Twentieth-century thinker and social psychologist Erich Fromm first used the term “biophilia” to describe humans' love for humanity and nature, our psychological orientation of being attracted to all that is alive and vital. American biologist Edward O. Wilson then expanded this concept to produce the biophilia hypothesis, which suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. Wilson introduced and popularized the hypothesis in his 1984 book Biophilia, in which he suggests that biophilia describes “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” He proposed the possibility that the deep affiliations humans have with nature are rooted in our biology.

With nature's effects on healing and lowering stress, biophilia has far-reaching implications for healthcare design. Although biophilia includes incorporating nature on the surface of the facility, such as in artwork and views to plants and water, biophilia also can be applied to and throughout the design process itself. It informs not only how the space can heal and lift stress, but also how a building and its occupants will work sustainably and toxic-free.

In a recent Yale University podcast, Steve Kellert, professor at the university's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and editor of the book The Biophilia Hypothesis, speaks of biophilia as an essential part of sustainable design. The general concept of sustainable or green design focuses on minimizing or avoiding the harmful effects on the natural environment. Kellert's argument is, “that [it] is necessary but not sufficient to achieve sustainability. That if you achieve that effect in a building—a hermetically sealed skyscraper where people are working in windowless environments—that won't be sustainable because basically those environments do not produce physical and mental wellbeing.” (http://www.healthcaredesign

Because physical and mental wellbeing is top concern for a hospital, exploring the biologically based bond between humans and nature is especially important in these environments where medical technology and products seem to be an antithesis to nature.

Barbara Huelat, AAHID, FASID, IIDA, of healthcare interior design and architecture firm Huelat Parimucha, Ltd., published a paper in the December 2008 issue of the Journal of Green Building ( In “The wisdom of biophilia—nature in healing environments,” Huelat takes the reader through several interconnected aspects of biophilia, including biodiversity, biomimicry, biochemistry, fractals, ancient natural philosophies, symbols, and aesthetics.

“Nature,” writes Huelat, “has the added benefit of reminding people that humankind evolved in concert with nature, and that environmentalism is a necessity, not a luxury…. As we plan and design healthcare facilities, it is important to keep in mind the values we derive from the natural world.”

Biophilia can be involved from the beginning of design, Huelat says in a recent interview. Thinking about how to site the building, the footprint of the building, the patterning of the building, the patterning of the departments, and how sunlight pierces the building can all take their cue from the concepts of biophilia.


Mimicking the natural world brings us delight, says Huelat. It not only gives pleasure to the senses but also teaches us about organization, structure, and movement. Huelat Parimucha exercised biomimicry in the design of High Point Cancer Center in Chalfont, Pennsylvania. Birthed out of a user visioning session, cancer as a journey and a pathway became the central design concept for the building. “The design moved through the natural elements—not just in the lobby where we had fluid terrazzo with elements of sea creatures—but all the way through the facility with curved soffits and bulkheads and the way we accessed elements of nature. When we couldn't get the windows and the views we created distractions in water features and lighting to still bring in elements of nature,” Huelat says. Another Huelat Parimucha project, the Potomac Hospital in Woodbridge, Virginia, took on the form of the river passing next to the site. Within the building, an organic pathway emulates the river's flow (figure 1).

Illustration by Patricia Raimondeau

Designed by Huelat Parimucha, the Potomac Hospital's exterior and interior emulate the river that flows next to the site and reflects the natural nonlinear paths that humans take

“When you can build those [organic pathways] in, people understand the space better,” Huelat says. “When we are left to create our own pathways, we don't create them in grids and intersections, we create pathways by how we walk, moving us to our destination. Landscape architects know this very well and often don't put in the sidewalks and streets until after the site has been traversed by the people using the building.”

Much of biophilia is intuitive, explains Huelat. Considering the evolution of humans, the modern built environment and our interactions with it are relatively new phenomena. “Two hundred years ago we spent most of our lives outdoors; it's not that very long period in our evolution,” she says.

As another example of biomimicry, the building footprint of a Karlsberger Architecture, Inc., project was informed by the shape of a Dogwood seedling, whose parent trees make up a wooded hill on the site (figure 2). When it is time for Village Hospital at Pelham, a 48-bed hospital and medical office building, to add space, it will “grow” another wing as the seedling would sprout another leaf. Nature has the innate ability to change while keeping a balance; it's feedback is instant and it thrives in its versatility. Village Hospital at Pelham looks to achieve just that through the inspiration of the site it sits on.

Karlsberger Architecture, Inc., used the form of a Dogwood seedling—taken from the site—to inform the shape and future growth of Village Hospital at Pelham


The fractal is a naturally occurring form of shapes that can be split into parts, each of which is a reduced-size copy of the whole (figure 3). Manmade fractal patterns can also be created with nonlinear mathematics. Huelat Parimucha incorporated fractal design on the floor of ER One at Washington Hospital Center, Washington, D.C., (figure 4). “We looked at the curve of the building, which had a beautiful footprint created by HKS in Dallas, and we brought the curves to a point outside the building where they all converged,” Huelat says. “We brought that point back in and used that same curve to create the floor patterning. The floor patterning may look very abstract, but it relates specifically to the curve of the building. Then using colors and forms, we were able to create a patterning that is one with the architecture of the building. Most people won't be able to see that, but it will be felt intuitively, and it will feel like an aspect of nature.”

Romanesco broccoli provides an edible example of a natural fractal. The shape of the broccoli head can be found making up each subpart of the head

Huelat Parimucha incorporated fractal design on the floor of ER One at Washington Hospital Center by creating new points and shapes based on the building's footprint form. Although this process won't be obvious to the visitor, Huelat says the flooring will create a natural connection to the building


“Nature can teach us a lot about sustainability and better ways of doing things,” says Huelat. For example, take the lotus leaf and flower, a long-lasting symbol of cleanliness, beauty, and purity. “The lotus grows in muddy, stagnant ponds, and what's remarkable is the flower is pristine and the leaf is perfectly clean,” she says. When water falls onto the lotus leaf, the droplets easily roll off taking dirt along with it. Scientists have discovered how to create a nanostructure based on the waxy surface of the lotus leaf and apply it to surfaces and fabric to repel water and bacteria. “If we can develop products that mimic what works so well in nature, we can get away from the toxic cleaning agents,” Huelat says.

When the structure and function of nature, such as a Dogwood seedling or a lotus leaf, can be integrated into the building itself, then nature becomes the intuition of the building and can be both directly and subconsciously felt by its occupants. Ecological sustainability and human wellbeing meet up within the concepts of biophilia.

“With biophilia we are talking about many of the same things that sustainability does, such as environmental factors, toxicity, and sick building syndrome. And that is part of biophilia, but it's not that we must do these things only because it's the right thing to do, it's that we feel better when we do these things. It's based more on the pleasure sense more than a must-do kind of thing.” HD

Barbara Huelat's Alexandria, Virginia-based firm Huelat Parimucha, Ltd. (, specializes in evidence-based healthcare interior design and architecture. As an interior designer, Huelat has served on the board of directors for The Center for Health Design and is the author of Healing Environments: Design for the Body, Mind & Spirit.


Biomimicry database launched

Autodesk is sponsoring, a public-domain library that provides biology-inspired design information to aid sustainable design. Architects, designers, and engineers can access and harness nature's years of evolution and experience through the free database, organized by function.

For instance, someone trying to solve the challenge of how to glue an object to surfaces in moist environments would find information about barnacles, geckos, and other organisms that have solved this problem in the ecosystem in which they live.

Find more information at

Healthcare Design 2009 January;9(1):12-16