Biophilic Design Makes Buildings A Much Better Place To Live

Smarty Cities Insider interviewed Bill Browning. Bill is a partner at Terrapin Bright Green and a founding member of USGBC. Bill is focusing on bringing nature into urban build environment through Biophilic design. We spoke to Bill to find out more about it.

What is the theory and practice of Biophilic Design? How does the human connection to nature affect us psychologically and physiologically? 

Bill Browning: Biophilia is a study of human connection to nature. We see neuroscientists, psychologists, evolutionary biologists and a number of others looking at how people respond psychologically and physiologically to experiences of nature. Those experiences frequently translate to lower stress level, which you can see through heart rate and blood pressure and a number of other indicators. Another outcome of experiencing nature is improved cognitive function.

In Japan the research is called forest bathing “Shinrin-Yoku”. They would give people a stressful situation and then put them into a forest to see what happens to the heart rate and the blood pressure. They also measure cortisol level in the body, which is a really good indicator of stress level. What is intriguing from this research is not only that the level of cortisol is lower, but that after you experience nature that cortisol level stays lower for an extended period of time.

We have been collecting scientific papers on this topic and categorizing them by what it is in the environment that leads to a positive response. That led us to develop a series of patterns or metrics based on the science. That’s what the 14 patterns of Biophilic Design are. It’s a collection of science that says, for example, having water in the space leads to these types of responses, or having a view to nature from the space, we know helps with stress reduction and cognitive function. Each of the 14 patterns are based on a different science, which will tell you what outcome each pattern supports.

Our reasoning for doing this in the built environment comes from the fact that now more than half of the world’s population lives in cities; the opportunity to connect with nature is pretty diminished. In many cases people can’t get out to a forest, mountains or the beach. Biophilic Design is an attempt to bring the qualities of those outdoors experiences into the built environment.

What are the most influential functions in ecosystems that can be mimicked to improve functionality and resilience of our communities? 

biophilic design bill browning


Bill Browning: One for certain would be how the ecosystems deal with water. How water is moved through the ecosystem, where it is stored and where it is expressed. The common strategy of cities in regards to storm water is to get it away as quickly as possible. In that process we wind up polluting it, causing flooding problems, erosion and ecological problems. As water becomes scarce, we must treat it as a resource that we don’t want to be throwing away. If we can think about how nature dealt with water at a specific place before it was developed we can hopefully help solve a lot of problems with sewer overflows, flooding, and actually have water available for landscaping and mechanical systems.

For example, two of the partners at Terrapin are also the original partners of COOKFOX Architects, who designed the Bank of America tower in Manhattan. That building has the ability to capture most of the rainwater that falls on the building and store it in a series of cisterns through the fabric of the building. It also captures condensate water and other water coming from mechanical systems, filters it and cleans that water and uses it to flush toilets, to run mechanical systems, and other things for what you otherwise are buying potable water for the building. This greatly reduces the amount of water going into the sewer and it reduces the amount of water that has to be purchased for the building to about a half.

What are the most efficient strategies for increasing employees’ productivity and well-being in existing office buildings? 

biophilia biophilic design bill browning


Bill Browning: Talking from the Biophlic Design side, giving people visual access to daylight and views to outdoors. Access to daylight doesn’t mean just daylight being in the space but actually visibly see the daylight. That makes the difference to health and happiness. New research by the US General Services Administration defines that besides increased productivity in an office, the direct visual access to daylight improves people’s sleep patterns.

In areas like Manhattan views to nature often do not exist. So companies install green walls, living spaces, aquariums and water features. We also see strategic use of natural materials.

The old mechanical system and lighting design theory was that you wanted everything uniform all the time – same light level on your work surface, same temperature and airflow all the time – and we are learning that human body doesn’t do well with that. We need different temperatures, we need different airflows and light levels to keep us alert, happy, and active.

Open plan can be another effective way to improve productivity. That’s good for daylighting and good for collaboration. But what we also are learning is that we need to balance it with a space where we can withdraw. We call these spaces Refuge Spaces.

Can artificial elements of nature substitute nature? 

Bill Browning: There is actually research about that. There is a research in hospitals showing patients pictures of nature before and after surgery. They found that the stress level was lower going into surgery and the recovery rate was faster coming out of surgery.

The question then comes up, can I just put up a video screen or posters showing nature. It does have some benefit in terms of heart rate and blood pressure, but real is better.

In one experiment, people in a stressful situation were given no view; or given a view out of the window to a court yard with a fountain, some flowers and trees; or a view of a flat screen television of exact same dimensions as the window and broadcast live on the screen the view out of the window.

The artificial view was definitely better than no view at all. The psychological response to that was somewhat similar to psychological response to real view through the window. But there was a real difference in physiological response between those two. The heart rate and blood pressure went down much quicker with the real view versus the artificial.

Our brain sorts those out. Partially because of our binocular vision and parallax where all you have to do is move your head just a fraction and what you see three dimensionally changes in real world, and it doesn’t happen when you are looking at the screen. The brain knows which is a representation and which is real.

What communities out there are implementing Biophilic design strategies? 

Bill Browning: There are 12 cities around the world, which are members of the Biophilic Cities Network. It’s coordinated by Tim Beatley, a professor at University of Virginia School of Architecture. Different cities are doing different things and then sharing experiences with each other.

biophilic design smart cities

Singapore implemented a regulation called Green Area Ratio. When you build a new building in Singapore you need to put living plants on roofs, terraces and balconies to total an area larger than the footprint of the building. Now we see buildings in Singapore that have Green Area Ratio of three or four times the footprint of the building. The Park Royal hotel in Downtown Singapore is a great example. The podium roof is all gardens and a swimming pool. Every four floors of the hotel there is a terrace that is a jungle. You look out from your room through the jungle to the city.

The City of San Francisco has a Biodiversity Officer responsible for managing and monitoring bio-diversity in the city. Wellington, New Zealand, restored a native forest in the core of the city to bring birdsong back into the city.  Vitoria-Gastiez, the Basque region of Spain has created rings of green belts around the city and is now restoring creeks and riverbeds through the core of the city to connect with the greenbelts. Visit 

For those who would like to know more about Biophilic Design, where should they look? 

Bill Browning: On our website are, The Economics of Biophilia, 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design and other papers which are free to download. There are many references and other resources in all of our papers.

Bill Browning, Terrapin Bright GreenBill Browning
Partner, Terrapin Bright Green
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William Browning, BED Colorado University, MSRED MIT, Hon. AIA, LEED AP. Terrapin Bright Green is an environmental strategies research and consulting firm. Browning’s clients include Disney, New Songdo City, Lucasfilm, Google, Bank of America, the White House, and the Sydney 2000 Olympic Village. Browning is a founding member of USGBC.

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