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A Deep Dive into Biophilic Design

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

In its simplest form, biophilic design is about connecting people to nature within the built environment. In this month’s issue, we take a deep dive into biophilic design, exploring the concept in both our Special Feature and Building Profile.

Our Special Feature, “Building for Biophilic Design,” takes a closer look at what biophilic design is, the framework that helps guide the built environment, and how building products fit in.

Bill Browning, managing partner at Terrapin Bright Green, Washington, D.C., notes that when looking at the cost of an office building, we tend to focus on energy use. “When I look at the whole cost of a green building, or any office building,” he explains, “rent is about 9 percent of the cost, energy is about 1 percent of the cost, and the rest is the cost of the people in the space: their salaries, benefits and such. “It really behooves us to get around a 1 percent gain in productivity, which is equivalent to the entire energy bill. Let’s focus on what we can do to improve people’s heath and well-being in that space and improve the productivity. And so using biophilic design, ways of connecting people to nature, helps supports that.”

Browning goes on to say that we’re learning that different experiences in nature can elicit different outcomes. “There are some things that help lower stress, there are other things that help support cognitive function, others that help with mood and stress,” he explains. “With a number of projects and more designers, what we’re seeing is a process of asking who are the users and what are the experiences we want to create for people in this space? What are the outcomes? Is it lower blood pressure? Is it lower heart rate? Is it improved cognitive function? What are those outcomes you’re trying to achieve in the space? These answers help you filter which of the patterns you might want to include in the project. It becomes in effect, a branch of evidence-based design.”

Susie Teal, senior associate, COOKFOX Architects, New York City, says biophilic design touches on a few important design attributes: first, the connection to nature and its positive effects on occupant well-being; 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.

“At COOKFOX, we have used the framework to try to create outcome-based design with a goal of building spaces that support mental and physical well-being,” Teal says. “While some designers gravitate toward more technologically oriented solutions, we are focused on using natural spaces and natural cycles as much as possible. We design spaces relying on daylight and access to the outdoors, and highlight rapidly renewable natural materials, and natural textures and patterns. As an example of our exploration of natural patterns, we reinterpret foliage patterns as an architectural detail or biomimetic abstractions to mimic a forest floor or pebble-strewn beach.”

Diada Cristo Rey

In this month’s Building Profile, “One with Nature,” we take a look at biophilic design in action. Diada Cristo Rey is a low-density ecological community in Guanajuato, Mexico, with more than 240 hectares of green areas, 5 kilometers of walking trails and 25,000 rescued native plants. Architecture firm Lintel, Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, is behind Diada. Adrián Lugo, general director at Lintel, says Diada is founded on the preservation of the ecosystems as well as the efficient management of resources. To build the 600 residences within Diada, Lintel uses its Ethos proprietary construction solution to design and build the eco-friendly community. 

To learn more about biophilic design, and how buildings can be designed to biophilic design principles, here are some available resources: Terrapin Bright Green offers a variety of resources including white papers and case studies on its website at www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/publications/.

For examples of how to design buildings following biophilic design principles, take a look at the book, “Creating Biophilic Buildings.” Written by Amanda Sturgeon, FAIA, LFA, LEED Fellow, CEO of the Seattle-based International Living Future Institute (ILFI), the book analyzes 14 project case studies against biophilic design attributes to demonstrate how the projects have achieved biophilic design. “The 14 projects are all expressions of the place, climate and culture—none of them could be built in any other place,” she says. “Connecting to the place was a key design driver.”

Biophilic design is an important aspect of the Living Building Challenge. To help design teams with achieving compliance with the Biophilic Environment imperative, the ILFI published a guidebook, “Biophilic Design Framework Guidance.” A PDF can be found under LBC resources on the ILFI website, living-future.org.

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