If the terms “biophilia” and “biophilic design” are new to you, you are not alone. Even some architects have to Google it, yet its principles are at the root of their work. For others in the field, the term may elicit a figurative eye roll, as designers of buildings and landscapes have been nurturing the relationship between people and nature for thousands of years without the biophilic moniker. As Michael Schnekser, a principal with Tymoff+Moss Architects put it, “Today’s cross-body bag is yesterday’s fanny pack.”
But the terms are gaining currency in some business, education, government and healthcare circles. A burgeoning body of evidence, including peer-reviewed academic studies, shows that biophilia delivers demonstrable beneficial outcomes in response to complex business challenges. It turns out that what is good for people and the planet—reducing the ecological footprint of buildings through renewable materials, minimized energy and water consumption, improved air quality, and support of biodiversity and ecosystems—is good for the pocketbook.
In 2019 Norfolk joined the international Biophilic Cities Network. Acknowledging that the concepts are not new, Chris Whitney, Norfolk’s Chief Planner, notes that they are finally being included in policy, as well as in the city’s masterplan. This, he says, can help attract and retain businesses and talent, as people like to live in cities that prioritize meaningful daily contact with nature.
A few of the oft-cited desirable benefits of biophilic design for workers are improved performance, productivity and motivation; reduced stress; improved mental and physical health; increased focus, concentration, cognitive functioning and creativity; increased contentment and retention; and decreased absenteeism. Other benefits for businesses, patients, schools and communities include increased sales (e.g., in retail and hospitality); enhanced recovery from illness and surgery; healthier development, maturation and learning rates in children; reduction in health and social problems; decreased violence and criminal activity; superior quality of life; and a stronger sense of place.
The big names associated with this new name for an old concept begin with Erich Fromm, the sociologist and psychoanalyst who first described biophilia in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), followed by biologist Edward O. Wilson who popularized the term in Biophilia (1984). In a number of books and papers published in the early 2000s, Yale professor of social ecology Stephen Kellert identified two dimensions of biophilic design and six frequently cited biophilic standards. The organic dimension relates to shapes, forms, materials and processes that connect the built environment to the natural one, while the place-based dimension encompasses the way both connect to the culture and ecology of their locale. The six standards include environmental features, natural shapes and forms, restorative patterns and processes, light and space, place-based relationships, and evolved human-nature relationships.
Architects and landscape architects living and working in Coastal Virginia boast impressive portfolios that embrace these dimensions and principles, even if the term “biophilic” is rarely, if ever, used in discussions with clients and colleagues. Following are brief overviews of a handful of representational projects in Chesapeake, Hampton, Norfolk and Virginia Beach from a handful of the many firms engaged in this work. These examples showcase a variety of design strategies that intentionally blur the boundaries between people and nature.
World Below the Brine, 2018, Virginia Beach
Rob Crawshaw, WPA, Norfolk, in association with rhiza A+D and Piece of Cake Productions
Sharing its name with a Walt Whitman poem, this public art project commissioned by the Office of Cultural Affairs in Virginia Beach leans especially into “place-based relationships.” Responding to a national call for an interactive sculpture that would transform an empty lot into a public meeting space, it was one of the few submissions that was “situationally aware” of the natural environment. By day, its canopy of 200 painted metal paddles with glass counterweights blown at the Chrysler Museum of Art’s Perry Glass Studio capture the wind and translate the sun, simulating the ever-changing landscape above and below the ocean’s surface. By night visitors’ movements trigger LED lighting creating the illusion of a floating anemone. Activating its site almost immediately upon completion, the piece has been a catalyst for renewal of the Rudee Loop.
Elizabeth River Project’s Pru+ and Louis Ryan Resilience Lab, Fall 2023, Norfolk
Sam Bowling, WPA, Norfolk, with higher education and business partners
The new headquarters building of the non-profit Elizabeth River Project in the nascent North Colley eco-corridor is a community catalyst project consisting of a solar, net-zero building with a floodable ground floor and educational park. Intentionally built in a floodplain, its purpose is to demonstrate best practices for living in a coastal flood area through accessible, replicable “off the shelf” approaches to resilience and sustainability for homeowners, developers and small business owners, while also restoring and protecting the habit. The exterior features a research dock and circular boardwalk extending over the river and a new living shoreline, which replaced an aging bulkhead. Rain barrels, gray water reuse, green roofs, climbing vines used as southern exposure sunscreens, a bioretention park and rain gardens with 100% native plantings are just a few of the high visibility strategies. With a planned lifespan of 80 years, the building, whose materials can be recycled, will be abandoned when tides reach a certain level as indicated on a ceramic totemic block structure designed by artist Adam Marcus.
Norfolk State University New Science Building, late 2026, Norfolk
Corrie Wilcox-Cohen, WPA, Norfolk, in partnership with SmithGroup, Washington, D.C.
This project, still “on the boards,” is a four-story, 143,000 GSF that brings together under one roof biology, chemistry, and physics teaching and research labs, classrooms and office space to foster collaboration. Also included are a greenhouse and 150-seat planetarium intended as a public gathering space in keeping with the belief that humans have a biological need for connection. The design considers the building and site as one eco-system that “puts science on display” to further foster community interest and engagement. Inside the building, offices, classrooms, and student study spaces encircle the perimeter, allowing for maximum daylighting. Photovoltaic panels create a “membrane” that collects light, adjusts for shading and daylighting, and provides a protective shell that responds to the environment. The dynamic façade of the circular planetarium was inspired by the look of star emissions spectra and is built of highly sustainable terracotta. The surrounding landscape is intended to improve campus life, create learning gardens and outdoor classroom space, and manage storm water through bioretention areas.
Brock Environmental Center—Chesapeake Bay Foundation, 2015, Virginia Beach
Architecture: Greg Mella, Director of Sustainable Design, SmithGroup, Washington, D.C.; and Site Design/Civil Engineering:
WPL, Virginia Beach
As a net zero Living Building Challenge-certified building and site, the Brock Center was required to address the Challenge’s seven “Petals” or performance areas and 20 imperatives related to site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty. Much has been written about this iconic building’s award-winning achievements in all six biophilic areas as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation engages daily in its mission of environmental education and advocacy.
A 2016 post-occupancy evaluation assessed how lighting, thermal comfort, indoor air quality and acoustics affected the productivity of its employees because as Greg Mella notes, “We are not as happy and productive inside.” Subjective and objective assessments measured satisfaction levels above benchmarks in all categories—except acoustics (to which inhabitants have acclimated over time)—and are attributed, in large part, to the staff’s high degree of control over their indoor environment, as the building utilizes mostly natural daylighting and ventilation: operable windows with direct views of the marsh and bay, fresh air, fans and blinds. Additionally, a meandering path leads staff and visitors from offsite parking to the building, providing both physical activity and decompression; Billy Almond, Principal Landscape Architect, WPL, jokes that just walking to work decreases the staff’s blood pressure by half.
INIT, North American Headquarters, 2017, Chesapeake
Michael Schnekser, Tymoff+Moss, Norfolk
With a connection to the outdoors, transparency and visibility being consistent tenets of Tymoff+Moss’s approach to design, Michael Schnekser believes that we need a sense of a world larger and greater than ourselves. At the North American headquarters of INIT, creator of worldwide IT solutions for public transport, a design “ah ha” moment led to “pinching” the center of the building. Essentially, the middle of the building is “pushed in” from both the front and the rear to “bring the outside closer to the center.” A second story terrace provides a popular outdoor lunch spot overlooking a natural setting while the central, sun-drenched indoor space, affectionately called “The Hub,” creates more departmental intermingling, comradery and connectedness with views to the outdoors.
In the office area, centrally located executive spaces are surrounded by work areas for the rest of the staff. Extensive use of glass in the interior allows everyone to share the natural light—not just those with windows to the exterior—while providing acoustic, but not visual, privacy. The result is an appealing open and airy feel. Widespread use of natural wood and accents of the company’s bright green corporate brand color feels outdoorsy and fresh, while planting the site as a natural wildflower meadow, designed by WPL, proved to be a cautionary tale after a year and a half struggle to maintain it. According to Billy Almond, Principal Landscape Architect at WPL, “These meadows work all over the world when the proper communication is made between the client, landscape architect, and the landscape maintenance contractor and they follow through.”
Garden of Tomorrow, Norfolk Botanical Garden, 2025, Norfolk
Dills Architects, Virginia Beach
The largest expansion in the Norfolk Botanical Garden’s 85-year history, the Garden of Tomorrow includes a parking garden, an entry pavilion and a two-story conservatory. The fully transparent pavilion embraces true “transparency of purpose” in terms of its biophilic mission. It will be topped by an 8-inch thick green roof featuring an expansive meadow and vegetable gardens. A 17-foot tall, 600-foot long walkway will lead visitors through the canopy of trees that border the existing rose garden and into the second level skywalk of the 55-foot tall conservatory. Light sensors on the roof of the pavilion will feed into the building adjusting the temperature of the LED lighting to match the natural conditions outside. Transducers mounted on the soaring windows will essentially turn them into speakers by miking the outdoors. Says principal Clay Dills, for those inside, “the veil of the wall becomes as thin as possible.”
Crestwood Elementary, 2025, Chesapeake
Dills Architects, Virginia Beach; Orbis Landscape Architecture, Norfolk
In pursuit of biophilic design with meaning and authentic connections to the outdoors, and armed with student achievement data based on previous projects, firm principal Clay Dills and his team are designing Crestwood Elementary (formerly Crestwood Intermediate) as a three-story metaphor for what is known as woodland layers: the woodland floor (first level), the understory (second level), and the canopy (third level), all crowned by a green roof. Throughout, fenestration and lighting design, as well as colors, sustainable materials, shapes and forms, reinforce the characteristics of each layer. The hub of the understory is a discovery and media center dubbed The Nest with an adjacent weather station. Classrooms for students in higher grades will be located on the higher floors as they prepare to “fly the nest.” Outdoors, Orbis Landscape Architecture has designed the site as a planted and zoned wetland to mitigate flooding with a series of paths and learning plazas surrounded by native grasses and wildflowers original to the site.
Croc’s 19th Street Bistro, Virginia Beach
Airiel Barrientos and Nathan Lahy, Orbis Landscape Architecture, Norfolk
Though Orbis is the landscape architecture firm for Crestwood Elementary and other larger commercial and residential projects, they have been the driving force behind a number of more “improvisational…like jazz” street, parking lot and patio definition and enhancement projects for small businesses: Handsome Biscuit in Norfolk; and Pink Dinghy, Three Ships Coffee and Croc’s in Virginia Beach’s ViBe district. For each business, they sought to create more inviting, defined, and functional outdoor spaces through lush native and pollinator plantings, planter boxes and seating, often with the help of volunteer labor, City resources, and both donated and scrounged building and plant materials. As Nathan reflects, “Though we can’t go to parks on the daily, we can have small daily encounters with nature.” Croc’s is a highly visible restaurant on 19th Street at the beach. As a portal to the ViBe, Orbis wanted to give them a beautiful streetscape, bring the long-standing green ethos of Croc’s into the space with pervious areas and native plantings, and address some of the challenges encountered during the 19th Street road improvement project. A strategy as simple as orienting benches inward and outward helped create a sense of privacy and a visual threshold between public and private space.
Got Fish?, 2020, Hampton
Suping Li and Yang Tian, GARC, Norfolk
Through their design, Li and Tian wanted to pay homage to the restaurant’s origin story as a popular food truck in Coastal Virginia. Conceived in three parts, the design begins with a “city plaza” space for people watching from open seating with an L-shape bar counter. It transitions first into a linear pedestrian “street” lined with planter boxes and bench/banquette seating, and then into a niche-type “house” with cozy and homey group seating around a large table. The light plywood used throughout is heavily grained for a natural outdoor connection while the concrete floors—with a dark stripe for wayfinding—suggests the exterior built environment. An artistic wall-mounted light installation helps carry brightness and liveliness into the deep space though a long, animated line with a head and tail motif suggesting a fish leaping through the waves.
Editor’s Note: Got Fish? announced its closure in early August.