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Biophilia + Strategies for Warm Modern Design


Biophilia is defined as a desire or tendency to commune with nature.   Over the last several years, it has been increasingly demonstrated that people thrive more in spaces that incorporate natural elements.  This includes elements such as daylight, exterior views, ecological materials, and patterns that mimic the rhythms of nature.  Many sustainability and wellness architectural standards, such as LEED and Living Building Challenge, incorporate biophilic requirements into their rating systems.

Combined with modern design, a biophilic approach enhances the clean lines and open plans of contemporary architecture to create engaging spaces.  We term this approach warm modern.  It employs elements such as outdoor views, changing daylight, plants and natural materials, refreshing neutral palettes, and subtle textures to create modern spaces that are a delight to inhabit.  As you contemplate the design of your space, whether it is ground up construction, an addition, or renovation, here are some strategies to incorporate biophilia.

#1 Views to the exterior

An obvious design approach for a biophilic space is to incorporate large banks of exterior windows looking out to the landscape.  In our playroom addition, the wrap around windows and sliding doors give expansive views to the backyard.

Even when there isn’t a specific view to be captured, or more privacy is needed, windows that give a view to tree tops or the sky, such as in this primary bathroom, can be equally beneficial.

In a renovation, sometimes just enlarging or adjusting one key window can have a big impact.  In our mid-century modern renovation, the original kitchen window was a mere 2’-9” square.  The enlarged window over the sink creates a much stronger connection from the kitchen to the backyard.

#2 Integrate interior and exterior

Literally opening up the interior spaces to the outdoors is a wonderful biophilic strategy.  Here in our Lakeside House, oversized glass sliding doors allow the living room to flow unobstructed out to the screened in porch.

#3 Create a place to step outside

When possible, create a place to step outside.  For the micro-units of City-House, we designed every unit to have its own second floor deck.  This gives each homeowner their own dedicated outdoor space in addition to the shared community spaces.

#4 Consider the site

In new construction, the building’s massing, siting, and orientation are all key decisions made early in the design process that affect the daylighting and views.  Even for smaller, urban infill sites, the relationship to the landscape plays a key role in the design.  For the Compact Modern project, we designed with the homeowners an efficient addition that preserves their backyard and its large trees.  The modern design of the addition opens up to the backyard with extensive windows and a deck, and its green roof extends biophilic views to the second floor.

#5 Opening up the floor plan

Windows are of course not just about views but also daylight.  When renovating traditional homes, with their many small rooms, opening spaces to one another to share daylight is a key biophilic strategy.  In our Biophilic Kitchen + Dining renovation, the removal of a wall to create an open kitchen and dining area floods it with natural light from the existing north facing windows and skylight.  Now that the overall floor plan is more open, this light can also be enjoyed from the living room and hallway.  The renovated unit feels bright and airy without needing to add more windows or skylights.

#6 Using natural materials and patterns

Combining the clean lines of modern design with a palette of biophilic materials and patterns creates an inviting contemporary space.  In our Biophilic Kitchen + Dining project, the palette of hexagonal textures, bright whites, and warm tones of the walnut shelving and wood flooring evoke references to nature.  The forest green cabinetry creates a striking pop of color to add to the modern look.

#7 And of course plants!

Perhaps one of the easiest strategies to incorporate, no matter what size your project, is plants.  You can do it today!  When selecting plants, pick ones that fit the amount of daylight available in the room and the amount of care you are ready to undertake.  Also, arranging them in small groups with varying textures, rather than a single plant isolated in the corner, mimics how we see plants in nature.  If space is at a premium, a terrarium with a few small plants and other natural materials is another way to get a biophilic range of textures.  And should you need some houseplant care tips, you can refer to Atelier et Alia co-owner Kristen Giannattasio’s recently published book “HOUSEPLANTS: essential plant care data sheets for the indoor gardener”.