Jenna Witzleben

Ecology School blog

Welcome to the Ecology School blog, where I document my ongoing self-education in ecology, landscape design, and urban design.

Reflections on Biophilic Design film

Earlier this week I came across a film on biophilic design titled “Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life.” It was created in part by Stephen R. Kellert - the well-known author of several books on the subject of biophilia, along with producer Bill Finnegan. While the film doesn’t go deep into technical details around designing biophilic buildings and spaces, it gives a good overview of the practice of biophilic design, methods, and applications, as well as several case studies and examples that can inspire us all, regardless of our level of familiarity with the subject.

Four key take-aways

The following four messages are some of my favorite ideas and key take-aways from the film: that life follows life and the introduction of grass on a rooftop can lead to an ecosystem of insects and birds; to encourage people to be participants in nature, not just spectators of it; to blur the boundaries between the outside and inside worlds; and to center design around local social and natural context, i.e. designing for local weather patterns or incorporating local plants in landscaping.

biophilic film2.jpg
biophilic film3.jpg
biophilic film4.jpg

Two of my favorite cited case studies


Kroon Hall, Yale University

As part of the design and construction of Kroon Hall, home of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Turner Construction was tasked to source half of the wood from the schools’ own Yale-Myers Forest. This was a first for Turner, being part of the process of hand-selecting the trees from the forest to be used in the building.

Image: Mithun

Image: Mithun

IslandWood campus design

In the design of the campus for IslandWood, an environmental learning center in Washington state, the design firm Mithun integrated many biophilic design principles and features. Highlighted in the biophilic design film were the carvings of fish in the sink basins in the center. This feature is supposed to remind the children and other visitors to the center of the interconnection between the water they use and the local marine life.


Can you have biophilia without environmentalism and sustainability?

One remaining question I have after watching the film is whether you can have biophilic design that isn’t environmentally-friendly or sustainable. I felt that the definition of biophilic design being used in the film may actually be too broad, encompassing not only design that encourages us to reconnect with nature and be more mindful of our interactions with our surrounding ecosystems, but also includes design that has nature-based carvings and aesthetic features. By this definition, it seems you could then have a petroleum-based or a harmfully mined/extracted material carved into a flower and call it biophilic. My initial reaction is that we need to a bit more rigorous with our ambitions of biophilic design and maintain that it is not just for the benefit of humans, but also for the benefit of the planet. If I were to refine their definition, I would say that biophilic design must generate some form of reciprocity with non-human beings. Among other methods, it could be that the design somehow encourages human stewardship of the ecosystem around them, or the design shelters both humans and non-humans, or it brings humans into a cycle of material flows that benefits life nearby. My point is that biophilic design (and design in general, in my opinion) cannot and should not be only human-centered.

What do you think? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below. And, if you haven’t watched it yet, be sure to check out the film here.

Jenna WitzlebenComment