Biophilic Design Gets the Green Light in Multifamily

How the industry is going beyond just plants to bring nature into residential properties.

Biophilia has quickly become a buzzword within the multifamily industry, as owners and developers increasingly blur the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces. But biophilia, a term coined by the Harvard naturalist Dr. Edward O., is more than incorporating a plant wall, open floor plans and courtyards.

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“If you’re incorporating these elements and they feel obvious, then you’re probably behind in the game,” said Josh Kassing, vice president of design development at Mary Cook Associates.


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Cirrus and Cascade, an adjoining 350-unit condominium tower and 530-unit apartment building under construction in Chicago, includes biophilic elements such as a 900-square-foot conservatory, floor-to-ceiling windows and unobstructed views over the 0.8-acre Cascade Park in the Lakeshore East neighborhood.
Cirrus and Cascade, an adjoining 350-unit condominium tower and 503-unit apartment building under construction in Chicago, includes biophilic elements such as a 900-square-foot conservatory, floor-to-ceiling windows and unobstructed views over the 0.8-acre Cascade Park in the Lakeshore East neighborhood. Image by Lendlease

At its core, biophilia is integrating natural elements into everyday design, so the process of including this in multifamily development has to be forward-thinking and begin right at the start of the design process. The good news is that biophilic design resonates with everyone—and since there is no one way to do it, these elements can be incorporated into any design plan.

Planning ahead

Whether using a third-party designer or acting as the architect for your own projects, it’s important to have a vision for your community and what elements you want to utilize. This includes materials, structures, floor plans and multipurpose furniture or elements.

Optima Inc. has been incorporating biophilic design within its communities for more than four decades, starting with the use of green roofs, courtyards and gardens back in the ’80s. It eventually launched its own vertical landscaping system 15 years ago at Optima Camelview Village, a property located in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“This system helps enhance the natural beauty of our projects by allowing a palette of vibrantly colored plants to grow up and over the edge of each private terrace on every floor of the building,” explained David Hovey Jr., president & COO.

Developed by Fifield Cos., Westerly in Chicago’s River West neighborhood includes wall installations of foliage and planting boxes in the penthouse-level party room and dining space. Image courtesy of Morgante Wilson Architects
Developed by Fifield Cos., Westerly in Chicago’s River West neighborhood includes wall installations of foliage and planting boxes in the penthouse-level party room and dining space. Photo by Dave Burk

A kickoff of any project should also include all members of the development, including design and construction. That way the choices can be seamlessly flowed from one group to the next without disruption. Lessons learned from previous projects can serve to improve on the next.

During the design process, it’s important to ask some key questions in order to pinpoint the direction you want to take with your natural elements. Who are you designing for? Where do they live? What does that mean for how they want to live? Then you can craft an esthetic that responds to these questions.

Kassing used Riverworks in Phoenixville, Pa., as an example of incorporating the surrounding neighborhood into the design. The property is situated near an exposed bridge that workers would use to cross the river. That river now connects to downtown, so the design team came up with a steel inspired concept for the community.

“Downtown became an amenity to that community and all it took was this bridge,” Kassing said. “A connection to this bridge inspired the esthetic, and grounded and routed every decision we made.”

Sense of calm

Biophilic design could be both obvious and subtle within your communities, but it all comes down to incorporating the five basic senses. Most designs start with sight because it’s the most notable to residents, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will have the most impact. When deciding which of these elements to use in a project, it’s important to take inspiration from the location and tie that into the design itself.

Optima Inc. launched its signature vertical landscaping system 15 years ago at Optima Camelview Village in Scottsdale, Ariz. It allows for a palette of vibrantly colored plants to grow up and over the edge of each private terrace on every floor of the building. Image courtesy of Optima Inc.
Optima Inc. launched its signature vertical landscaping system 15 years ago at Optima Camelview Village in Scottsdale, Ariz. It allows for a palette of vibrantly colored plants to grow up and over the edge of each private terrace on every floor of the building. Image courtesy of Optima Inc.

A great place to start is the visual or physical connection, said Linda Kozloski, creative design director at Lendlease.

At Cirrus and Cascade, an adjoining condominium tower and apartment building located in Chicago’s Lakeshore East neighborhood, the properties share a large amenity space located in a conservatory that sits amongst many natural materials such as end grain wood flooring and a variety of plants, while overlooking the nearby Cascade Park.

“You get that outside connection where you have a chance to sit amongst the nature, in a garden that reflects the one you’re looking out at,” Kozloski said.

Incorporating outside elements such as views of a park, lake or garden is a great start to make your residents feel like they are in the outdoors when they are in a common area of the community.


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Another main element that might be overlooked is noise. Including a water feature not only offers a visual aid but also places residents in a calming environment. Other alternatives include machines in the lobby or community spaces that can feature sounds such as wind, birds chirping or a rainforest. This gives residents the feel of being outdoors when entering the property, giving them a sense of calm and relaxation.

“With COVID-19, when people are cooped up and unable to get out of their homes, it’s nice to be able to have a place in your building where you can escape without escaping,” said K. Tyler, principal & head of interior design at Morgante Wilson Architects.

Utilizing the senses gives residents a chance to fully submerse themselves in connecting with nature inside of the community. Other elements to consider would be textured wallpaper, hanging plants and chandeliers, the use of local art from the neighborhood and flexible furniture.

Tyler pointed to the firm’s work on Westerly, a new development by Fifield Cos. in Chicago’s River West neighborhood.

“The theme for Westerly was Flora and Fauna, with a character of quirky, fun and interesting,” she noted. “A lot of patterns and materials were used in the lobby, which also includes an anthropomorphic chair. We wanted it to resemble something that might get up and walk away.”

Located in Newark, Del., College Square was constructed at the site of a former horse racing track. The multifamily component is entered through a two-story lobby with a tiered greenhouse style that integrates seating and sculptural elements, warm wood tones and an abstract graphic. Image courtesy of Mary Cook Associates
Located in Newark, Del., College Square was constructed at the site of a former horse racing track. The multifamily component is entered through a two-story lobby with a tiered greenhouse style that integrates seating and sculptural elements, warm wood tones and an abstract graphic. Image courtesy of Mary Cook Associates

Expanding your reach

Even if you are new to the concept of biophilic design, the most important thing to remember is to incorporate these features at the beginning of the project. You don’t need to be an expert to include natural elements. Making sure to budget for these items so they aren’t removed later on during the pricing process is a critical step. Kozloski also recommends doing your homework.

“Keep up with what current research has uncovered and how to make things better for the future, keep on innovating and create a better place through that innovation,” she said.

Nothing is too small when it comes to biophilia, as long as it puts your residents further in touch with the elements of nature. Whether it’s taking inspiration from the neighborhood, animal evolution or trees or ensuring that design elements are proportionally placed. Or it could stem from materials used such as natural woods, low VOC, operable walls and glass or light features that mimic sunlight. It’s all biophilia and will create a more sustainable and relaxing environment for your residents.

Read the May 2021 issue of MHN.