Biophilia in Architecture: Bringing the Outside in

If we’ve learned one thing over the past two years, it’s that nothing is more important than personal wellness. From how we spend our time, to where we choose to live and what kind of lifestyle we lead; it’s become clearer than ever before that feeling good about ourselves and our surroundings is paramount in this rapidly evolving world. And at the nexus of these things: the home. Given how much time we’ve spent in our houses with the ups and downs of the pandemic, it’s no wonder that architects are examining, in new ways, the design principles that make people happy. At the top of that list: biophilia.

What is Biophilia?

Biophilia is the human instinct to connect to the natural world. Translated to the architecture sphere, biophilia is about pulling from the patterns and materials found in nature to create a built environment. It’s building a house that incorporates the rhythms and the forms inherent in the natural world. It’s bringing the outside inside. Structures created by the earliest humans and throughout history used plants and animals for decorative purposes. Think Egyptian Sphinx, the ornate acanthus leaves etched into classic Roman architecture, and the spiraled shape (à la fiddlehead ferns) of the volutes on Corinthian columns. “As humans, we’ve been conditioned to seek out nature,” says KGA senior architect Travis Hendrix. “We are drawn to its symmetry, sequences, patterns, and order.”

Those terms may not seem “outdoorsy” or “wild” in an obvious way; they aren’t ideas that come to mind when we think of nature. But principles such as the Fibonacci Sequence and Golden Proportion are patterns inherently hidden in nature, and those ideas, whether we realize it or not, infuse our interactions with space. Does that mean people are lounging around at home doing mathematics in their heads every time they consider their space? No. What it does mean is that people innately appreciate organic, natural-feeling spaces with some sort of inherent order and pattern.

This historic Tudor remodel features layered lines-of-sight and free-flowing transitions between outdoors and in.

Why Do We Gravitate Toward Nature in the Structures We Build?

In short, outside views are pleasant and calming. Actual access to the outside goes a step further to increase mental stimulation, emotional balance, and productivity. The majority of humans today live in cities and spend most of their lives indoors. But evolutionarily speaking, humans have relied on the outdoors for food, shelter, comfort, sleep, adventure, happiness, and, well, survival. Fast forward to modern life, and we still innately understand that experiencing natural elements can soothe our nervous systems, alleviate stress, spark joy, and provide comfort.

Studies have shown that people live longer and experience markedly higher levels of physical and mental wellbeing if they reside within sight of a body of water or green space. These views—oceans, lakes, mountains, rolling hills—afford access to natural light, which can stimulate and regulate the body to be more in sync with the natural world. “As humans, we’re kind of an invasive species right now,” Hendrix says. “We are throwing lots of systems out of whack.” In other words, humans have spent a copious amount of time building environments that cut us off from nature. Some would argue that our instinct to invite the outdoors in is our attempt to fix this.

How Does Biophilia Translate into Designing a House?

Biophilia promotes wellness, which is an integral part of architecture. If we’re not creating spaces that have a positive effect on the people who spend time in them, then what’s the point? “Our best projects actually incorporate this already,” says Hendrix, referring to it as a “subconscious response” to where we are as modern humans interacting with built environments. Spaces that bring the outdoors in can take many forms. Obvious design features might take one of two paths:

  • Biomimicry is when a feature or building emulates nature in both form and function. Some believe it goes back to the first ancient dwellings, built as domes said to be inspired by the shape of eggs.
  • Biomorphism is a more abstract interpretation of natural shapes and patterns.   

Then there are design strategies that invite elements of the outdoors inside. Think: a skylight that brings in streaming natural light, or floor-to-ceiling windows that create the illusion of floating amongst the trees. Some elements allow people themselves to move easily between outdoors and indoors, like sliding glass doors that open onto an expansive deck, or a covered patio with an outdoor fireplace. “It’s all about building spaces where people can find comfort and relaxation,” Hendrix says. But, he adds, it’s not just about wall-to-wall glass. “You need warmth; you don’t want it to feel like you’re living in a spaceship. It’s about the layering of elements and views to be really pleasing to the eye. It’s an appreciation for the land, views, and sun angles, and the use of natural materials like stone.”

This modern farmhouse remodel incorporates biophilic design elements including rustic wood beams, natural stone and easy outdoor access.

Can You Incorporate Biophilia in a Remodel?

Absolutely. “With remodels, we hear a lot about spaces that don’t work very well,” Hendrix says. “Part of feeling comfortable in your space is knowing it adheres to form, sequence, and order. So, it’s an integration and understanding of how we interact with space on a biological level.” And that brings it back to our affinity for nature as the human species. As we’ve gotten more and more built in our environments throughout history, humans crave more and more connection to the outdoors. As we’ve begun to articulate that in the modern world, biophilia has become intertwined in the architecture and design of many of today’s transitional spaces. In fact, it’s a great way to hybridize traditional and modern homes.

What Does Biophilia in Architecture Actually Look Like?

“Alignments on an axis are really important in design,” Hendrix says. In other words, it’s important to define “the sight-line of a house, or how you’re looking through the things that have been built.” Biophilia in architecture has to do with how your eyes move through different elements and layers of the house and its transition to the outside. Take this contemporary farmhouse remodel in Cherry Hills. Spaces like the enclosed breezeway feature a symmetry of windows that allow a line of sight from the driveway, through the interior, and out to the green space beyond, melding the outside and inside seamlessly.

Plus, adding the pool, patio, and formal organization of plants help to soften the transition between the interior and the backyard. Previously, the house offered no exit point to the back lawn despite the fact that the grass extended all the way to the rear of the home. So, we transformed the underused yard space into a natural bluestone patio encompassing a pool, multiple seating areas, and several entry points to the house. Coupled with the addition of a second-level balcony that runs the expansive length of the house, the transformation vastly expands accessibility to the outdoors. Moreover, the natural materials increase that synergy with the natural environment. “Bluestone is a gorgeous stone,” Hendrix says. “Each piece is unique. It’s not factory-made and sterile. Humans just intuitively seek that.”

In a different tack, this penthouse condo remodel in Washington Park incorporates biophilia by inviting the outside in through its use of warm wood and botanical accents. The rich wood floors, prominent wood ceiling beams, and wood cabinetry throughout bring in an element of rustic outdoorsiness that contrasts nicely with the elegance of the furnishings and palette. The wood is an organic companion to the greenery from the indoor plants and artwork that depicts botanicals and animals, not to mention the striking biomorphic shower tile in the bathroom.

For additional examples of biophilic design based on layered lines-of-sight and free-flowing transitions between outdoors and in, see this transitional historic Tudor remodel.

Looking Ahead

While the interpretation and application of biophilia in architecture are broad in scope, there’s no denying that humans feel an innate connection to nature that has manifested in our built environments since the earliest days of humankind. As the human species continues to build out our natural environment to meet our modern needs, that gravitation toward the natural world will become more pronounced. Nature is, after all, what inspired our constructed spaces in the first place. And, Hendrix says, we’ll need to honor that intuitive pull toward nature with as much authenticity as possible when designing. Our green spaces and blue spaces are shrinking, and our built spaces are growing. That dueling trajectory won’t reverse anytime soon, so we need to consider our role in it. How do we stay connected to a world that’s waning? “We need to nurture ourselves,” Hendrix says. “In America, we fall away from that a little. We get caught in the rush. We need to take a step back and think about how to be better.” Most of all, we need to be intentional about inviting nature into the places we build.

Ready to Get Started?

Let's talk! Tell us more about your project. We respond within 2 business days.

Success! Your custom home program template is on the way.

Please check your email for your custom home program template download.

Get the KGA custom home program delivered right to your inbox

We’ll also send you our monthly newsletter with new blogs and other KGA news. You can unsubscribe at any time.