Biophilic Building Design Held Back by Lack of Data

Biophilic design is still at the bleeding-edge of green building design and hasn’t taken off yet. The obstacle may be the lack of data on the impact of biophilic design on health and well-being. Or perhaps it’s because there still hasn’t been that one model site that makes current practice irrelevant. Other possible reasons: “collective ignorance” or a “lack of imagination.” At a session at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) conference in Washington, D.C., some of early innovators in this field, Bill Browning, Founder, Terrapin Bright Green, Jason McClennan, CEO, International Living Future Institute / Cascadia Green Building Council, and Bob Berkebile, a principal at BNIM and an early green building innovator, discussed the many obstacles preventing more widespread use of these approaches and argued for rapidly stepping up research and promotion efforts.

Biophilia, which has been defined in earlier posts, is “the innate emotional affiliation of humans with all living things.” Defined by famed biologist, E.O. Wilson, the concept of biophilia has kicked off rich areas of research and practice in the fields of biophilic and bio- or eco-mimetic design among all kinds of designers.

To make the case for biophilic building design, Browning repeated arguments he has made at other conferences, but also highlighted some interesting example projects. Administrators at a U.S. post office building where people sorted mail kept careful records of how many pieces were actually sorted per hour. With the redesign of the building to let in natural sunlight, a biophilic design enhancement, “levels of productivity went up dramatically.” In another project, Walmart tested the impact of sunlight, creating a store with one half with a regular roof, and the other half with a skylight. The sky-lit side had “much higher sales.”

He described how our opioid receptors tell us when we are having a biophilic reaction. For example, when we see a plain grey background, we don’t get much excitement. However, when we see a lush garden under a clear sky, with a foreground and background, paths, and water, our brain says “I like, I like, I like,” with our opioid receptors firing full blast.

Fractal patterns are something we also like. The dense organic network of forests, waves rippling on the ocean, or a roaring fire can be stared at for hours. And looking at these things may actually be not only interesting for our brains, but also soothing, emotionally. In Japan, there’s Shinri-yoku or “forest bathing,” which involves sitting out in a fractal-rich forest for a few hours to simply soak in the natural environment. In one Japanese study, stress hormones were found to simply “drop away in the forest.”

But despite these few interesting studies, the International Living Future Institute still isn’t sure about how to research the effects of biophilic design, said Jason McClennan. Which types of design are most critical? Through one of his initiatives, the Cascadia Green Building Council, McClennan started the Living Building Challenge, a very tough rating system now in it’s second iteration. The Living Building Challenge now has 140 projects under its belt worldwide, with a few hundred more in different stages of development. In comparison with LEED, these are tiny numbers, but each one of those projects serves as a model because it’s nearly-impossible to get through their rating system, which calls for net-zero energy and water use and no waste. The first projects were small, but now they are more complex and diverse. In Seattle, one project by architect Peter Bohlin will use a full-roof photovoltaic system that looks like the top of a tree canopy to create all the building’s energy needs. Another school project in Seattle actually has a wonderful biophilic design element: a small encased river flowing through the science classroom’s floor. The Omega Center for Sustainable Living, now famous in regenerative design circles, recycles all wastewater into a lobby pond where it’s cleansed by a “Living Machine,” bringing nature right into the heart of the center.

For McClennan, biophilic design, which his team is now carefully studying to determine how to best incorporate into the Living Building Challenge, will need to be scaled up to the city level. Biophilic design needs to be embedded in the fabric of cities, with “ecotones brought into communities.” The idea is to “reconnect people to nature.” Inspired by Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, McClennan said kids in urban areas particularly need to be the focus of these efforts.

“Before, my designs may have been sophisticated but had no connection to deeper ecological context. They were clumsy, ignorant of the function of a place,” said Bob Berkebile, one of the leading sustainable architects around. A man in tune with nature, his firm, BNIM, has won a whopping 8 AIA COTE Top 10 awards, but he still isn’t happy with his work. Perhaps it’s because he believes that “all natural systems worldwide are in decline” and we still haven’t “built biophilia into our designs in any meaningful way.” For Berkebile, biophilic design is key to smarter resource use. If, through a smart biophilic design, you come to love nature, you will be more likely to protect it. In fact, humans may need to do this for selfish reasons: Without functioning natural systems and more sustainable resource use, people won’t last.

BNIM’s projects range from more sustainable models for golf courses to a highly sustainable headquarters for Applebee’s (see image at top). The firm worked on the Omega Center for International Living’s Living Machine. In all projects, he tries to “recapture the synergistic relationship with nature and enhance the landscape.” He said if more urban projects were designed with nature, fewer people would move out to the countryside. This will help because “if people continue to flood the countryside, nature there will be degraded.”

Browning, interestingly, noted that all the landscapes people want — parks, lawns, golf courses — are really just savannahs, the earliest human landscape. So, to encourage people to live in denser cities that are more sustainable, more of these mock savannahs are needed to fullfil those biophilic connections. He added that biophilia was also why people immediately “got” Patrick LeBlanc’s green walls and Herbert Dreiseitl’s artistic water treatment facilities. To add, the design work of the majority of landscape architects is innately biophilic, given parks and gardens, as Browning noted, create connections to nature, and the many plants used essentially grow in fractal formations. Architects may simply be starting to catch up to landscape architects in this regard. Crucially, though, data is still needed for all design professionals to make the case to their clients.

To dig deeper into this field: Read Biophilia, the book by E.O. Wilson that started the theoretical understanding of what many lansdcape architects may have known all along. Explore the work of Stephen Kellert and others who are bringing biophilic design to buildings in Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life and Timothy Beatley, who wants to scale up biophilic design to the city scale, in Taking Nature to the City. For those interested in regenerative landscape design, check out The Sustainable SITES Handbook by Meg Calkins, ASLA. And listen to Bjork’s latest album, Biophilia, her startling homage to everything from viruses to the solar system.

In other news, another early sustainable design innovator, Sam Rashkin, the driving force behind the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star for Homes program, deservedly won a $50,000 prize from the Hanley Foundation for Vision and Leadership. Rashkin, an architect and urban planner, used a tiny staff (around 6 people) and budget (just a few million) to overcome some serious early opposition from builders and create a program that would eventually bring in 9,000 building industry partners. Rashkin has also been instrumental in USGBC’s LEED for Homes, NAHB’s Green Building Guidelines, and the EPA’s WaterSense program. Learn more about Rashkin’s work in Ecohome magazine.  

Image credit: (1) Applebee’s Restaurant Support Center / BNIM, (2) ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Honor Award. Jon Piasecki, ASLA, Housatonic / Jon Dolan, (3) Living Machine / LiveModern, (4) Biophilia / Bjork

9 thoughts on “Biophilic Building Design Held Back by Lack of Data

  1. Jouw Tuincoach 05/23/2012 / 12:31 pm

    Let’s face it! We are part of nature. We can live harmoniously and thrive in the positive energy that surrounds us. We owe it to nature to create and think accordingly. Best wishes, Mariëtte Verlaan, Feng Shui garden and landscape designer

  2. scientiste 05/23/2012 / 7:33 pm

    Reblogged this on Mental Flowers and commented:
    Really interesting article about the concept of biophilic design, something I’ve brought up a lot on this site. In summary, humans love natural environments, so why haven’t our buildings and other spaces moved more in that direction? It’s all broken out very nicely in this post:

  3. canoe & communications 05/23/2012 / 9:25 pm

    I enjoyed your post. I’ve read similar articles about this type of design, or organic design in Dwell. As a Midwestener, I know Frank Lloyd Wright used this concept in his architectural design. I know Arcosanti in Arizona was involved in something similar.

    Really interested read.

  4. Garden Walk Garden Talk 05/28/2012 / 9:05 am

    This was a wonderful article and I believe that we will get to a point where sustainable building is law. Like you said it will be out of necessity that people change thinking and disregard budgetary consideration for long term saving of both the environment and the pocketbook. Our society is so quick fix immediate that thinking must radically be changed. I am familiar with many in this field, but have to admit that much is very seldom used in practice. But it will not be long before it is the reverse. I did like what Berkebile said, “if more urban projects were designed with nature, fewer people would move out to the countryside. This will help because “if people continue to flood the countryside, nature there will be degraded.” How simple but true.

  5. Ann 05/29/2012 / 4:34 pm

    As a student of permaculture, and holder of a degree in horticulture, I deeply disagree with the statement that “the design work of the majority of landscape architects is innately biophilic.” The majority of landscape architects impose simplistic, anthropocentric, and often egocentric concepts onto beautiful, complex natural systems with no understanding of their context or of regenerative system design. Ecological destruction and repetitive failures are often the result.

  6. Linda 05/30/2012 / 3:40 pm

    We just got a fast food restaurant “Zacadoo’s” and there is not a single window in it. Some teens who have worked full-time wanted to quit because it felt so inhuman/dungeon-like inside.

  7. Ellen Heath 05/30/2012 / 6:30 pm

    Love the name of your site and found this fascinating. Wish the whole world would catch on.

  8. Tim Robinson 05/30/2012 / 9:39 pm

    Biophilia brings the focus of space to nature and there is so much to marvel at. Great article.

  9. darlenprojects 05/31/2012 / 8:03 am

    I live in the Caribbean nestled in nature. I look at our modern building, it’s sad to see how we run from nature in our design, some placing plastic trees over natural vegetation. It’s good to see that the research is there. Thanks, which can be used in the debate for designing in a more natural humane form.

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