Biophilic Design in a Pennsylvania Home

Reader Contribution by Margaret Gilmour
1 / 8
2 / 8
3 / 8
4 / 8
5 / 8
6 / 8
7 / 8
8 / 8

On most evenings, architect and land planner Helena van Vliet carries her canvas tote to Kimberton Whole Foods just a block from her home and packs it with ingredients for the night’s meal. She prefers buying fresh food daily, never filling her compact, under-the-counter refrigerator.

The convenience of living next door to a natural foods marketplace is only one reason van Vliet bought her home in Kimberton Village, Pennsylvania. Raised in a small town in Germany, van Vliet’s 100-plus-year-old home reminds her of the simple existence of her European youth.

Photo By Barry Halkin

“Living in the village offers me an integrated lifestyle in a community,” van Vliet says. “I can walk everywhere I need to go. Connecting these local conveniences with high-tech information services and systems necessary to run a business makes for a less stressful, more productive life with a much lower carbon footprint to boot.”

While the village life may not be an option for many of us, “integration” and “connection” are key words van Vliet uses to describe her design principles and lifestyle choices. Biophilic design, her blueprint approach to architecture, is a process that integrates elements of the natural world into built environments, thereby connecting people to nature. The concept is known to promote wellness and physiological restoration.

Photo By Barry Halkin

Stephen Kellert, a social ecologist and author who has spent most of his life writing about biophilic design and studying the human-nature connection, explains that people “learn better, work more comfortably, and recuperate more successfully in buildings that echo the environment in which the human species evolved.”

It was Harvard biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner E.O. Wilson who popularized the biophilia concept in 1984 with his memoir, Biophilia, but it could be argued that it wasn’t until the publishing of The Biophilia Hypothesis, a book Wilson co-edited with Kellert in 1995, that the biophilia theory became widely accepted and influential in building design.

Photo By Barry Halkin

You can see many biophilic features at work in van Vliet’s home, which she transformed years ago from a two-story store/café into a three-bedroom residence. She rebuilt with nature in mind, using the textures, sounds, patterns and colors found in the landscape.

“I consider the experience of space in a larger context,” says van Vliet. “I look at the settings and how buildings and spaces relate to one another. What surrounds the building? What do I see when I am inside looking out? How can I the improve flow and energy in the building to enhance the psychological health benefits for those visiting the space?”

Photo By Barry Halkin

The house, once tall and dark with a box-shaped façade, is now a gleam of open spaces topped off with an arching tower graceful enough to house Rapunzel. Inside, more curved walls painted in calm, earthy hues add shape and texture to areas that unfold and guide visitors naturally from room to room, or in the case of the tower, from the driveway to her front door.

The tower, actually, serves many functions. As an overlook, it provides a view of the village to the west, and a glimpse of the courtyard to the south. It also offers visual and acoustical privacy, separating the public areas from the private ones while buffering noise from passing cars and pedestrians.

Photo By Barry Halkin

Still, in the late afternoon the tower becomes an awning to shade the graveled terrace when the sun beams down. Even the bottom level of the column serves a purpose as van Vliet’s home office, which is conveniently street level, giving her clients easy access.

“When designing the three-story tower addition and outbuildings, my intent was to accentuate the natural elevations of the site while integrating the buildings with the landscape,” van Vliet says.

Photo By Helena van Vliet

She took advantage of the original structure nestled into the hillside facing south, making the home ideally situated for natural insulation. Since natural ventilation was equally important to van Vliet, she abandoned the air conditioning units, and chose instead to use ceiling fans to pull the colder air up from the bottom level. In closing her home during the heat of the day, the rooms remain cool, so by the time she opens the skylights up in the evening, any warm air releases into the night’s breeze.

In addition, van Vliet replaced the hot air systems with radiant heat throughout the home, adding energy efficiency to the cozy environment. Ultimately, van Vliet’s home is directly connected to its surroundings where details include scale, shape and placement.

Photo By Barry Halkin

“Before I purchased the house I considered its setting and orientation to the sun,” van Vliet says. “It was an ideal spot for a home, sitting on the east/west axis in the long direction, gaining the southwest cooling breezes.”

Following the sun, van Vliet’s new spaces placed the living area on the south side where floor-to-ceiling French doors allow sunlight to flood the room in the wintertime. The southern exposure is ideal for her plantings in the courtyard garden, an outdoor space she visits often in the summertime to cook, relax and dine alfresco.

Her decorating style is influenced by her love of the southwest where she says “buildings disappear into the landscape.”

Elements of Biophilic Design

• Connecting living spaces/walls, plant life and sensory gardens

• Incorporating natural light, fresh air and moving water

• Integrating the outer with the inner by considering views

• Ensuring natural ventilation and open flow spaces

• Including natural forms, textures and sound

• Engaging a sense of discovery

• Combining local, repurposed and non-toxic materials

Margaret Gilmour is a freelance writer who loves the outdoors and knows everything is better if it’s just-picked and all-natural. You can find her at (where she plans to spend more time).