Restorative Biophilic Design

Land Planning, Architecture and Collaborative Design promoting
Physiological and Psychological Health and Well-Being

Building Places that Re-Connect with the Natural World.

“The goal of biophilic design is to create places imbued with positive emotional experiences—
enjoyment, pleasure, interest, fascination, and wonder—
that are the precursors of human attachment to and caring for place.”
- Judith Heerwagen Ph.D.

Biophilic Design

Biophilic elements have demonstrably real, measurable benefits for human performance metrics such as productivity, emotional well-being, stress reduction, learning, and healing.

Biophilic features foster an appreciation of nature, which can lead to greater protection of natural areas, species conservation, and pollution prevention.


Restorative Elements and Attributes of Biophilic Design

Definition of Biophilic Design

The word “Biophilia” was popularized by the Harvard Biologist and Zoologist E.O. Wilson in 1984.

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It refers to the inherent human inclination to affiliate with natural forms, systems and processes, especially life and life-like features of the non-human environment. 3

Biophilic Design translates this affinity into the design of buildings and places, which are instinctively experienced as restorative, neurologically nourishing and beautifully alive.

Biophilic Design incorporates Green Building, but considers that true sustainability must include quality of life issues involving human physiological and psychological health and well-being. 2


Why the Need for Restorative Design?

Evidence is mounting that we need to look to restorative attributes that allow us to re-connect with nature.


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Many of the psychological ailments of our time such as depression, SAD (seasonal affective disorder), anxiety, violence, confusion, isolation and loneliness, as well as many of the physiological problems of our time such as sleep disorders, fertility issues, increased cortisol levels, allergies, asthma and even cancers may directly or indirectly be related to the way we have designed and structured our indoor and outdoor environments.


One common thread between all ailments, psychological and physiological seems to be that of an organism stressed, depleted and unable to cope.



Evolution-Based Aesthetic Response

“ ….our brain evolved in a biocentric, not a machine-regulated world.” (EO Wilson 1984)

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A neurological evolution-based understanding of human aesthetic responses is now being established.4

The findings come from a variety of disciplines: cognitive neuroscience, neuroscience in architecture, behavioral genetics, evolutionary biology, environmental sciences, cognitive psychology, biological anthropology, social ecology, photobiology and others.

As a species, most of our emotional, problem-solving, and constructive abilities reflect skills and aptitudes learned in close association with natural systems and processes that remain critical in human health, maturation and productivity.5

An increasing number of studies are beginning to measure a multitude of physiological and psychological benefits of sustained positive connection to seasonally dynamic natural environments.

This connection appears to be a necessity for achieving lives of fitness and satisfaction even in our modern urban society. 5

Denying this genetic dependence is akin to denying our need to breathe and eat.


Health Benefits of Biophilic Design

Enhanced Healing, Cognitive Function, Hormonal Balance; Improved Immune Function, Stress Reduction, Reduced Cell Aging


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Enhanced Healing and Recovery
  • Contact with nature and the natural variability of daylight, particularly morning sunlight exhibit enhanced healing and recovery from illness, bipolar disorder, and SAD 9; this includes direct contact (vegetation), as well as representative depictions ( images) 5.
  • Patients with tree views have significant shorter hospital stays, less need for pain medications 11 6 .
Healthier Childhood Development
Improved Attention, Concentration and Cognitive Function
Circadian and Hormonal Balance
  • Photobiology has shown that the internal circadian clock is set by daylight of specific wave lengths at different times of the day…the circadian rhythm controls the hormones in the pituitary, pineal, adrenal, and thyroid glands.
  • Regular exposure to dynamic natural sun light avoids a lack of UV-triggered melatonin production, which has been linked to sleep disturbances, carbohydrate cravings, poor performance at task, short term memory loss, depression, anxiety, increase susceptibility to disease 15 including cancer (breast cancer is melatonin sensitive) 13.
  • Relationship between circadian rhythm misalignment and cancer.
Improved Immune Function, Stress Reduction and Reduced Cell Aging
  • Regular exposure to dynamic natural sun light avoids circadian misalignment (see above), which has been linked to cortisol over stimulation, leading to increased stress, suppressed immune function, insulin resistance, obesity, osteoporosis, and cell aging 14.
  • Restoration becomes manifest in emotions and in lower blood pressure, slower heart rate, and improved muscle tension 16.
Vitamin D Metabolism
  • Human physiology evolved to require direct sun exposure for metabolism of Vitamin D for the development of a healthy musculoskeletal system, preventing rickets and osteoporosis, maintaining muscle strength, and preventing chronic diseases such as type1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis 8
The Healing Sounds…
  • The peaceful sounds of nature, the sounds of silence, offer welcome rest and healing from our sonically overburdened world.
  • The tranquility of a garden or garden room allows us to re-connect with our own thoughts and feelings, rejuvenates and restores our inner balance and ability to cope.


©2015 Helena Van Vliet, AIA


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©2015 Helena Van Vliet, AIA

Architecture and Consulting




©2015 Helena Van Vliet, AIA


Helena_Still_1Helena considers architecture a health care profession. Biophilic Design is the place where sustainability meets health. She is a guest speaker at various universities, both in architecture as well as medical schools, and  works with graduate students on master thesis projects in biophilic sustainable design.

photo[15]Lecture topics include:

“Healing by Design”

Biophilic Architecture as a Partner in Healing & Recovery

A neurological evolution-based understanding of human aesthetic response is now being established. This lecture explores the multitude of measurable physiological benefits of integrating plants, water& natural patterns, textures, colors, forms even olfactory elements into the healthcare environment. We will discuss various recent research studies & examples, which identify Biophilia’s essential role in creating a restorative healing environment. This has been shown to significantly reduce stress, anxiety & pain levels, while increasing the speed of recovery. We will explore how Biophilia supports circadian & hormonal balance; how it contributes to cortisol reduction, measurably improves immune function and thereby greatly contributes to patient and medical staff emotional balance, stress reduction, treatment efficiency & healing.

Helena_Still_3“Form follows Feeling”

We only sustain what we love!

History has shown, that over time we only sustain Places and Buildings we love and feel connected to on an emotional level. In this lecture for design professionals we explore the specific hardwired elements of our universally shared human aesthetic affinity. How do we reliably & predictably design spaces and places people will love? What are the building blocks, spatial sequences and patterns of designing for human emotional well-being, sense of safety, belonging, adventure, creativity and joy? How do we design places, by which we are deeply touched, which inspire positive memories, and which creatively address the phenomenon of time?

This lecture will provide specific answers to those questions and more.

We will explore evolutionary history, psychology, evolutionary biology as well as current medical research on this subject. We will touch on Cymatics, and discuss the mysterious and universally beloved phenomenon of mid-range fractals, as well as their proven stress reducing qualities.

In short: we will explore how to design for well-being, which has been our birthright all along.


Helena was the driving force behind the Philadelphia Biophilic Cities Project Launch Conference held in April 2015.
Read more about the event here and here.

©2015 Helena Van Vliet, AIA

Connect With Us

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IMG_4967Helena van Vliet is a Biophilic Architect, Researcher & Speaker on Health
and the Built Environment. She is Principal in charge at Helena van Vliet Architect LLC.

Born and raised in Germany she holds an undergraduate degree in Architecture from the RwtH in Germany, as well as an M Arch from the University of Pennsylvania. She is licensed in the U.S. as well as in Germany.

Kalogris 045Helena views human attachment to and caring for place as essential for true sustainability as well as for physiological well-being. Biophilic Design is the place where sustainability meets health and biodiversity. She considers Architecture a health care profession, and has made the creation of spaces, which foster positive emotional connection to place her primary area of exploration.

She is a consultant to townships, historical commissions, business and AIA mentoring groups, has served as a visiting critic at the University of Pennsylvania, a contributor at Human Spaces, and is a steering committee member for the Biophilic Cities Network. Helena is a guest speaker at various universities on the connection between architecture and health. She works with selected graduate students on thesis projects in biophilic sustainable design.



Ann Rothmann PE ,
structural engineering

Ann's Bio

Ann is principal in charge of Ann Rothmann Structural Engineering, LLC, an established structural engineering practice with expertise in commercial, institutional, restoration, and residential construction projects.  Since Ann established her practice in June 1991, she has provided consulting services on more than 900 building projects.  Clients are guarenteed that all design work is carried out by an experienced principal; the same principal who attends project coordination meetings and advises on structural issues throughout the life of the project.  The majority of the firm’s work comes from repeat clients and recommendations based on her strong reputation for excellent service and thorough competent design.

My HipstaPrint 6

Laura Urwin, AIA
Architect, LEED AP

Laura's Bio

Laura has been practicing architecture for over eighteen years.  Her experience includes a variety of building projects including residential, religious, institutional and educational, from initial concept to completion of construction.  She is a registered architect in Pennsylvania and Maryland, LEED accredited with the U.S. Green Building Council and a member of the American Institute of Architects.

She holds a Masters in Architecture from Washington University in St. Louis, MO which instilled a passionate approach to quality design through thoughtful solutions.  Her attention to detail, in hand with a solid, creative methodology and emphasis on long term sustainability combine to inform and inspire successful design results.


Kitsi Cox,
tech support

Kitsi's Bio

Networking setup, maintenance and repair of Windows and Apple computers, tablets, cell phones, cameras, and printers. Networking installation, purchasing consultation and instruction on technology devices.


Miriam Franco, Psy.D.,
stress reduction expert

Miriam's Bio

Miriam Franco, MSW, Psy.D. is a psychologist in practice in Wayne, PA .In addition to her practice, she is a Stress Reduction expert who trains health professionals and the public to reduce stress and improve quality of life in the home, work place, medical and educational settings.  Dr. Franco is a certified Multiple Sclerosis and a Guided Imagery (GI) specialist. She has published on GI to reduce anxiety and injection anxiety with MS.  Dr. Franco consults on improving quality of life for caregivers and persons with chronic illness and trains healthcare professionals to use GI to lower stress, anxiety, depression, prepare people for surgery and challenging medical and life situations.  She serves on the Health Care Advisory Council of the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America and is a Consultant with the Jefferson Hospital Sleep Disorder Center. Dr. Franco is a Professor of Sociology at Immaculata University.  As Founder of the non-profit, The Guided Imagery Foundation, she seeks to develop research funding for GI programs in the community.


Anoki Casey,

Anoki's Bio

Anoki is a San Diego, CA based Graphic Artist and Web Designer specializing in identity, print, web and social marketing development for small businesses, non-profits, start-ups, and creatives of all types. His goal is to provide  clients with high-quality concepts, quick service, and effective, user-focused websites and flexible designs that will ultimately benefit their business.


©2015 Helena Van Vliet, AIA

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©2015 Helena Van Vliet, AIA