Blog Post

Biophilia in the Real World

Biophilia is supposed to be about our innate connection to nature. So where do TV windows and artificial breezes enter in?

Can you tell if this living wall is real or fake? Does it matter? Biophilia experts are reviewing the research and responding with their own ideas.

Photo: Spaceo. License: CC BY 2.0.
I should have known I was in for something unexpected when I walked into this year’s Greenbuild session on “biophilia”—humans’ love of living things—in a dark, windowless auditorium.

The irony of the setting was not lost on the four presenters of “Biophilia; Moving from Theory to Reality.” Amanda Sturgeon, vice president of the Living Building Challenge; Margaret Montgomery, principal of NBBJ; Mary Davidge, of Mary Davidge Associates; and Bill Browning, partner at Terrapin Bright Green, joked about how they hoped the lack of daylight wouldn’t lull us into an afternoon nap as they spoke.

Humor aside, the surroundings served as a reminder of the barriers that have mostly kept biophilic design in the realm of pie-in-the-sky ideas.  Dense urban forms mean that rolling vistas and soft, clean breezes are hard to come by. As the presenters spoke, it was clear that we have not found all the answers to dealing with real-world constraints—questions linger about the use of artificial nature, for example—but new metrics are beginning to broaden the reach of biophilic principles, making these design elements more achievable for more building types.

Does technology have a place in biophilic design?

Biophilic design focuses on the human response to nature (see “Biophilia in Practice: Buildings that Connect People with Nature”), but reactions are often difficult to quantify or trace to their source. Do we like seashells because of the texture, the patterns, or the colors? Research is helping to pin these answers down and provide backing for decisions that may have design and construction costs. However, quantifying the human response to nature has also raised the question of whether technology can be used to simulate the same connection.


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Browning brought up one 2010 study that found that, since sounds of traffic correlate closely with the sound of ocean waves, humans can be prompted to perceive the sounds of traffic as tranquil if they are primed by the image of a beach.

Another study by Peter Kahn et al., suggests that, although real nature is better than technological nature (a term Kahn uses to describe everything from wildlife television shows to robotic pets), technological nature is better than no nature. In an experiment that evaluated the stress levels of office workers with glass windows overlooking natural views compared to a group with plasma TVs displaying real-time images of a natural setting, the TVs helped the psychological well-being of the office workers—but only the group with the glass windows experienced lower heart-rates.

The University of Washington

“Thermal and airflow variability” is the concept of introducing a little natural variation into the mechanized comfort conditions that prevail in commercial interior spaces. Passive heating, cooling, and ventilation are often touted as biophilic, but can natural variations be effectively provided mechanically?

Browning relayed being at a convention center and feeling a gust of air as if “a door had just been opened.” He later found artificial scents and automated bursts of ventilation were being used to keep people invigorated and engaged. Scents have long been used for marketing purposes so that people associate pleasant feelings with a brand (ever walk into an Abercrombie & Fitch store and almost choke?), but they are one of the least-explored aspects of how biophilic designs can reproduce the sensory experience of being in nature.

Striking a balance with metrics

If the thought of relying on artificial systems to inspire feelings of connection to nature makes you uncomfortable, you are certainly not alone. All of the presenters agreed that it is better to incorporate real nature before thinking about automated or artificial systems. But toeing the line is difficult: after all, the point is to integrate the natural with our inherently technological infrastructure, and environmental degradation continually limits our options. Consequently, the newest metrics seem to aim for inclusivity, albeit still somewhat cerebral.

HB Lozito

The Living Building Challenge includes some expected metrics for biophilic design such as natural shapes and forms and light and space but, according to Sturgeon, also focuses on place-based relationships and “evolved human-nature relationships”. Sturgeon gave the example of IslandWood, an outdoor education center that teaches environmental stewardship but chose to embrace and commemorate the area’s logging history by suspending from the ceiling a replica of a massive saw blade. Focusing on the natural history of the place, rather than direct natural forms themselves, broadens what constitutes biophilic design.

At the request of Google, Terrapin Bright Green has also formulated a set of biophilic metrics (see “Green is Beautiful”), which consists of 14 principles categorized into three headings: nature in the space, natural analogues, and nature of the space.

Nature in the space includes some of the most basic tenets of biophilic design—dynamic and diffuse light, the presence of water, and visual connections to nature—but other elements leave much more room for interpretation. Natural analogues encompass biomorphic forms and patterns, such as natural wood finishes or spiral-like shell patterns, and nature of the space calls for areas to be designed to play off biological instincts—to feel sheltered or to inspire exploration, for example.

The takeaways

Research seems to be telling us that if we can’t have nature, then technological nature is better than nothing. But leaders in biophilic design don’t take that to mean they should blindly embrace artificiality. Instead, they have used this research to reaffirm how deeply we feel a connection to nature and have taken the hint that indirect experiences of nature offer benefits, too, responding by broadening the perception of biophilic design from literal depictions of nature to more inventive, project-specific forms.

Published December 5, 2013

(2013, December 5). Biophilia in the Real World. Retrieved from

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