Human Responses to Green Design

Frederick Marks, AIA, a partner with AC Martin, an architecture design firm, presented on the varied human responses to green design at the National Building Museum. Marks focused on recent developments in testing the value of sustainable architecture and landscapes, and asked: “Are they actually providing us with enhanced well-being?” He discussed his role as a founding member of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, a group examining the growing body of knowledge on people’s behavior in the built environment. The architect then outlined the relationship between art and emotion, the differences between LEED green buildings and natural design, the importance of “evidence-based design,” and offered a range of building and landscape case studies that illustrate natural design concepts.

Humans share common emotions and emotions are aroused by art. However, the pleasure derived from looking at art has nothing do with the actual object represented in the art. As an example, he cited Andy Warhol’s seminal painting of a Campbell’s soup can. “Unlike a Warhol painting, which we can enjoy without caring how the soup tastes, in the case of architecture, we do have to care how the soup tastes.” Marks argues that buildings and landscapes need to work as art and spaces for people to live and work in and interact with. He said architecture was the one form of art that breaks the mold.

On LEED-rated buildings, Marks sees “room for improvement.” “LEED has emphasized energy performance over human performance,” but do factor in light, air quality and temperature control. Citing Morphosis’s Caltrans building, which has a dramatic exterior, he pointed to the standard cubicle system found within the building as a poor use of a “sustainable space.” Additionally, another LEED-rated building, the Rand Corporation’s Santa Monica building, was designed for a “rich external experience.” Researchers at the think tank now all have offices and can see the ocean from their windows. The down side: no one talks to each other anymore, a result of the “propinquity effect,” which is often measured in 30-feet increments, to determine how communication rates change depending on how close you are to others.

Marks urged the use of “natural design,” and said there are some simple lessons to be learned from the natural world. Nature is built out of fractal structures. As an example, trees and the density of forests are fractals. “People may be attracted to nature because our nerve cells are also made of fractals.” One leading biologist, E.O. Wilson, said humans have an innate attraction to nature, and coined the term “biophilia.” Steven Kellert, Yale University, expanded this into biophilic design. Buildings that successfully use biophilic design ideas “connect with the natural world.” These kinds of buildings can lower psychological and physiological stress. On the positive side: “Buildings can be built in fractals as well.”

Other designers are going one step further and building biomimetic buildings that “emulate nature’s best ideas to solve human problems” (see earlier post). Noted artist / scientist / landscape designer Patrick Blanc looked how some plants can grow without soil and incorporate these into green roofs and walls (see earlier post).

To fully test whether these ideas actually work, designer should use “evidence-based design,” a process of building and testing building design on credible research to optimize outcomes. Like a scientist who creates a hypothesis before conducting an experiment, landscape architects and architects should create a design hypothesis, a “statement about goals.” “It’s rational that we approach buildings in this way.” The University of California, Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment and its Occupant Indoor Environment Quality tools are being used to determine if LEED-rated buildings are really providing energy performance.

Another side of evidence-based design is the use of post-occupancy studies to test whether initial hypotheses actually worked. Testers can look at physiological rates of occupants — heart rates, blood pressure, skin conductivity. Marks also calls for “brain-mind analysis,” and was excited by the work of UCSD’s Calit2 StarCAVE, a leading virtual reality testing center. Through a virtual reality and using EEG, researchers can assess the effects of changes in the built environment on people. “Emotions can operate without cognition.”

A range of building case studies used to illustrate natural design concepts:

Herman Miller Greenhouse, Holland, Michigan, William McDonough & Associates: Herman Miller, a high-end furniture design company, partnered with William McDonough & Associates and an environmental psychologist to conduct a post-occupancy analysis of its revamped manufacturing, office, and showroom facility in Michigan. After the renovation, which brought in more natural light and other natural elements, there was a 20 percent increase in “good spirits.” Also, 30 percent gave higher approval rating for social spaces, and 60 percent felt healthier. The improvements to the space led to increased productivity, but not reduced stress. “People just ended up working harder with their improved productivity.”

Interestingly, when the sun went down, the benefits from the natural design disappeared. “Productivity dropped for the late shift workers,” which led Marks to ask whether improved access to natural light wasn’t really the key ingredient in increased productivity. “Daylight suppresses depression and stress. Windows are good.”

Genzyme Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Behnisch Architects: Designed by Behnisch architects for a pharmaceutical company, the Genzyme center, a LEED-platinum building, yielded 57 percent increases in productivity. “The architects designed from the inside out and included tea gardens, connecting stairs, and public spaces.”

Regarding LEED-rated buildings, Urban Land recently concluded LEED-platinum buildings have resulted in $170 million in productivity gains. Companies are also using these features for employee retention.

Landscapes in the U.S. have primarily been lawns. “There is the history of the perfect lawn in the U.S.” The original concept of the lawn was the meadow, which was used for grazing. “The lawn became the symbol of democracy and discipline. It’s timeless but also monotonous.” With the rise of gardening, local food production, and productive landscapes, man-made lawns are now changing back into natural landscapes. “Landscapes can be purely sensual in comparison with architecture.”

Chicago Botanic Gardens’s Great Basin Gardens, Oehme Van Sweden & Associates: Marks urged people to examine what landscape architects do by looking carefully at the relationship between the plants, water, and paths in the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Great Basin. “Do we go fast or slow?” — the paths determine the speed with which people interact with the natural environment. The landscape’s success as a biophilic design is rooted in the “Aesthetics of Survival,” outlined by Susan Painter, PhD. The aesthetics outline a need for a refuge (a safe place); a prospect (a place from which you can see a long view of your surroundings), and water (which is rooted in the primeval need to be near water and able to rehydrate). Additionally, the site’s color stimulates. “Color influences mood, blood pressure, respiratory rates.”

Elizabeth and Nona Evans Restorative Gardens, Cleveland Botanic Gardens, Dirtworks: The restorative garden within the Cleveland Botanic Garden is a “garden for contemplation,” and offer keyhole and expansive views. There are also intimate areas that offer views to greater landscapes (meeting the above-mentioned “aesthetics of survival”). In the healing garden, there are “positive distractions” so stress is lowered. “You can touch, hear, see, smell mosses, succulents, cool ferns, and grasses, which works even for the blind.” Horticultural therapy is accessible to all users.

Lurie Garden, Millennium Park, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd: There are shrubs and trees in one area and openess and brightness in other areas. “By day you can rest and reflect, and by night, there is movement through the gardens.”

High Line, New York City, Field Operations, Piet Oudolf and Diller, Scofidio + Renfro: The High Line “incorporates everything I am talking about,” contends Marks. “There are changes in natural plants and hardscapes as you move along the trails.” There are tapered edges and seams, a strategy to slow things down. “The High Line creates the sense that you are in another place, outside NYC’s grid.”  

Image credit: The Lurie Garden, Millennium Park, Chicago, Illinois. Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd, Seattle, Washington

One thought on “Human Responses to Green Design

  1. Cat Leccia 04/01/2010 / 5:01 am

    Great post!
    Design Lovers, get inspired!!
    Check out Boca do Lobo
    and Delightfull

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