BIOPHILIC DESIGN (audio)
October 21, 2011 – “I have an office in downtown Seattle, but I often don’t go into it, because it just looks at a—a wall of a building and I feel claustrophopic.”
Dr. Judith Heerwagen’s sentiments are not entirely surprising, considering her interest in the built environment began while studying macaque monkeys at the Woodland Park Zoo during graduate school. As a student, Heerwagen witnessed behavioral shifts among animals as their facilities transformed from visually oppressive, confined metal cages to more naturalistic environments. Animals appeared more in control of their behavior, their environment, and, most importantly, their health. Costs associated with maintaining the animals’ health decreased; unburdened by the stress of ill-animals, and the zoo found that the number of visitors increased dramatically due to the more pleasant and verdant landscapes. As a young researcher, Heerwagen was able to correlate the animal’s psychological well-being with the transformation of place, but were lessons learned from the zoo relevant in the jungles of concrete, glass and urbanism?
The question—to which Heerwagen would answer “yes”—lies at the core of an emerging field known as Biophilic Design. Biophilic design is a design approach that integrates nature and natural processes into the built environment to maintain, enhance and restore the benefits of each. In another word, biophilic design is innate. “We give flowers to people who are sick—we give them as gifts and so forth—so there does seem to be an intuitive sense of this, but I think that what happens is that intuition often just stops when it comes down to economic decisions,” says Heerwagen. “We know that it matters, but we don’t design [spaces] as if we knew that.”
In her accompanying audio, Heerwagen highlights powerful natural design strategies architects can use, discusses the value of biophilic design and connects health-design with sustainability.
Like the broader picture of health-design, biophilic design is in its relative infancy. Owners, academics and architects can recognize its design influence—in Frank Lloyd Wright’s portfolio, Kahn’s Jonas Salk Institute and in many AIA members’ own work—but find it more difficult to expressly articulate biophilic design goals.
In the chapter “Sensory Richness,” in the book Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life, Heerwagen and co-author Burt Gregory outline seven attributes of nature to inform biophilic design: sensory richness, motion, serendipity, variations on a theme, resilience, sense of freeness, and prospect and refuge. We innately appreciate these qualities in nature, and value their recurrence in design.
“I was at a daylight symposium in Geneva, Switzerland in May, and one of the designers was talking about how he used light so that […] the light came into the building in a particular way and shown on columns within the building only on that one day a year,” recounts Heerwagen. Certainly, the research supporting lighting’s integral role in health-design is well-documented by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Lighting Research Center and others, but Heerwagen’s anecdote captures the innate emotional and psychological connection we have with light. Serendipity can be physical—finding a well-formed skipping stone beside a creek—or more ephemeral; biophilic design encourages both.
Listen to Heerwagen discuss serendipity, sensory richness, prospect and refuge, and other strategies in her accompanying audio.
Simple solutions, well-applied, can affect not only individuals, but the general health of the community; research presented at the 7th World Congress on Design and Health and the work of the various Departments of Health, the Center for Disease Control, the Academy on Architecture for Health, and countless researchers and non-profits confirm this. For architects and decision-makers nevertheless struggling to promote health-design, Heerwagen offers this advice, “The evidence is so compelling, I think it’s up to people to explain why they don’t do it, rather than having researchers constantly tell them that it’s important.”
Design at any level can be transformative; it can transform the way we construct buildings, the way we live, and what we value. With the wealth of research that continues to be championed by AIA’s America’s Design and Health Initiative and partner organizations, design needs next to change the social conscious. Health-design, in our homes, workplaces and communities, needs to become a social issue on par with the closely related topic of sustainability.
Part of the extraordinary success of the sustainable movement has been it’s ability to leverage social ethos to become ubiquitous among contemporary culture. Biophilic design, intimately connected with nature, challenges sustainable practices to go further; to look beyond low-impact environmental objectives to restorative endeavors that enhance people and the built environment’s positive relationship to nature.
“We are intuitively connected to what makes a habitable environment and a big component of that is water,” Heerwagen explains. “We need clean water water and vegetation—green vegetation—that actually is productive, that produces fruits, berries, and things that you can eat.” Beyond a grass lawn or green roof, biophilic design embraces the productivity of nature to create spaces people want to be in, and need. That need—the need for natural processes in design—extends beyond the high priority places biophilia has already seen adoption in, such as hospitals.
“I think there are ways of integrating biophilic design, but I would be most concerned about places where there’s vulnerability,” Heerwagen says. These places—retirement centers, clinics, even Heerwagen’s own garden—vary by person, but each has the opportunity to sustain individual and environmental health.
In an accompanying podcast, Dr. Judith Heerwagen discusses biophilic design and architecture. She highlights the power natural design elements have in transforming space and user response. The podcast is available here. Additional resources and articles can be found at www.aia.org/cvd/