Reconnecting with Nature Through Biophilic Design

Yale University’s Environment 360 interviewed Stephen Kellert, an author, social ecologist, and recent Guggenheim Fellow winner. In his recent book, “Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life,” written with co-editors, Judith H. Heerwagen and Martin L. Mador, Kellert argues that built spaces need to re-connect to the natural world through the use of lots of “windows, daylight, fresh air, plants and green spaces, natural materials, and decorative motifs from the natural world.”

According to Environment 360, Kellert asserts that people “learn better, work more comfortably, and recuperate more successfully in buildings that echo the environment in which the human species evolved.” Additionally, his new book highlights data — “In one study, for instance, spinal surgery patients in rooms with bright sunlight needed 22 percent less pain medication than patients in darker recovery rooms.”

In Kellert’s interview with Environment 360, he says there are a number of ways to improve worker productivity and retention and reduce absenteeism. The most basic step is to improve the availability of natural light. “Well the lowest hanging fruit, I like to say, because it’s the easiest thing do, is natural light and — to the extent that you can — natural ventilation helps. Certainly décor. A lot of what we’ve done from time immemorial in buildings is to contextualize our experience of nature in ways that we hardly even realize. When you go into a cathedral, which often has many biophilic elements in the way in which it manipulates light and space and air, and material and shape and form, and color sometimes as well, you know people don’t say ‘ah, nature,’ it’s not obvious, it’s not a direct experiential contact with self-sustaining nature. It’s what I call vicarious or representational nature.”

Kellert is analyzing the effect of biophilic design on office work productivity, absenteeism, number of sick days. Kellert believes there is a definite connection between biophilic spaces and improved productivity, and some studies point to a positive relationship: “We’re collecting data across a wide range of parameters from physical data to social data to psychological data. And we’re going to be able to measure whether there have been bottom line effects, absenteeism, health and symptomatology, productivity, retention — retention is a really important thing for a company like Bank of America, because it costs a lot to train people — and so we’ll have some of those indicators. My colleague on the Bank of American study did an office and factory study associated with the Herman Miller company, which is a furniture manufacturer, in which they were able to find significant productivity gains, less absenteeism, less health problems, a better sense of well-being as reported by the individuals that participated. And ultimately all of this translates to the bottom line.”

Many hospitals, in particular, seem to have lost their naturalistic elements to the detriment of patients. “Modern medicine sees ourselves as transcending and conquering nature, and all we needed was a machine that could intervene and make us well again, conquer, suppress, eliminate disease, and certainly we’ve done marvelous things with these machines. But we’ve also lost sight of some very fundamental aspects of health and healing, and consequently create these hospitals that are very often mechanistic to the point that they’re debilitating, and the evidence in this particular sphere is beginning to change some minds.” Instead, Kellert argues that naturalistic settings reduce pain, and may reduce recovery time, thereby lowering health care costs.

Kellert adds that bringing flowers to a sick person in a hospital may have deeper restorative effects as well: “Why do people bring flowers to the hospital all the time? What good is it? It’s not a pill, it’s not—these flowers aren’t selected for their medicinal values, they haven’t been systematically examined for their pharmacological effects, and yet people do it. Is it just superficial? Is it just a nice gesture, nice but not important? I would suggest that it is a much deeper recognition of the healing effects associated with affirming life. I don’t think there’s a person on earth who doesn’t respond to a sunset, or to a beautiful flowering rose, or to a conical shape of a mountain.”

Read the interview

One thought on “Reconnecting with Nature Through Biophilic Design

  1. Naomi Sachs 09/15/2009 / 11:25 am

    Thanks so much for this article! Kellert manages to pull together a lot of the research in a way that is accessible and – dare I say it? – inspiring. I’ll pass this along in the Therapeutic Landscapes Network’s blog as well.

    – Naomi Sachs, ASLA, Director of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network

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