Biophilia and Biomimicry Basics / by Matthew Salenger

Photo by Sherwood Wang of 180 Degrees

Photo by Sherwood Wang of 180 Degrees


            There are many different ways to bring about greater happiness and more value in our everyday living. Everyone wants to live more healthy, happy, interesting and productive lives. We also want to make our dollar stretch further. When it comes to designing products and buildings, there are new tools that help us do all of that. And thanks to new technologies and scientific studies, there are quantifiable methods of providing better, more comfortable, efficient, and attractive buildings.

            coLAB studio has experts in two of the most fascinating tools for designing innovative built environments: Biophilia and Biomimicry. As their names imply, both deal with ideas based in nature- however, there is less overlap than one might imagine. Many people, including designers, are not familiar with the base purpose of these two important tools for designing better, more efficient, and more productive buildings, spaces, products, and providing better life choices. This paper hopes to provide basic information about Biophilia and Biomimicry to help readers understand them and also describe how to incorporate both tools into their lives and professional practices.

We've provided links within the following text to more information- so be sure to check them out.


            The root of the word, Biophilia, means a love for nature, life, and living systems. The term was first used by Erich Fromm as part of his conception for a productive psychological orientation. This is relevant for how we now use the term today, which was part of what Edward O. Wilson called the Biophilia Hypothesis. In his 1984 book, Biophilia, Wilson defined the term as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. Recent researchers have found strong psychological, physical, and cognitive benefits from utilizing ideas put forward by Wilson that have been statistically verified in numerous studies.

Before discussing scientific studies, it is important to note that designers have instinctually known about the advantages of Biophilic design for millenia. One can think about Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, and its elimination of boundaries between interior and exterior. Or Frank Lloyd Wright’s desire to, as he put it, blend the boundaries of interior and exterior. Frederick Law Olmstead designed Central Park with the purpose of bringing a sense of calm and joy to the working classes by connecting them to nature. Traditional Chinese courtyard houses were designed for centuries with nature at their core. Every culture on every continent have utilized tools of Biophilia to produce various benefits ever since people have made buildings. Now we have plenty of evidence showing these tools actually and quantifiably work.           

 There are several books on Biophilia available, though the one we find most helpful is called 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, Improving Health & Well-Being In The Built Environment by Terrapin Bright Green. The authors organize a wide ranging series of Biophilic design tactics into fourteen categories and provide a matrix showing what each of those categories provide as benefits in terms of stress reduction; cognitive performance; emotion, mood and preference. The book cites scores of neurological, psychological, quantitative, and other scientific studies showing direct links between various design strategies and mind-body benefits. The book was written specifically to assist designers in making more conscious choices to improve the environments they create.

            As an example: Imagine a large residential courtyard. Picture it surrounded on all sides by eight foot tall opaque walls with a beautiful tree in the middle. This type of space providing a protected “retreat” falls within Terrapin’s fourteen patterns as “Refuge”. It appears to be engrained as a desirable space in all people, as it has been used all over the world over many centuries. This particular pattern provides increased cognitive performance including improved concentration, attention, and perception of safety as shown in a study by Grahn & Stigsdotter in 2010 along with two other studies completed in previous decades.

            Other studies have shown that particular patterns and colors can be combined to expedite healing in hospitals and calm prison inmates. Terrapin’s book does a great job of providing descriptions of the patterns and benefits. One of the most interesting is the pattern “Risk/Peril”, which provides strong dopamine or pleasure responses. Think of looking out from the observation deck of the Sears Tower or standing on the edge of a cliff. And though that may seem like simple “fun” (to some at least), there are actually quantifiable psychological and task-related benefits from occasionally engaging in such behavior. 

Courtyard House; Cedar Street Residence by coLAB studio

Courtyard House; Cedar Street Residence by coLAB studio


            Sometimes also referred to as Biomimetics, Biomimicry is the study and imitation of natural systems for the purpose of solving complex problems. A famous example you are probably familiar with is the invention of Velcro. In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral went hiking in the woods and returned home with burrs clinging to his pants and his dog’s fur. He studied what made them hold on so effectively and noticed many tiny hooks designed to cling to any hairy animal passing by. A few years later, Mestral developed a tape that mimicked the hooks and hair that is still in use today.

            While Biophilia is ancient in origin, Biomimicry is a wide-ranging and ever-evolving field that is in many ways still in its infancy. It also has several ancient examples of people learning from nature, but many of the current ways in which we study nature have only been possible through recent technologies such as computer modelling and electron microscopes. The ideas that have sprung out are amazingly exciting - such as wind turbines modeled after humpback whale flippers that provide a 20% increase in efficiency. and self-healing plastics for aircraft. Another example is a tall building in Zimbabwe modeled after termite mounds that passively regulates the interior temperature of the building with no conventional air-conditioning- all through careful manipulation of form and air patterns. Biomimicry lessons can also increase efficiency and vitality when applied to business practices, group dynamics, and almost any aspect of life

Efficient turbine blade based on Humpback Whale fin by  WhalePower .

Efficient turbine blade based on Humpback Whale fin by WhalePower.

The standard jumping off point for Biomimetic thinking comes from the idea called “The Genius of Place”, an imperative to study how nature solves issues related to a particular location. For instance, if one is building a structure in a very hot climate, studies of how local plants and animals have adapted to the climate may provide ideas for innovative answers to complex problems. For an example of this, coLAB studied how Saguaro cactus create micro-climates in their vertical flutes using the stack-effect to keep cool and developed a ventilated cladding system using similar systems. The exterior skin helps to keep the building cooler and reduces overall energy use. There is even a handy website to help find information on how nature solves problems.

Ventilated skin system, Vali Prototype Infill House 1 by coLAB studio.

Ventilated skin system, Vali Prototype Infill House 1 by coLAB studio.

            Nature is an amazing teacher. As more people study this field, the more we realize there are virtually no limits to what our environment can show us how to improve ourselves and the world around us. There are several entities delving into Biomimicry- and in Arizona we are lucky enough to have one of the most prevalent consulting groups in the world in this subject, Biomimicry 3.8, working right around the corner from coLAB studio at the ASU School of Sustainability on The Biomimicry Center


            Biophilia and Biomimicry each provide amazingly helpful tools for improving our built environment, but do so in very different ways. Biophilia offers physical and psychological benefits directly for human health, wellbeing, and productivity. Biomimicry delivers innovative efficiencies for complex systems in the building industry and beyond. And though very different, they often work well together and even enhance each other’s value and benefits.

            Utilizing these tools in design requires a knowledge of the potentials and the processes to produce results. Biophilia can be intuitive to designers, but can also be enhanced through greater knowledge of the examples and scientific evidence available. Biomimicry usually takes a bit of training, and also patience to fully study a site, subject, or species. The benefits of both usually greatly outweigh the costs.

            Feel free to contact us to see how we can help provide greater value to your life through these and other tools.