior courtyards, Mediterranean roofscapes, and a
seemingly infinite array of living walls—artificially
constructed gardens hung vertically on spare surfaces in prominent places, an orphaned ecosystem
meant as a demonstration of an organization’s commitment to sustainable, human-centered design.
“Simply inserting an object of nature into a human
built environment, if unrelated or at variance with
other more dominant characteristics of the setting,
exerts little positive impact on the health and performance of the people who occupy these spaces,”
Kellert has written. True biophilic design, in other
words, can’t ever be a box on a design team’s checklist.
Besides, not all green walls are equal, says
Browning, who in 2006 founded Terrapin Bright
Green to help the public and private sectors leverage I M