Mental health is an essential aspect of overall human health alongside physical and social wellbeing. It should not be defined simply as the absence of a diagnosed phycological health condition. Rather, mental health is a state of wellbeing that exists on a complex continuum, experienced differently by every individual. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.”

Just as our environment can impact our physical health, so too can it impact our mental health. Considering that humans now spend the vast majority of their time indoors, our buildings can help mitigate adverse mental health outcomes through policies, programs, and design. Healthy buildings can serve as powerful tools to improve mental health. 

Among myriad strategies to help make buildings healthier for occupants, one of the most potent ways to improve their psychological and physiological responses to a built space is to appeal to our hardwired affinity for the natural environment. 


The Biophilic Hypothesis

In the decades after World War II, building designs have trended toward emphasizing functionality, industrial advancements, and a modern aesthetic. Combined with low-cost fossil fuel-based energy resources and the advent of engineered systems, our structures made electric lighting and mechanical heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) commonplace. To occupants, a thermostat and fine-tuned indoor environments became the expectation. The emergence of mechanical and electrical equipment for buildings coincided with a relegation of nature and its dynamic conditions to the “outdoors.”

As buildings increasingly separated humans from regular direct contact with nature, the Biophilic Hypothesis emerged, which acknowledges an innate human affinity for nature with roots in both evolutionary biology and psychology. The term biophilia was popularized by biologist Dr. Edward O. Wilson in his 1984 book "Biophilia."


The 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design

Ever since Wilson's publication, architects and interior designers have increasingly appreciated the notion of biophilia and a broader movement toward applying biophilic features to the built environment is emerging. At first, biophilia was pursued through simplistic design strategies focused on daylight, quality views of nature, and bringing vegetation indoors. In 2014, Bill Browning and co-authors from the sustainability consultancy Terrapin Bright Green published the "14 Patterns of Biophilic Design," which outlined a variety of ways to incorporate biophilic design into architectural and urban design. 

The 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design certainly included bringing nature into spaces through visual connections to vegetation, water features, and dynamic daylight; however, the publication expanded the biophilic design repertoire to include natural analogues such as biomorphic forms and visual complexity along with spatial experiences that evoke a sense of refuge, prospect, mystery - even peril - because of the unique psychological and physiological responses the human body can have to such experience. 

The premise behind integrating biophilic design features into spaces is that healthy buildings should not only provide a variety of thermal, acoustic, or lighting conditions to enhance human health; but also a variety of experiential and natural stimuli in order to reap the mental health benefits of re-connecting occupants to nature.


Biophilia versus Biomimicry

Contrast the concepts of biophilia and biomimicry as these district terms are often erroneously conflated and interchanged. Whereas biophilia is the innate human affinity for connections to nature, biomimicry is the practice of “mimicking” biological solutions to design in order to address human-centric challenges. The concept of biomimicry was coined and popularized by biologist Janine Benyus in her 1997 book "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.” Biomimicry can be defined as the interdisciplinary practice of observing and emulating nature’s strategies, structures, and functions to develop innovative technologies, materials, and methodologies. 

These two terms can easily become conflated because certain building solutions can be both biophilic and biomimic in nature. This frequently occurs with structural solutions. Buildings that utilize geodesic domes, hyperbolic paraboloid structures, catenary arches, fractal growth patterns, the Fibonacci sequence, or harmonic proportions may offer the appeal of biophilia by mimicking the effective solutions of the world’s oldest and most open-source design system: nature. 

In essence, biomimicry can be realized in buildings in three distinct ways:

1. A building’s structure and/or façade may be directly inspired by nature.

Example: DP Architects and Michael Wilford & Partners’ design of the Esplandade – Theatres on the Bay in Singapore utilizes a curved form comprised of an elaborate “spiky” skin inspired by the casing of the Durian fruit. The kinetic shading structure synchronizes with the movement of the Sun to protect the building from the tropical heat. 

2. A building’s structure, façade, and/or systems may be inspired by the working or functioning of nature. 

Example: Mick Pearce, the architect of Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, studied the cooling chimneys and tunnels of termite dens to create a stack ventilation effect throughout the structure. 

3. A building’s structure, façade, and/or systems may draw on nature to create a self-sufficient environment.

Example: The Eden Project in Cornwall, United Kingdom, is a botanical garden and environmental education center housed in iconic biome structures comprised of steel and ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) panels arranged in geodesic domes comprised of hexagonal panels. These enclosures modulate external climate conditions to mimic varying climates within different domes - which house a wide variety of plant species from around the world.


As the interrelationship between the mind and body is increasingly recognized, it is clear that mental and physical wellness are inextricable. Healthy buildings have the unique opportunity to improve human health by enhancing both phycological and physiological wellbeing. By leveraging our species' affinity for connections to the natural environment, our buildings may be able to enhance the wellness of those who experience them.