It’s easy to see why biophilia and biomimicry are frequently confused. They’re both design strategies that are inspired by nature and they were both introduced through the environmental movement – not to mention that they sound quite similar. But they’re actually entirely different concepts used in different ways – and each has powerful implications for architecture and design with the potential to bring benefits for our lives and the environment. In short, biophilic design is a strategy that reinforces humans’ connection with the natural world by designing built spaces in ways that evoke nature. It tends to be used more in interior design, architecture, and urban design as a way to improve occupant health and wellbeing. Biomimicry, on the other hand, is a practice that looks to the strategies used by nature and living systems to help solve specific technological and sustainability challenges. It mimics or emulates these natural strategies, forms, processes, and ecosystems in order to achieve better performance. In this article, we’ll explain more about each of these concepts and how they can be applied in design.
Biophilia is a term popularized by biologist E.O. Wilson to describe humans’ innate sense of connection and attraction to nature. It helps explain why we’re mesmerized by fires and sunsets, and why it can feel so refreshing to walk through a park or garden. In design, applying biophilia means using different methods to transform the built environment into an extension of the natural world. Biophilic design invokes nature by incorporating natural materials or elements, patterns, forms, living things, sun, air, and water into designs.
There are many ways to incorporate biophilic design into a space. A designer might choose to bring nature directly into the space by adding plants, water features, airflow variability, scents, gardens, and green walls and rooves. Or they might use objects, materials, colors, shapes, and patterns that evoke nature. This means furniture, textiles, décor, and other elements with organic shapes, natural materials (like wood flooring or granite counters), or references to natural imagery.
But biophilia is more than just a stylistic choice—it’s an evidence-based design method that brings proven benefits to health and wellbeing. Humans’ connection to nature is both biological and emotional, and numerous studies show the ways that biophilic design can reduce stress, improve cognitive function and creativity, booster mood and wellbeing, and promote healing.
Plus, there’s an economic incentive. Businesses can save over $2,000 per employee per year in office costs due to increased productivity—just through small investments that provide employees access to plants, natural views, daylight, and other elements. The same is true in healthcare facilities, where over $93 million could be saved annually by providing patients with views of nature—people recover more quickly in biophilic spaces and have fewer postsurgical complications. Schools also see improved student performance and reduced absenteeism.
Property owners have often seen biophilic design as a luxury, but advocates argue that it’s actually an investment in health and productivity, and there’s a wealth of neurological and physiological evidence to show for it.
Janine Benyus, biologist and co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, defines biomimicry as the “conscious emulation of life’s genius.” Part of life’s genius is the Venus flower basket, a sea sponge made out of glassy fibers that transmit light better than industrial fiber optic cables. It’s condors, huge scavenging birds, who rely on rising warm currents of air to get aloft. Once they reach a thermal, they can glide all day using the same amount of energy they would if resting. And life’s genius is also termites in sub-Saharan Africa that build their 3- to 10-foot-tall mounds as efficient ventilation systems to ensure oxygen comes in as carbon dioxide is expelled. They use porous soil that forms a complicated pressure field when wind flows past, creating a tidal airflow similar to the way air moves in our lungs.
Earth’s plants, animals, and natural systems have been around for billions of years longer than human society—and we have a lot to learn from them. Natural selection has hammered out solutions that have stood the test of time, amidst fluctuating contexts and finite resources, and biomimetic design is the practice of studying and applying these strategies to create sustainable designs and technologies. It uses the lessons learned in nature to improve performance or solve design or engineering challenges. These solutions help us to embrace a systems view of the world and design to improve conditions for all living beings.
For example, from condors we learn that nature only uses the energy it needs and relies on freely available energy. Condors use energy to fly into the warmer wind currents, but once there, they enjoy a source of energy that’s renewable, found locally, and doesn’t need to be mined. The Bullitt Center in Seattle, Washington, applies this principle by using a range of low energy processes, including solar panels, glass walls that optimize natural light, and locally sourced materials. It has a communal bike space rather than a parking lot to encourage low-energy commuting, and the large central staircase encourages foot transport. For more information, the Biomimicry Institute’s Ask Nature resource provides a wealth of solutions from nature to a wide range of challenges.
Bioinspired Design Strategies
Biophilia and biomimicry make use of nature with different goals. But they both bring us closer to the natural world and often work hand-in-hand to provide solutions for sustainability and human health and wellbeing. Many biomimetically designed buildings, like the Bullitt Center, for example, also have biophilic elements. Both biophilia and biomimicry encourage us to observe and spend more time in nature, which allows us to reconnect, to shift our relationship with the planet—rather than perceived dominion over its resources, to care for and value it. These design concepts help show us that it’s possible to live more sustainably and recognize that nature holds the solutions to our most urgent issues.