What type of space is more appealing: a peaceful meadow or a windowless room? The answer is obvious, right? This is a very simplified version of the biophilic design principle. Biophilic design is based on a theory (called the Biophilia hypothesis) that human connection with nature is important to wellbeing. It incorporates natural elements like light, water, and plant life into interior and building design.1,2

Research shows that biophilic design can influence health, wellbeing, and productivity. Employers, city planners, and designers around the world are incorporating biophilic design elements in large-scale projects. You don't need to completely remodel your space to incorporate biophilic design into your home or office. Try these simple tactics that weave nature into your surroundings and absorb the benefits.3,4

Bringing the Outside In

Biophilic design fuses natural elements into indoor spaces, taking advantage of the fact that humans evolved surrounded by nature. Survival for early humans depended on being attuned to the natural sights, sounds, and other sensory experiences of the outdoors.2,5

Biophilic design theorizes that because we evolved with nature, we are happier and healthier surrounded by things found in nature. However, it's not as simple as adding a potted plant here and there. Biophilic design integrates direct and indirect natural elements to create spaces that appeal to our innate link with nature.2,5

Direct elements look like:5

  1. Abundant natural light through skylights, windows, and open-concept floor plans
  2. Water features, like fountains and water walls
  3. Air features, like natural ventilation and varied temperature
  4. Vegetation, especially clusters of greenery, flowering plants, and living walls
  5. Exposure to weather through windows that open, outdoor views, and porches, balconies, and patios

Indirect elements of nature include:5

  1. Images of nature, like photographs, paintings, and murals
  2. The use of natural materials, like wood and stone in building features
  3. Simulating natural light and air 

Taking Biophilic Design Everywhere 

It's estimated that people spend 90 percent of their time indoors, which contributes to feeling detached from nature. Biophilic design weaves nature into work and living spaces to increase exposure to natural elements while still being inside.3,6 

  1. When designing and organizing an office space, employers might choose more open concepts with plenty of natural light and plant life to boost employee productivity and comfort.3,4
  2. To reduce the high temperatures that dense cities experience, a city planner can work with an architect to incorporate more green walls and roofs to better reflect the sun's light.7
  3. An interior designer can include natural building elements, like exposed wood beams in the ceiling and easy access to outdoor spaces. 
  4. Hospitals can incorporate design elements, like a water wall, windows that open in rooms or common areas, and accessible outdoor spaces for patients to visit as they heal.8

Potential Health Benefits of Biophilic Design

Science has been studying the effects of nature on human health for decades. A prime example is a 1984 study that compared the effects of biophilic design on the recovery of patients after surgery. Patients were either in windowless rooms with brick walls or in rooms that had a window overlooking a grove of trees. The patients in rooms with a window required less pain medication and were released from the hospital sooner than patients in rooms without a window.8

Recent research shows that biophilic design elements like plant life, outdoor views, and natural light correlate with:

  1. A reduction in stress and anxiety3,4,9 
  2. A reduction in pain and improved pain tolerance4
  3. A decrease in blood pressure10

Using Biophilic Design to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

In a 2020 study, researchers recorded how specific biophilic design environments affect the ability to recover from stress and anxiety.3 During the study, 100 participants completed stressful tasks in a virtual reality office that was untidy and had background noise from traffic, machinery, and household appliances. After completing the tasks, the participants were exposed to one of four different virtual reality offices for six minutes to recover.

The "recovery" virtual office was either an office without biophilic design or one that incorporated different biophilic design elements. Specifically, an "indoor green" virtual-recovery-office included living walls, potted plants, a fish tank, and natural materials. The "outdoor view" virtual-recovery-office incorporated daylight through windows and a long-distance view of trees, grass, or water. A "combination" virtual-recovery-office included aspects of both the indoor green and outdoor view virtual offices.

Throughout the study, participants wore sensors that tracked physiological indicators of stress, including heart rate, heart rate variability (variations in the time between heartbeats), skin conductance level (an indicator of psychological or physiological arousal), and blood pressure. To track anxiety levels, participants filled out the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) questionnaire (short form) before the stressful task and after recovery. The STAI questionnaire is commonly used in clinical settings to measure the psychological indicators of anxiety and to distinguish anxiety from depression.

After analyzing the data collected from the bio sensors and comparing the results of the STAI measurements, the study found that participants who recovered in one of the biophilic-designed virtual offices had consistently better recovery responses from stress and anxiety than participants who recovered in the virtual office without biophilic design elements.  

The results also showed that participants who recovered in the virtual office surrounded by plant life (indoor green environment) had better recovery rates from stress. Whereas, participants who recovered in a virtual office with a window and views of natural elements (outdoor view environment) showed improved recovery rates from anxiety.

An Illuminating Example: The Impact of Lighting and Biophilic Design on Performance

Windows provide access to daylight and a view, both of which are linked to improved satisfaction, wellbeing, and performance in a work setting.11-13 However, window access can also cause discomfort and eyestrain from glare. A small study examined how different window-shading options affected employee cognitive function and satisfaction.13

The study tested the impact of two shading systems designed to provide daylight and a view while minimizing glare: windows with manually controlled motorized mesh shades and windows with automatic tinting (dynamic tint). Participants spent 14 weeks working in a controlled environment in which three conditions were non-consecutively repeated for 2-week periods: mesh shades, dynamic tint, and a baseline condition that lacked daylight and a view (blackout shades). 

Participants' cognitive function performance, satisfaction, and eyestrain in the blackout shades condition were compared to the same measures in the mesh shades and dynamic tint conditions. The study found that two aspects of cognitive function – working memory updating and inhibition – improved in both the mesh shades and dynamic tint conditions. Working memory is the ability to hold, manipulate, and update information in memory. Inhibition is the ability to deliberately inhibit automatic responses when necessary. In addition, eye strain was reduced and participant satisfaction rates improved with both the mesh shades and dynamic tint options.13

Add Biophilic Design Elements to Your Life

From creating a home office to tackling a home improvement project, people are spending more time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are simple ways to add biophilic design elements to your space to integrate some nature under your roof. Here are some ideas:

  1. Group plants together. When buying plants for your home, consider buying a few and clustering them in a group. This mimics the way they appear in nature and boosts their positive effects.5
  2. Find the light. Position your home office in a room with plenty of natural light. Daylight helps keep you alert, and the window will give you a view of the outdoors to break up your workday.3
  3. Open up those windows. You'll get a dose of fresh air and enjoy the sounds of birds, a gentle rainstorm, or the breeze rustling through trees. 
  4. Animals count, too. An aquarium is a perfect example of bringing a natural animal ecosystem indoors. Sound like too much work? Keep a browser tab on your laptop open to a livestream of a zoo or public aquarium. Many are free and provide 24/7 access. 
  5. Use those balconies and patios. Set up a space on your deck, balcony, or patio where you can sit and enjoy the outdoors. Take breaks during the workday and get outside. 

Biophilic design is so much more than adding an orchid to your desk – although that certainly doesn't hurt. Incorporating elements of nature can have positive effects that go far beyond admiring a pretty bloom. As science continues to dig into the potential benefits of biophilic design, we can all be looking for ways to get back to nature while staying inside. 


  1. Gillis K, Gatersleben B. A review of psychological literature on the health and wellbeing benefits of biophilic design. Buildings 2015(5)948-963. 
  2. Kellert S, Heerwagen J, Mador M. Biophilic design: the theory, science, and practice of bringing buildings to life. Hoboken. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2008.
  3. Yin J, Yuan J, Arfaei N, et al. Effects of biophilic indoor environment on stress and anxiety recovery: a between-subjects experiment in virtual reality. Environ Int 2020;136:105427.
  4. Lohr V. What are the benefits of plants indoors and why do we respond so positively to them? Acta Horticulturae 2010;881(2):675-682.
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  7. Heat Island Effect. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/heatislands. [Accessed Aug. 24, 2021]
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  9. Sanchez J, Ikaga T, Sanchez S. Quantitative improvement in workplace performance through biophilic design: a pilot experiment case study. Energ Buildings 2018;177:316-328.
  10. Yin J, Arfaei N, MacNaughton P, et al. Effects of biophilic interventions in office on stress reaction and cognitive function: A randomized crossover study in virtual reality. Indoor Air 2019;29(6):1028-1039.
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  13. Jamrozik A, Clements N, Shabih-Hasan S, et al. Access to daylight and view in an office improves cognitive performance and satisfaction and reduces eyestrain: a controlled crossover study. Build Environ 2019;165:106379.