Natural Beauty: Biophilic Design Connects Nature and the Built Environment

Hanging Garden at 158 Cecil Street by AgFacadesign, Singapore

Hanging Garden at 158 Cecil Street by AgFacadesign, Singapore

“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

As Rilke’s writing suggests, we­­­ have much to learn from nature, and in accepting so we are strengthened. A synthesis of biology, architecture, and psychology, the importance of biophilic design is gaining recognition in importance in the built environment – from urban planning, to architecture and interior design.

In his 1984 book Biophilia, naturalist Edward O. Wilson defined biophilia as the inherent human inclination to affiliate with nature. Wilson’s theory proposes that the strong bonds we have with nature are rooted in our genetics as a mode of evolutionary survival.

Social ecologist Stephen Kellert, who further developed the concept of biophilia, pointed out as humans evolved, the context for our physical and mental development was primarily a sensory world governed by environmental features such as light, sound, scent, wind, weather, water, vegetation, animals and landscapes.

Although humans are no longer largely dependent on these natural components for daily survival, research has concluded that a connection to nature in our built environment still remains vital to human physical and mental well-being. Biophilic components in our built environments have been shown to lower blood pressure, heart rate, levels of anxiety, and increase mental focus, to name a few. The benefits to quality of life, health, and humanity as a whole are limitless.

Varia Ecoresin Nature Gallery panel Birch by 3form

Varia Ecoresin Nature Gallery panel Birch by 3form

A study by architect Ihab Elzeyadi attributed a sizable 10% of workplace absences to architecture with no connection to nature, as highlighted in The Economics of Biophilia: Why Designing with Nature in Mind Makes Financial Sense, a publication by environmental consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green.

In Elzeyadi’s study, 30% of offices overlooked a manicured landscape with trees and had natural daylighting; 31% overlooked a street, and the remaining 39% had no outside view.  Elzeyadi found that the quality of employees’ view from their offices considerably affected their work behavior. Not only did the employees with the nature view take less sick leave, they were also happier and more productive.

Likewise, evidence-based healthcare designer Dr. Roger Ulrich found hospital patients with a bedside view of trees recovered faster than those assigned to identical rooms with a view of a brick wall.  The patients with the nature view required significantly fewer doses of strong pain medication, had shorter hospitalization duration, and experienced lower levels of stress than those with the wall view.

“There are many factors that influence and trigger stress, but the built environment can act as a stress reliever for outside stresses, as well as independently trigger positive physiological reactions. Thus, a biophilic built environment can provide positive distractions,” noted Terrapin Bright Green.

So, how does biophilic design relate to our constructed surroundings?  In Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life, the book’s co-author Stephen Kellert identified a new design paradigm. Restorative environmental design, he explained, is an approach that fosters a beneficial contact between people and nature in modern buildings and landscapes, with a focus on low environmental impact.

Kellert identifies two cornerstones of biophilic design in the built environment. One is an organic or natural dimension, which directly, indirectly or symbolically represent forms from nature. Examples include daylighting, potted plants or plantings and imagery of nature.

Place-based or vernacular is the second dimension, described by Kellert as the “spirit of place”. Our tendency towards territory and to affiliate with a location reflects our inherent need to call some place home.  Kellert argued that attachment to a place promotes stewardship to its buildings and landscape.  He adds: “An erosion of connection to place has unfortunately become a common affliction of modern society”. Fortunately, implementation of biophilic design practices are helping to regain lost ground.

The two underpinnings of biophilic design are attributed to six basic design elements and several associated design attributes identified by Kellert.  While many are obvious, such as natural light, ventilation and materials, others recall more primitive roots and challenge tenants of modern architecture – shapes that contest right angles, materials that show age with patina, and a preference for delineated rather than open spaces.

641 Avenue of the Americas, New York City by ©COOKFOX Architects

641 Avenue of the Americas, New York City by ©COOKFOX Architects

Architecture purposefully designed to capitalize on natural views is one of the most widely incorporated biophilic attribute – a visual connection with nature. COOKFOX Architects’ design of office space in New York developed a green rooftop to serve as a natural view from the office, amidst the dense urban backdrop of Manhattan. Additionally, employees access to the garden and maintained it, experiencing a layered connection to it in a physical context rather than a purely visual one. It’s a perfect example of Kellert’s restorative environmental design.

Likewise, in the interior of the SC Johnson Administrative Building in Racine, Wisconsin, USA, architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed dendriform columnar supports in the interior to abstractly reference the form of trees. Although nearly 80 years old, Wright’s 1936 design characterizes one of the biophilic attributes of simulating the natural form of the tree, which offers psychological affiliations of resource and refuge.

Whereas the architectural design of a new building presents vast opportunity to implement biophilic features in its spatial design, existing spaces present more limitations. Connections to nature must be achieved primarily through interior finishes and fixtures.

SkyCeiling installation at Dorostkar Dentistry, California. Photographs  by Sky Factory, copyright 2013

SkyCeiling installation at Dorostkar Dentistry, California. Photograph by Sky Factory, copyright 2013

International company The Sky Factory offers a luminous SkyCeiling, which provides a realistic illusion of a scenic sky throughfaux ceiling-mounted windows.  The product is a backlit grid of translucent panels with a high-resolution transparent photograph mounted on a modular aluminum grid.  Full-spectrum fluorescent T5 lamps between the ceiling and the transparency provide the back lighting.

Various scenes are available, including specific cloud formations, and wisps of flowering branches and particular tree types. Although SkyCeiling has programmable and dimmable features to brighten and dim on a daily or seasonal cycle, its imagery is stagnant.

SkyV, also by The Sky Factory, uses a similar setup to SkyCeiling, but improves upon it by utilizing three hinged LED edge-lit LCD monitors to broadcast RED Digital Cinema HD content.  SkyV’s non-repeating footage highlights wind blowing treetops, and the subtle evolution of the sky over the course of one to three hours.  It provides a richer experience with natural movement.

According to company founder Bill Witherspoon, “We convince the mind that there’s a real skylight up there. Once the mind is convinced, it triggers a psychophysiological response…a powerful sense of ease and well-being”.  The effect is undeniably realistic.

Meanwhile, textile designer David Oakey’s carpet designs for Interface employ nature-based patterns. Oakey’s recent Urban Retreat collection is sorted into pattern studies of natural textures and organic forms, such as flax, grass, lichen and granite.

An interview with Oakey revealed his inspiration for Urban Retreat was the past decade’s global population shift of people returning to cities from rural areas.  He recalls a time when the word ‘urban’ evoked images decay and concrete jungles with little respite. However, this shift is different.  He explained: “Only this time, city dwellers are bringing part of that non-urban heritage – part of nature – with them. Globally, people are turning in to their instinctive, almost primal, need to reconnect and coexist with nature.”

Interface will soon introduce Oakey’s newest design in its Net Effect carpet collection.  Its design references ocean waves and their connection to the beach and the landscape.

Net Effect carpet tiles in Atlantic & Pacific, created by David Oakey for Interface

Net Effect carpet tiles in Atlantic & Pacific, created by David Oakey for Interface

Oakey disclosed the inspiration for Net Effect was the color blue.  He identifies blue as the most popular color globally.  It is also echoed in The World Is Blue by Sylvia A. Earle, a book which he said describes the environmental fate of our oceans.  Constructed of yarns from recycled Filipino fishnets, Net Effect binds us together physically, metaphorically and supports biophilia’s premise of sustainability.

Biophilia isn’t new. Humankind has always held a strong connection to nature, yet modern, industrialized society also encouraged distance from it.  Biophilia still remains a developing field of its own. However, its far-reaching benefits and application particularly in the built environment are becoming widely recognized.  As David Oakey put it, it’s no longer considered on the “eco-fringe” of the design world.

*Article previously published in Commercial Interior Design magazine, August 2013 issue. 

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