Fred Wilson and his wife Elissa Morgante, co-founders of Morgante Wilson
Architects in Chicago, look out their window, they see far more than a glimpse
of Lake Michigan. Their vista isn’t just a pretty scene; it brings them
psychological and physical benefits.
“At our home on Lake Michigan and in the homes we
design for our clients, we don’t just frame the view. We create a way to look
across the view into the distance,” Mr. Wilson says. “We bring glass windows
and doors all the way to the floor, so in the foreground you see our garden, in
the middle you see the lawn, and in the distance you see the water.”
Custom-home architects nearly always design site-specific residences that connect with their natural surroundings. For many, the term “biophilic design” simply puts a name to something they have done for their entire careers: embracing nature as part of the design process.
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Simply put, biophilic design “makes people feel good,”
says Rick Cook, a founding partner of CookFox Architects in New York.
“We’ve known that anecdotally throughout history, but
now researchers help us understand the importance of connecting with nature and
how we can design buildings to enhance that relationship,” Mr. Cook says.
While biophilic design might seem to fit best in an
area with spectacular natural views, such as mountains, water, or desert, the
design aesthetic can be found everywhere, including single-family homes and
According to 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, a 2014
report by Terrapin Bright Green, a sustainability consulting firm, numerous
studies show that connecting with nature reduces stress, improves
concentration, lowers blood pressure, increases productivity, improves moods,
and makes people feel safer.
“Biophilic design means more than adding a green wall to a lobby,” says Josh Kassing, vice president of design and development for Mary Cook Associates, an interior-design firm based in Chicago. “Designers have done a good job of bringing in the visual elements of biophilic design, such as views of ponds and trees, but in the future I think we’ll see more integration of all five senses. It’s about lighting, sound, smells, and textures, too.”
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Building with wood, stone, and natural materials can
be part of biophilic design, along with using fabrics that mimic nature, he
“At its core, biophilic design is less about what’s
applied to a house and more about the layout and the visual connection to the
outdoors that makes people comfortable,” Mr. Kassing says. “It’s important for
biophilic design to be a priority from the beginning, to be site-specific
first, then for architects and designers to layer in space-planning and decor.”
Connecting Homes With Nature
For Tyler Jones, founder of Blue Heron in Las Vegas, designing a house is about creating an emotional experience for residents and their guests.
“We want to design homes that make you feel good
physically and emotionally,” Mr. Jones says. “People are wired to feel good
with a wide vantage point where they can feel safe and protected in a cozy
space with a view.”
Mr. Jones integrates water into his home designs for its calming effect, and carefully considers air flow and cross ventilation. He adds fire pits and fireplaces to satisfy the innate need for warmth and integrates natural living plants wherever possible.
“At our ‘Vegas Modern 001’ showcase home in Las Vegas,
we designed the home with an intentional journey, from a portal of locally
sourced stone at the entrance that feels like a natural canyon, then past
desert landscaping that has a water feature that trickles into the home,” Mr.
Jones says. “Throughout the home we have glass pocket doors, so you don’t
always know whether you’re inside or outside.” Even the primary bedroom has an
indoor-outdoor bathroom with pocket doors leading to a private outdoor shower
and an outdoor tub with a long view across the desert to the Las Vegas Strip,
Jim Rill, founder of Rill Architects in Bethesda, Maryland,
makes nature part of every home he designs.
“I start with the sight lines and the flow of a house
to create an ease of movement between the controlled environment inside the
house and nature,” Mr. Rill says. “The best rooms in your house are outside, so
we design homes so that you don’t feel the difference between being inside or
For example, Mr. Rill created an outdoor living room when he renovated a house on a lake in Reston, Virginia, and added walls of glass to connect the interior living space with the outdoors. Materials such as stone and wood link the rooms to the surrounding trees and shoreline. Rill designed a new home on Little Assawoman Bay in Delaware with a wood interior that resembles a ship.
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“The owners wanted two separate houses connected by a
breezeway, so they could entertain guests but have their privacy,” Mr. Rill
says. “The most important part of the house is the bay itself, so we designed
the houses on either side of a pointed deck that leads your eyes to the horizon
across the bay.”
The flow of space in a home, also part of biophilic
design, can help residents relax.
“We designed one home with a courtyard in the center that’s completely open-air yet enclosed, so that during a snowstorm it seems like it’s snowing inside the house,” Mr. Wilson says. “We ran a stone wall from outside the front door through the courtyard and the family room and out to the backyard, to pull your eyes through the entire house.”
Floor-to-ceiling glass pocket or bifold doors offer
opportunities for a seamless transition between indoor and outdoor rooms. Mr.
Wilson designed a home with an indoor swimming pool with a 50-foot-wide glass
wall on one side that could be opened during pleasant weather.
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Biophilic Design in Urban Locations
site constraints challenge architects’ and developers’ ability to increase
residents’ exposure to nature. For example, at 25 Park Row, a 50-story condo in
Manhattan designed by CookFox Architects, every apartment faces City Hall Park
and includes railings with botanical patterns that filter light as if it’s
coming through the trees in the park, Mr. Cook says. 25 Park Row opened to
residents in summer 2020.
The upper floors of the building include views of the
East River, the Hudson River, and New York Harbor. CookFox’s condo at 378 West
End Avenue on the Upper West Side overlooks the historic Collegiate Church.
“We try to replicate that feeling of being on your
front porch looking out at the world with the refuge of your home behind you,”
Mr. Cook says. “In a high-rise, that can mean a loggia where you feel a sense
of enclosure while you’re outside, or a Juliet balcony, so you feel the fresh
air while you’re still inside.”
Exposure to seasonal and daily changes in light patterns help people feel better, Mr. Cook says.
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Views of water and greenery can be especially
important in urban environments like New York and Chicago.
“Every residence will have a view into a one-acre park, Lake Michigan, or the Chicago River at the Cirrus condos and Cascade apartments in Lakeshore East in Chicago,” says Linda Kozloski, creative design director of Lendlease, a property and investments group headquartered in New York. The residences are designed with floor-to-ceiling glass for full exposure to the views.
“We designed the conservatory, an interior courtyard
that faces south into the park, with natural wood floors and pebbles and big
tropical plants, so that residents can take advantage of the sunlight and warm
environment even when it’s cold outside,” Ms. Kozloski says.
Back in New York, in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, Tankhouse developers and SO-IL architects created 450 Warren, an 18-unit condo building where every apartment has an exterior entrance.
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“Instead of designing one big block, we designed three
towers with three courtyards,” says Florian Idenburg, an architect and partner
with SO-IL in Brooklyn. “We pulled all the connections between the units
outside, so the homes are linked with exterior corridors, bridges, and stairs.
Every home has private outdoor space and at least three orientations to the
outside, so they can trace the sunlight throughout the day.”
Incorporating Biophilic Design Into
benefits of biophilic design can be achieved on a smaller scale in existing
“Even if you don’t have a big view, you can use
natural materials like wood and stone and bring in inspirational artwork to
give the illusion of blue sky,” Ms. Kozloski says. “Potted plants can bring
greenery inside and filter the air.”
Something as simple as opening your windows in all kinds of weather and seeking out even the smallest view of nature, such as a pot of flowers, can bring some of the mental benefits of biophilic design, Mr. Wilson says.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Mansion Global Experience Luxury.