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Building for Biophilic Design

Architecture that connects people and nature in the built environment

Building Biophilic June18 1
The common terrace at 150 Charles Street in New York City. Photo: Frank Oudeman; Courtesy of COOKFOX Architects

Earlier this year, Amazon opened its newest buildings on its campus in Seattle. Called the Spheres, it features trees, plants, sunlight, soil and water. There are also treehouses suspended under 40-plus-foot trees and cascading waterfalls. The result of innovative thinking about the character of the workplace and the missing link to nature in urban offices, the Spheres is a unique place where employees can think and work differently. It is also an example of biophilic design, which is designing the built environment to restore the instinctive bond between people and nature.

Bill Browning, managing partner at Terrapin Bright Green, a research and consulting firm based in New York City and Washington, D.C., explains that biophilic design is really about the experiences of nature in the built environment. “And, it’s a mechanism for supporting people’s heath and well-being in the built environment,” he adds.

Susie Teal, senior associate, COOKFOX Architects, New York City, notes that for the vast majority of human history, people have lived in natural settings, evolving to psychologically and physically prefer regular contact with nature. “We now spend an average of 90 percent of our time indoors, making the design of our living and working spaces crucial to our health,” she says. “Through implementing good biophilic design, our built spaces can make us healthier and happier.”

And, research shows that a connection to nature has positive physiological responses, one of which is lowering cortisol. “Elevated cortisol levels are related to stress and a myriad of negative health effects including fatigue, obesity and heart disease,” Teal says. “Learning to design in ways that can reduce stress and improve quality of life has become a moral issue in design.”

“For too long we have designed out nature and the only remnants are usually ornamental,” says Jonce Walker, LEED AP, CSBA, associate at Thornton Tomasetti, New York City. “Biophilic design seeks to infuse genuine experiences back into the built environment, which will improve moods, boost happiness, and connect us back to a natural system.”

The Bullitt Center in Seattle. Photo courtesy of Nic Lehoux.

Biophilic Design Framework

Stephen R. Kellert was a social ecologist whose research helped advance the understanding of the connection between humans and the natural world. In the 2008 book, which he edited with Judith Heerwagen and Martin Mador, “Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life,” he presented a list of six biophilic design elements and 72 biophilic design attributes that create a guideline for those looking to achieve biophilic design in the modern built environment.

Ron van der Veen, FAIA, LEED AP, principal at NAC Architecture, Seattle, says Kellert describes biophilia as the human dependence on nature that extends far beyond the simple issues of material and physical sustenance to encompass the human craving for aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction.

Explains Teal, “Kellert’s biophilic design framework offers methods to incorporate direct and indirect experiences of nature into the built environment, as well as biophilic design principles affecting the overall experience of space and place, with the aim of creating more sustainable and healthy building environments. Biophilic design touches on a few important design attributes: first, the connection to nature and its positive effects on occupant wellbeing; second, buildings that mimic places in nature that make us feel good, incorporating natural light and views, and creating a sense of safety; and third, architecture that is connected to the culture and natural history of a place.”

Terrapin Bright Green, which worked with Kellert on the book, identified 14 patterns in three general categories (see sidebar) from his original framework. The 14 patterns help articulate the relationship between nature, human biology and the design of the built environment so people can experience the benefits of reduced stress, enhanced creativity, improved well-being, and more in architecture.

“There are other ways of slicing and dicing it,” Browning says. “All of it shows different ways of experiencing nature in the built environment, presented as tools for designers to really think about how they do that.”

Walker says one of the most important biophilic design patterns is ‘Connection to Natural Systems.’ “Too often,” he says, “we have engineered-out swings in seasons, changing lighting conditions and weather events. A building needs to remain safe, but we need to think more about celebrating natural systems and shifts in nature within built environments instead of trying to maintain a constant condition. A building that has thermal variability, good daylight, places for people to seek refuge, and climate-appropriate vegetation, will create a more biophilic experience for its users.”

The Hawaii Preparatory Academy in Waimea, Hawaii. Photo courtesy of Flansburgh Architects.

Biophilic Building Design

Amanda Sturgeon, FAIA, LFA, LEED Fellow, CEO of the Seattle-based International Living Future Institute, says many of today’s buildings are created in complete isolation from the climate and place they are located in. For example, “the façades of the building are exactly the same on each side without regard for sun exposure or how the building takes advantage passively of the climate,” she explains. “The spaces we create are dark and sterile, and do not have the sensory variability that allows us to be connected to nature. To design in a way that connects every person to the sounds of the rain and changing light over time will require most of the design industry to re-prioritize the design drivers for buildings.”

Sturgeon recommends taking the time to understand the place a building is being designed for by observing the natural beauty and opportunities to create a healthier habitat for humans and restore the ecosystem of the site.

According to Teal, a biophilically designed building offers connections to nature through the use of natural materials, spaces oriented with areas of prospect and refuge as well as views and access to nature in the outdoors, daylight and dynamic lighting, biomimetic patterns and natural materials. She recommends starting with nature before pursuing technological solutions. “Work with available daylight, prevailing wind, and ways in which you can integrate nature and natural things into the built environment. Although we have great building technologies, few can compare to the ecosystem services we receive from nature. Second, commit to the outcomes of indoor environmental quality to ensure an ongoing healthy atmosphere.”

Walker recommends thinking about the existing climate zone first, and then integrating the appropriate biophilic interventions. “Biophilic design is not focused around grand gestures,” he says, “but rather strategic design that can be scalable and even more impactful if stochastic. For example, a view to a green wall that has a dense, variability of plantings that changes based on the seasons is better than a massive green wall of the same non-native species.”

Eastern Washington University’s Patterson Hall in Cheney, Wash. Photo courtesy of NAC Architecture.

Inspiration in Nature

Key to the design of any building is the materials used to build it. A building designed with biophilic design concepts in mind is no exception, as it brings nature to its occupants. “A biophilic building is one that is intricately linked to its place through the use of a materials palette that reflects the region; that blurs the boundaries between inside and outside; and takes advantage of natural breezes for cooling or sun for heating,” explains Sturgeon.

When we venture outside of buildings and into nature, Sturgeon says we are exposed to textures and variations in color and patterns that stimulate our senses in multiple ways. “To create biophilic buildings, the materials play a crucial role in creating a multisensory experience for the occupants,” she adds.

Teal says natural materials lend a sense of authenticity and simplicity and offer a more direct connection to natural patterns that have positive physiological responses. "We like to incorporate metal details into our buildings because they patina with age and there is a sense of authenticity to architecture that changes with time and responds to the natural environment. We use metal for cladding and create biomimetic screens as architectural elements or shading devices.”

By integrating natural materials that are regional, Walker says a building or space can evoke a connection to the place. “Stone from the nearby quarry, wood that was harvested or salvaged nearby, or a natural color palette can be good examples of building materials that have biophilic undertones.”

Traditionally, if you think about decorative metal work, grilles and screens, those would frequently have flowers and plants and animals and other nature references in them, Browning says. You may also see the use of fractal patterns, which are self-repeating layered patterns. “And that’s something you can do quite beautifully in metal.”

There is a really great opportunity for metal products to be an integral part of biophilic design, van der Veen adds. “Metal might actually be thought of as a counterintuitive biophilic material, but I am in love with it. Color, texture, shadow, light, warmth and cold change over time. All these characteristics are reflecting principles of nature.”

“One of my favorite biophilic materials is raw steel,” van der Veen continues. “I love to see how it weathers and tells the tales of climate and time. It is effortless and strong and reliant.” Browning agrees, saying, “Figuring out how things age, and allowing them to age, is a piece that connects people to a building over a long period of time.”

Beyond Design

The principles of biophilic design have worked their way into green building programs such as the Living Building Challenge and the WELL Building Standard.

Sturgeon notes that Kellert’s list is referenced in the Living Building Challenge as part of the requirement to achieve the Biophilic Design Imperative. Located under the Health and Happiness petal, the Biophilic Environment Imperative states, “the project must be designed to include elements that nurture the innate human/nature connection.”

“Biophilic design is about enhancing the well-being of people and nature through human-made spaces,” says Teal. “This ideology is very much aligned with LEED and the Living Building Challenge. The LBC has biophilic design built into its rating system, and what we’ve learned as designers is that when you design buildings with less impact on the earth, as evaluated through the LEED rating system, you are also designing buildings with better outcomes for the people living and working inside them.”

Within the WELL Building Standard, Walker notes that biophilia is broken into what the program calls features. The Biophilia I feature is qualitative and the Biophilia II feature is quantitative. “The first intends to ‘nurture the innate human-nature connection within the project’ and the latter to ‘support occupant emotional and psychological well-being by including the natural environment in interior and exterior design.’”

The east terrace at COOKFOX Architects' office in New York City. PHOTO: Eric Laignel; Courtesy of COOKFOX Architects.

Integrating Biophilic Design Principles

When designing with biophilic design principles in mind, it may be easy to fall back on connecting with nature by using a lot of greenery and plants. However, as van der Veen notes, “Not everything needs to look like a log cabin. Design doesn’t have to literally look natural to be biophilic. Biophilia can be a very urban experience.”

And, as Walker says, really good architecture and smart urban design already integrate biophilic design without specifically calling it out. “However, those projects are few and far between,” he says. “Therefore, it is important to begin infusing biophilic design of all scales into places that already exist and into all building typologies.”

Adds Teal, “Biophilic design has given us a framework for creating really interesting and innovative design, patterns and new uses for materials, but it’s important to remember that it’s not an aesthetic or stylistic choice, but an outcome that helps nature and people thrive.”