What is biophilic architecture? 15 real-world examples in the built environment

Posted on: 4 March, 2024

When coupled with sustainable development, biophilic design can offer significant benefits for the built environment.

As an industry currently responsible for 39% of global energy-related carbon emissions, the built environment has an important role to play in fulfilling the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through embracing new technologies, adopting new construction methods, improving education on sustainability and championing processes like retrofitting, work is being done to address the industry’s impact by the UN’s 2050 deadline.

Learn more: ‘Breathing new life into old walls’

One concept that has often been cited in the drive to improve the sector’s approach to sustainability is biophilia. But what exactly is biophilia? How does it translate to architecture and design? And what does it mean for the built environment?

What is biophilia?

The term biophilia, as coined by psychologist Erich Fromm and popularised by biologist Edward O. Wilson in the 1980s, is defined as ‘the urge to affiliate with other forms of life’. Originating from Greek, it translates literally as ‘love of life’.

In a design context, the concept of biophilia refers to architecture and urban planning that integrates nature to enhance and improve well-being. While this concept has been around for a long time, its popularity has grown in recent years, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased emphasis on mental health and workplace ergonomics.

What are the benefits of biophilic design?

Mental health

Have you ever stepped into a room full of plants and immediately felt energetic and refreshed?

According to a study in 2019 performed by Aarhus University, Denmark, children that are exposed to more nature have 55% fewer mental health problems later in life than those who aren’t. Furthermore, in an office context, incorporating nature can improve well-being by 13% and productivity 8%.

Similarly, another survey, which asked respondents to name the top three most wanted elements in the workplace, produced three results relating to biophilia – natural light (44%), indoor plants (20%), and a view of the sea (17%).

With mental health challenges costing the UK economy at least £117.9 billion annually, more and more businesses are adopting biophilic design principles into their offices in an attempt to improve the well-being and mental health of their staff.

Physical health

Along with the psychological benefits of biophilia, natural environments have a positive impact on physical health, too. Research into biophilia has identified several benefits of biophilia, namely lower cortisol levels, blood pressure and pulse rate, that can have a positive impact on physical health and quality of life.

What’s more, as evidenced by its incorporation in hospitals and gyms, contact with nature can improve pain tolerance and even help patients recover faster from surgery.

Improved sustainability

To create biophilic environments, you need to incorporate natural elements and materials, meaning there’s a crossover between biophilic design elements and sustainability.

When embraced from the beginning of construction projects, biophilia can support sustainability. The benefits of biophilic design, such as greater air quality, optimised thermal comfort, improved water management, and increased building lifespans, to name a few, align with the SDGs set by the UN in 2015.

Furthermore, businesses that don’t actively incorporate sustainability into biophilic buildings will be found guilty of greenwashing – attempting to camouflage and remarket their operations as being more environmentally-friendly than they actually are.

Learn more: What is greenwashing (and how does it impact the built environment)?

High demand

Biophilia is more than a passing trend – it’s an important philosophy in sustainability and architecture that is influencing the way properties are designed around the world. As such, it’s in high demand – property owners can charge higher rent fees for sustainable offices with natural features, and even invest in biophilic design to get more return on investment in their construction projects when it comes to selling it on.

Outside of businesses, there’s also high awareness and demand for biophilic environments – in the hotel industry, guests are willing to pay 23% more for rooms with views of nature. Most interestingly, the healthcare industry look set to particularly benefit from biophilic design, with research finding it can reduce post-operative recovery times by 8.5% and the need for pain medication by 22%.

15 examples of biophilic design and architecture

Here are 15 famous and ground-breaking examples of biophilic architecture from around the world.

1. Barbican Centre – London, UK

The Barbican Centre is one of the earliest and most famous examples of biophilic architecture. Opened in the 1980s as an estate in London, it’s renowned for its striking, brutalist design.

The bleak style of the Barbican is juxtaposed with the use of natural and artificial lakes and extensive wildlife. It even has its own conservatory, housing over 1,500 species of plants and trees.

2. Atri – Lake Vänern, Sweden

The Atri is a sustainable greenhouse villa in Sweden built by Naturvillan – a company that specialises in self-sustaining houses built from ecological materials.

What makes the Atri biophilic is its incorporation of nature, through the use of natural materials and its reliance on natural lighting.

3. Apple Park – California, USA

One of the most widely recognised examples of biophilic architecture, tech giant Apple’s headquarters in California has been praised for its design and incorporation of nature.

Apple Park embraces the shape of the land – it’s surrounded by a forest of around 9,000 trees and, with a hollowed-out centre full of wildlife, provides employees with a space for well-being and a connection with nature.

4. Bosco Verticale – Milan, Italy

Another famous landmark of both biophilia and sustainability, the Bosco Verticale was designed to combat urban sprawl and reduce expansion.

Covered by 20,000 plants (which all help to convert carbon, absorb CO2 and dust, and improve air quality), it’s one of the most recognisable and widely-cited images of sustainable construction.

5. The Jewel – Singapore, Singapore

The first of two entries from Singapore, The Jewel is an entertainment and retail complex that forms part of Singapore Changi airport. It’s home to the world’s largest indoor waterfall (the 40-metre tall Rain Vortex) and 100,000 plants, and is part of Singapore’s goal to become ‘a city in a garden’ and a model of biodiversity.


6. The Vibes Office – Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

As with Apple Park, the Vibes Office is an attempt to bring the benefits of biophilic design into the work environment. Opened in 2021, this building is a multi-zonal construction based around several gardens, and incorporates biophilic features such as green walls and water features.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Vibe Office is the use of bamboo sunshade skin, which reduces thermal radiation and consequently minimises energy consumption.

7. Ruins Studio – Dumfries, Scotland

In Scotland, the Ruins Studio incorporates modern biophilic design into existing architecture. As the name suggests, this award-winning home is built from the ruins of an 18th century farmhouse – an example of adaptive reuse.

The original stone from its foundation was kept intact and provided the exterior shell for a building now entirely powered by solar panels.

8. Khoo Teck Puat Hospital – Yishun, Singapore

Returning to Singapore, the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (or KTPH) shows how the popularity of biophilic architecture has expanded beyond offices, ecological homes and grand complexes.

Conceived as a ‘healing environment’, the KTPH project was inspired by biophilia’s links to environmental psychology and research into the benefits of incorporating nature on health and well-being. Among its many biophilic features are its walls, which are designed to channel winds and enhance the airflow of the building by 20-30%.

9. Karolinska Institutet Gym – Stockholm, Sweden

In 2018, gym design firm BioFit completed a fit out of the gym at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. As with the KTPH, the Karolinska gym has a focus on the health benefits of biophilia and incorporates sustainable materials, air-purifying plants and circadian lighting, and proves that not all biophilic projects and designs have to be large-scale buildings, offices and towers.

10. Second Home Lisboa – Lisboa, Portugal

Second Home are a workspace provider that produce architectural designs that foster creativity and well-being around the world. Their fourth project, Second Home Lisboa, houses over 1,000 plants and trees that reduce CO2 levels and increase humidity, improving the air quality of its 250 occupants.

11. The Spheres – Seattle, USA

Also known as The Amazon Spheres, these spherical conservatories are a famous landmark in Seattle that make up part of corporate giant Amazon’s headquarters.

Inspired by Victorian-era conservatories and the steampunk aesthetic, the design of the spheres was intended to instil connection to nature for Amazon’s staff. It’s home to over 40,000 species of plants and has received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for its sustainability credentials.

12. 1 Hotels – Kauai, USA

1 Hotels is a luxury hotel brand that have been making waves for their sustainable and biophilic hotel designs. They describe their mission as ‘getting people to reconnect with nature through art and design’ and have locations across the world, from the USA, the UK and China to, eventually, new hotels in Greece, France and Australia.

Their Hanalei Bay site in Kauai, Hawaii is just one example of how 1 Hotels incorporates elements of nature into its design. While the interior decoration makes use of natural patterns and sustainable design, it’s the views of the Pacific Ocean that most strongly reflect their design philosophy and ambitions.

13. Garden and House – Tokyo, Japan

In contrast to the scale of some of the other biophilic buildings featured on this list, Garden and House is an 8×4 metre, five-story rectangle standing just 30 metres high.

At first glance it appears to have no walls, until you spot the glass windows that make up its exterior facade. Each room is interspersed with gardens, and the use of plants give the impression that each of its concrete plane floors are floating.

The building was designed by Ryue Nishizawa, a renowned Japanese architect who was the youngest ever recipient of the coveted Pritzker Prize. He co-founded Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates (SANAA), an internationally-recognised architecture firm with projects spanning the globe.

Below is a picture of the Teshima Art Museum, another example of one of Nishizawa’s projects that fosters a connection with nature.

14. Ha Long Villa – Ha Long, Vietnam

An increase in tourism to Vietnam has given the country a significant economic boost – so much so that it has become globally-recognised for its work in biophilic design and sustainability.

The Ha Long Villa is situated in the town of Ha Long, 150km away from the city of Hanoi. Constructed from exposed concrete, the villa is full of layers of greenery, so much so that the intention of its design philosophy is to make its occupants feel as though they’re living in a forest.

15. One Central Park – Sydney, Australia

An image of One Central Park in Australia is one of the most famous examples of sustainable architecture you will encounter. This mixed use, high-rise building is famous for its striking hanging gardens and cantilevered heliostat – a device that reflects sunlight onto its retail atrium, public terrace and surrounding areas.

Along with its impressive visual design, it’s also extremely sustainable. Through a membrane bioreactor – a water treatment process that makes use of water from sources like rain, drainage and sewage – it has its own recycled water network that caters to over 4,000 residents and 15,000 visitors every day.

6 ways to incorporate biophilic design into a building

1. Indoor plants

From potted plants to pergolas lined with intricate vines and even trees, the simplest way to incorporate connections with nature is to bring plants into your home, building or office. This is best exemplified by One Central Park in Australia and Garden and House in Japan.

2. Use natural materials

A more subtle technique in biophilic design is the use of natural materials in construction and decoration, such as wood, bamboo, rattan or cork. 1 Hotels suites such as their Hanalei Bay location are constructed with salvaged materials, as well as reclaimed components like marble and stone.

3. Incorporate water elements

Indoor water elements are another effective way to foster human connections to nature in urban environments. Water features have been found to decrease stress and increase relaxation, according to research. In busy, bustling city environments, they help address noise pollution and create a sense of peace and calm.

4. Mimic natural environments in your design

Biomimicry is the replication of natural elements to solve human challenges. While it’s not the same as biophilia, in the context of design and architecture these two philosophies can be combined to great effect. Mimicking images of nature in design can improve the health and wellbeing of a building’s occupants, as well as helping optimise both sustainability and environmental performance.

5. Utilise natural lighting

Exposure to natural light is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. It’s also something we’re severely lacking, with research published by the Lawrence Berkley National Library finding that we spend 90% of our time in indoor environments.

Unsurprisingly, natural light is a significant element of biophilic design, as evidenced by One Central Park in Australia and The Jewel in Singapore among many others. It can be easily incorporated through skylights, large windows and the use of mirrors.

6. Add green spaces and easy access to nature

Adding green public spaces to urban environments is another effective way of bringing natural elements into our everyday lives. They offer a wealth of benefits, from improving air quality and reducing noise pollution to offsetting carbon emissions and creating habitat for wildlife.

Biophilia and the cities of the future

The potential of biophilia has been so widely recognised that it looks likely to play a part in the future of sustainable urban environments.

In his book Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning, Timothy Beatley, sustainable city researcher and author, advocated for the creation of biophilic cities that incorporate nature into the everyday lives of their residents.

Indeed, with the proliferation of urban greening, sustainable design and green architecture, more and more of the buildings, infrastructure and cities we frequent and inhabit could very well become biophilic over the coming decades.

As Dr. Graeme Larsen, Associate Dean (Sustainability) at UCEM said:

“Biophilia is a powerful concept for helping us understand and enact sustainability and sustainability development. Biophilia is embedded in, and resonates strongly with, the emerging ecocentric perspective of sustainability. Concepts like biophilia help us move the beyond the traditional egocentric perspectives that have shaped the world of today and contributed to many of the challenges we now face.”

Sustainability isn’t a passing trend – it’s here to stay and is constantly evolving. If you want to inspire and action change in your career, UCEM’s MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments will give you the skills you need, both now and in the future.

Find out more: MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments – University College of Estate Management