The great outdoors—How to design for living well

Coloradans know the value of connecting with nature. Contractors and designers can help their homeowners live well by incorporating biophilic design principles
Large windows and doors that open a view to the entire outdoor area help homeowners enjoy it even if they’re sitting or working in other parts of the home. (Photo: Abigail-Elise Design Studio)

Humans have an innate biological connection with nature, says Kari-elin Mock, a principal at Cuningham Group in Denver. That’s the heart of a concept called “biophilia,” and biophilic design capitalizes on that connection to create spaces that support mental health and well-being.

In a recent report, “14 Patterns of Biophilic Design,” Terrapin Bright Green, a design consultant firm, wrote that the concept is “not a new phenomenon; rather, as a field of applied science, it is the codification of history, human intuition and neural sciences showing that connections with nature are vital to maintaining a healthful and vibrant existence as an urban species.”

Biophilic design is a natural fit in green building, where a healthier, more efficient home is the goal, but it really shines in outdoor living. Designers and contractors who want to create spaces that go beyond gathering and give homeowners a place to connect with their surroundings can study this concept for inspiration.

[Related: Outdoor living on shrinking lots]

Educating clients

Biophilic design is a big name for something most Coloradans can already tell you—it feels good to get outside. However, the “codification,” to use Terrapin’s word, of what feels natural helps builders and designers be deliberate about the choices they’re making with their clients.

Wendy Yates, founder of Abigail-Elise Design Studio in Frisco, says that some of her clients need guidance when starting a design.

“We always talk about ‘wellness’ as about not just sustainability. I know it’s a really big buzzword now,” Yates said, but her company focuses on “a lifestyle design for living well.”

For some clients, “living well” is synonymous with “luxury,” but Yates tries to guide clients away from accumulating things.

Many people are trying to be more “thoughtful about what they’re putting in the space that they exist in,” she explained, so “we try not to misuse or overuse things that we don’t need, or just set something in a spot because it’s an empty space.”

Cuningham Group’s Mock says her team has used the WELL standard to direct conversations about design that focus on health or well-being as an outcome.

“We have really used WELL as a reference point to have conversations with our clients and with our building users about thinking about spaces for themselves and their occupants with health and wellness top of mind,” Mock said.

Even if WELL certification isn’t a project goal, “it does provide a great touch point for having conversations with building users with health and wellness in mind,” she added.

Design for light and sight

Light is important to our well-being. Seasonal affective disorder is a mood disorder that affects people in the fall and winter, especially in parts of the world where days are dramatically shortened during that time of year.

In Colorado, cold temperatures and work schedules may prevent homeowners from using their outdoor areas during the day. Design elements that give them more control can help, like fire pits and fireplaces, or light bulbs that mimic natural daylight. Mirrors and reflective colors can also help brighten dark areas.

Mock noted that years ago, some builders or designers might have thought a skylight was enough to bring more natural light into a home, but she said that over the last 20 years, as architects have learned more about wellness and mental health, it’s clear that light is only one part of what people need.

[Related: Colorado homeowners prefer a light touch]

“Not just access to daylight, but views; and more importantly, meaningful views from the inside of a building to an outdoor space,” she said. Large windows and doors that open a view to the entire outdoor area help homeowners enjoy it even if they’re sitting or working in other parts of the home.

Not every home can have a mountain view, but being thoughtful about how a home is situated on a lot doesn’t cost anything extra, Mock added. “You wouldn’t want to have your house with your closet having the best view,” she said.

Danielle Andrus

Danielle Andrus is the managing editor of Colorado Builder. She can be reached at [email protected].

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