Biophillic Design and Biomimicry

Image by Unknown: Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water is a famous example of biophilia for it's integration into the landscape.

In a research project I am exploring right now we are researching the sensory experiences of people within the built environment. There are some great concepts coming together that I’ll share in upcoming posts, but one of the themes that keeps reoccurring is the difference between biomimicry and biophilia. It’s not something that I’ve given a lot of thought to in the past, but I’ve found a few resources I’d like to share.

E. O. Wilson

I have to admit I still haven’t read E. O. Wilson’s original writing on the subject, but his quote that captures the essence of biophilia is;

“… the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.”

You can find many, many wonderful quotes from E. O. Wilson, but this particular one came form a gorgeous brochure for the E. O. Wilson Centre for Biophillia.

What is Biophilia

Image by Unknown: Boston Methodist Hospital, in Michigan (left) and Alberta Hospital (right).

In a nutshell, biophilia is the process of integrating nature, visually and literally into architecture and urban planning. Once seen as a “nice” idea with good intentions, there is now a growing awareness from a scientific level, that integration of nature can have significant impacts on a human’s health and wellness. An increasing number of studies suggest that a simple window to the outside world with some greenery will encourage fast recovery times in hospitals and less need for painkillers. Biophilia is very human centric while encouraging and validating an integration of ecology within the human habitat.

How does that differ from Biomimicry?

Image by Unknown: Diagram showing self shading function mimicked from nature.

Biomimicry focusses on understanding the functional strategies of nature and how they can influence and inspire innovation. It is a specific solutions based methodology that fuels ideation, as well as frames aspirational goals to guide innovation methodologies. Health and wellness is implied as a characteristic of good sustainable practice, but the intention is more systemic methodology within design.

Some comparisons to put it in perspective

To put it in context here are examples I use to frame the concepts:

The Building Envelope:

  • Biophilia: Focus is on allowing as much natural light to pass through, preferably with vistas to parks or wild regions that are conserved during the construction of the project. Sight lines within the space should be clearly defined and linked to occupants’ movements. Where possible natural air should be able to flow through the building, linking occupants to the outside through the sensory experiences of a breeze. Where possible green walls should be integrated internally to encourage plant life indoors, directly situated within the context of the occupants.
  • Biomimicry: Initial focus is to understand the context, what ecosystem is this building in and what are the core functional challenges of that ecosystem. This could include a relationship to rain, sun and wind and would include a taxonomy of general principles found within that context. The design process would focus on recreating those functions within the materials, assemblies and structures of the building envelope. For example, if the organisms in that local ecosystem have strategies for self shading to protect from harsh light, these could be mimicked in the configuration of cladding in order to create an external microclimate to keep the building cool. Further insights into water would suggest the desired rates of flow, absorption and evaporation on site, in order for the building to function more like an organism within the ecosystem.

Weaknesses of Both

Biophillia becomes superficial when the effort is to simply copy the form of nature within the built environment. Designing a column to look like a tree has the air of novelty. Designing the pots to look “earthy” so as to extend the tree more into the environment seems more of a gimmick.

Biomimicry becomes superficial when viewed as a reductive form oriented methodology. When only one physical function is viewed and copied, through a narrow lens, the deeper lessons of place based, systemic awareness are overlooked and the end result rarely “behaves” as a natural organisms.

Value of Both

It is tiring when you see these two concepts pitched against one another when the deep essences overlap on so many fronts. The strength of biophilia in recent times has been the measurable impact on human health and wellness. Because we are primarily living in a human dominated world, benefits need to be framed through this lens. Often biomimicry when taken to the extreme alienates this audience as the building as an organism within an ecosystem is far too abstract for the person signing bills and paying for the development.

Integrating the methodologies together and recognizing that each works towards the development of a built environment that better “fits” humans to “place” should be the goal, rather than identifying the differences between the two concepts. Further emphasis on the measurable impacts, health and wellness, sustainability, and business will continue to add relevancy to the methodologies and increase the audience willing to participate.

Deep Dive

If you want to dive deeper into some research, here is a list of great resources:

Janine Benyus’s overview of Biomimicry – her book synthesized into a core outline

Introduction to the Theory of Biophilic Design – opening chapter from an excellent book

Designing Nature into the Daily Spaces of Childhood – good argument for children being engaged in nature

How to Create Healthy Environments and Health People – review of science around biophillia in health care


10 Comments on “Biophillic Design and Biomimicry”

  1. Dave Sanchez says:

    Finally someone touch this ideas together. This is presicely in what Im workin now on PhD Research.

  2. Tim McGee says:

    I think one of the interesting things about the discussion is that biomimicry makes it hard to include people – or at least the process of biomimicry tends to keep human centric perspectives art arms length or awkward, and requires specific effort for recombination.

    Biophilia on the other hand is always a human centric perspective, because it is based on our perception of living systems.

    The tiring bit is when actually trying to design, and you end up getting caught up in the artificial mental models of both fields. It prohibits you from taking the pragmatic steps of including biology, direct observation, psychology, and social science research as processes that inform good design.

    Weaving them together, and communicating such a diverse set of perspectives becomes the primary challenge- one that I think the the Video Game community is also exploring in some fascinating ways. Jane McGonigal, for one has a wealth of research on the subject of how to engage people for change, and I think at some point this conversation will overlap with that one.

    Until then- Game on.

    • Joe Zazzera says:

      Two other great resources are 1) Biophilic Design, The Architecture of Life A documentary by Steven Kellert & Bill Finnegan and 2) Children & Nature Network curated by Richard Louv.

      Personally I am happy to see the rumblings of crossover between Biomimicry and Biophilia. I agree with Tim, In that it is often hard to include the human side in biomemitic discussions (mostly it is just left out). I am usually let down by this when it comes to biomimicry. There is a human side to any sustainable movement (it is after all the core reason for it, preservation of our species), perhaps more acknowledgement of this in the biomimetic process would prove helpful.

      • Carl Hastrich says:

        I like how casually you throw around heretic ideas, Joe! Human centred design can sometimes be direct conflict with idealistic nature based sustainability methodologies, which ultimately becomes the barrier to the desired action.

  3. Rowan Edwards says:

    It seems that one of the reasons biomimicry doesn’t include people so well yet is because it is still too new and too scientific. For it to develop and grow best from the bottom up it needs to be adopted and practiced on a deeper level by more designers…designers that understand the need for biologists as well as engineers at the design table. Designers know UXD, UCD, and design strategy. Collaborative partnerships among this triumvirate seem to be a win/win/win.
    So far a lot of Biomimicry conversation I have been a part of have been lacking the deeper collaborative input from biologists and engineers. It comes off as these natural models that are yet to have a vetting process, a prototyping process. The research is there, the ideation is coming, but the implementation is lacking. Not specifically because of the lack of the perfect team, but perhaps more so because of it’s too easy for designers to go to the clever place or start from the top-down. I take a deep breath and ask “what is it you are trying to create, make, do, with this product or service?” Snap! Oh yeah.
    Biophilia is able to connect on the implement phase from it’s inherit need. It’s easy to sell.

    And thanks for the inspired November sesh. Started guitar lessons. Watch out!

  4. Clement says:

    I was a student at the lecture you gave at the Corobrick event.

  5. Antje says:

    Simply want to say your article is as amazing. The clearness to your put up is
    simply cool and that i could think you’re an expert in this subject. Fine along with your permission let me to snatch your RSS feed to stay updated with impending post. Thank you 1,000,000 and please keep up the enjoyable work.

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      Hi Antje,
      Thanks so much for your feedback – would love to share/contribute further! Let me know if you would ever like to chat and connect.

  6. […] to “assist people to engage with image and sound that relates to their biophillic roots”. Biophilia has been defined as “the process of integrating nature, visually and literally into architecture […]

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