EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
Dear Earthtalk: What is biophilic design in architecture and where can I see it implemented? — Winston Black, Newark, NJ
Biophilia is defined as the inherent human inclination to affiliate with nature. The moral imperative of biophilia is that we cannot flourish as individuals or as a species without a compassionate and considerate relationship to the world beyond ourselves of which we are a part. Biophilic design, an extension of biophilia, incorporates natural materials, natural light, vegetation, nature views and other experiences of the natural world into the modern built environment.
According to Stephen R. Kellert, author of Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World, humans may have evolved in the natural world, but the habitat of contemporary people has largely become the indoor built environment where we now spend 90 percent of our time. The result has been an increasing disconnect between us and nature. However, the emerging concept of biophilic design recognizes how much human physical and mental well-being relies on the quality of our relationships to the natural world.
“We put people in windowless offices and give them a computer and a desk and think they should be able to work just fine because they’ve got all the obvious things they need, like air to breathe, artificial light to see by and access to all kinds of information,” Kellert says. “But we find that they don’t actually work all that well in those kinds of environments. They are more likely to experience fatigue, lack of motivation and higher rates of absenteeism. If you just put certain aspects of nature into these environments, it actually results in improved well-being and productivity.”
Current low-impact design, like the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system, emphasizes avoiding pollution, eliminating chemical toxins, minimizing waste, increasing energy efficiency and decreasing water use. However, due to rapidly evolving technological advances, energy-efficient solar collectors and other low-impact design features quickly become outdated. Biophilic design’s aesthetic, sensory-rich fusion with nature, along with its health benefits, make it the missing link in most sustainable design, Kellert says, and only development which incorporates both biophilic and low-impact design can achieve true and lasting sustainability.
Furthermore, Kellert says. “…you need to create a sense of affiliation or attachment to these structures that motivates people to want to sustain them over time, which is just as important as reducing harmful impacts. We’ve done ourselves in the environmental field a disservice [by] only focusing on the negative impacts and forgetting the root of the environmental movement, which, whether it’s Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson or Aldo Leopold, was very much a celebration of our connection to the natural world and how it’s fundamental to who we are as individuals and as a species.”
Recent biophilic design can be seen in structures like Yale University’s Kroon Hall, the Bank of America Tower and the Cook+Fox Architects office in New York City, Dell Children’s Hospital in Austin, Texas, and more. Kellert says one of the most satisfying projects he worked on last year was an elderly health care complex in Indiana. By incorporating biophilic design into the complex, it created a less alienating, more positive, therapeutic environment for people with memory loss.
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