A recent screening of an in-progress film, The Architecture of Life by Stephen Kellert and Bill Finnegan at the Yestermorrow School in Waitsfield, Vermont, started me thinking about the connection — or more possibly the disconnection — between biophilic design and environmental design. The former focuses its efforts on the user, attempting to provide a better environment for living, in both seeking shelter and experiencing the natural world. The latter requires only that design address the external: the building’s impact on the environment. I would argue that when done right, environmental design should address both the external impacts and the user’s internal needs, as encompassed by the tenets of biophilic design.
Defining the Terms
For those of you that aren’t familiar with the idea of biophilia, it is a term that has been popularized in some fields while remaining virtually unknown in others. The concept, first introduced by Erich Fromm in 1964 and popularized by Edward O. Wilson in 1984, can be described as the biological need to connect with the natural world, or the attraction towards that which is alive. The idea of biophilic design is the natural extension of this concept, and posits that since humans inherently seek connections with the living world, architecture and design should nurture this contact in order to create a favorable environment for humans.
As someone working in the architectural field, understanding this concept is unquestionably important, but it is also important to the entire population. All of us are affected by the environment in which we live and work, even more so than we might realize. For most of us, the majority of our time is spent indoors, within these built environments. Though the statistics might be slightly different for Vermonters, the average American spends an almost inconceivable 90% of her/his time indoors. With this in mind, and understanding on a deeper level why some buildings are a joy in which to live and work, while others contribute to a negative experience, the importance of (and path to) seeding an architectural revolution becomes clear.
Telling the Story
Kellert and Finnegan’s movie is doing the important early work of collecting the anecdotes and the statistical knowledge base that starts to frame this new understanding of the built environment. A compelling storyline in the movie discusses the long-term benefits of building better schools, as taken from a 2006 report “Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits” by Gregory Kats.
The upfront cost of greening schools, while at least roughly following the tenets of biophilic design, is on average 2% more than not doing so, or an extra $3 per square foot. These well-designed schools provide better learning environments and ultimately higher test scores for their students, alongside the better recognized energy and water costs savings. What is more amazing in this study is the quantification of this small investment in green building, in terms of the potential future earnings of the students. The better learning environment and test scores on average result in a $49 per square foot increase in future earnings. As these long-term benefits of good design continue to be recognized, a transformative change could take place in the market, advancing our built environment into its next evolutionary stage.
Envisioning the Future
It is my hope that the stories of good design begin to reach a larger audience and spur more of us to request the best from our built environment. Offices no longer need to be windowless rooms filled with endless rows of cubicles, lit by flickering fluorescent lights. Hospital rooms need not be painted in sterile tones, filled only with bright blinking lights and beeping machinery with no thought of the outdoors or even a leaf moving on the plastic greenery decking the halls and waiting rooms. We have an ability to build better buildings, following the tenets of both biophilic and environmental design. The places we live and work can nurture the environment through the use of sustainable materials, by producing more energy than they consume, and by being places we truly want to spend time — as relaxing as a mountain spa, as vibrant as a bustling marketplace, and as productive as well-managed farmland.