Biophilia in Practice: Buildings that Connect People with Nature
Biophilia, or human beings' inherent love for nature, has been called "the missing link in sustainable design."
July 9, 2006
Outside the window a phoebe was bringing food to her nest under the eaves. I had positioned myself next to the window in the small lecture room as I always try to do at meetings—when I am fortunate enough to be in a meeting facility with windows. Being able to glance out the window from time to time helps me relax and, I think, even focus on the topic at hand—as counterintuitive as that might at first sound.
What differed with this meeting was that its focus was on just this topic: Bringing Buildings to Life: A Symposium on the Theory, Science and Practice of Biophilic Building Design. While occasionally resting my eyes on the wooded countryside of the rural Rhode Island conference center, I was listening to the world’s leading experts talk about what should be a core tenet of sustainable design.
This article takes a look at biophilia—literally a love for nature—and how this concept can inform building design. Applicable to all buildings where people live, work, or learn, biophilia is referred to by symposium organizer Stephen Kellert, Ph.D., of Yale University, as “the missing link in sustainable design.” While many of the leading examples of green design incorporate aspects of biophilic design, many, unfortunately, do not—something that we should remedy as we move forward in the green building movement. This article addresses both the underpinnings of this design philosophy and specific strategies for “bringing buildings to life.”
Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, Ph.D., coined the term biophilia in his book by the same name (Harvard University Press, 1984), arguing that human beings have an innate and evolutionarily based affinity for nature. He defined the term as “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.”
Kellert, who coedited The Biophilia Hypothesis with Wilson (Island Press, 1993) and more recently wrote Building for Life (Island Press, 2005), defines the concept of biophilia in the latter book as “a complex of weak genetic tendencies to value nature that are instrumental in human physical, material, emotional, intellectual, and moral well-being. Because biophilia is rooted in human biology and evolution, it represents an argument for conserving nature based on long-term self-interest.”
Judith Heerwagen, Ph.D., a psychologist whose research has focused on the relationship between buildings and psychological well-being and who has written widely on biophilia, told participants of the Bringing Buildings to Life symposium that “biophilia evolved to guide functional behaviors associated with finding, using, and enjoying natural resources that aided survival and reproductive fitness—and avoiding those that are harmful.” Biophilia, she suggests, evolved as an adaptive mechanism to protect people from hazards and to help them access such resources as food, water, and shelter. This translates in present conditions into the strong preference people exhibit for features that suggest those evolutionary roots. “People will fight to keep biophilic features,” Heerwagen says, describing competition in commercial buildings for offices with views to the outdoors. In workstations without views, people adapt by surrounding themselves with potted plants, images of nature, and nature-focused screen savers on their computers.
We care about biophilia in building design—or we should care—for two primary reasons. First, it is becoming increasingly well demonstrated that biophilic elements have real, measurable benefits relative to such human performance metrics as productivity, emotional well-being, stress reduction, learning, and healing. And second, from an environmental standpoint, biophilic features foster an appreciation of nature, which, in turn, should lead to greater protection of natural areas, eliminate pollution, and maintain a clean environment. Both the measurable benefits of biophilia and the less tangible arguments are discussed in greater detail below.
The most clearly demonstrated benefits of biophilia are related to health and healing. If the biophilia hypothesis is correct, all human beings have carried its stamp on their genes for millennia. Indeed, the historical record reflects that the potential for biophilic features to produce positive, measurable outcomes on human health and healing has been understood for centuries. As long as 2,000 years ago, according to Richard Louv in the book Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books, 2005), Chinese Taoists recognized that gardens and greenhouses were beneficial to health. Leonard Maeger, writing in the English Gardener in 1699, recommended spending time in a garden: “There is no better way to preserve your health.” In 1859, the pioneering British nurse Florence Nightingale wrote in Notes on Nursing (reprinted by Scholarly Publishing Office, University of Michigan Library, 2005) that “variety of form and brilliancy of colour in the objects presented to patients are an actual means of recovery.”
More recently, Roger Ulrich, Ph.D., a professor of architecture and landscape architecture at Texas A&M University, has quantified the medical benefits of views of nature. In a landmark study, published in 1984, Ulrich showed that patients recovering from gallbladder surgery recovered more quickly and required less pain medication if they had a view of trees outside their windows than if they looked out on a brick wall (see EBN ). Such benefits have clear economic advantages.
Ulrich explained to EBN a number of ways in which biophilic design may alleviate pain: “Exposure to nature appears to reduce pain through different types of mechanisms, including distraction and stress reduction. Distraction theory holds that pain absorbs attention; the more attention devoted to pain, the greater the experienced intensity. If patients are diverted by or become engrossed in a pleasant nature view, they allocate less attention to pain, and accordingly the intensity is reduced,” he says.
“A second mechanism,” says Ulrich, “is suggested by the well-documented finding that viewing nature effectively lowers stress. When stress is lessened, levels of stress hormones, such as norepinephrine, often are lowered as well, and this may alleviate the experienced intensity of pain.”
When contact with nature involves exposure to natural light or sunlight, yet another pain-reduction mechanism may come into play, says Ulrich. “Sunlight exposure elevates concentrations of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that inhibits pain pathways in the central nervous system.”
Surprisingly, despite fairly clear evidence of medical benefits from biophilic measures, very little research has been conducted to verify these outcomes. Ulrich told participants of Bringing Buildings to Life that there are still only about 30 pertinent studies on the relationship between views of nature and healing—despite the potential billions of dollars in healthcare cost savings that such features could achieve.
Despite the limited available data, many hospital planners have taken the message of nature contact seriously. At the Christus St. Michael Health Care Center in Texarkana, Texas, for example, every patient room looks out on a natural, outdoor scene. The Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan, includes a garden atrium that the hospital’s website describes as incorporating light, water, and greenery “to connect patients and visitors with the healing powers of nature.”
When patients cannot be provided with an actual view of nature or direct contact with nature, representing nature in photographic images and other artwork has also been shown to be beneficial—though the results are not quite as dramatic. Nature photographs and artwork of natural scenes are common in the more progressive hospitals today. Expanding on this concept is the SkyCeiling™, an illuminated ceiling system that provides an illusion of an attractive sky scene that helps people relax—see sidebar, below.
Visual images can affect health either positively or negatively. At the Bringing Buildings to Life symposium, Ulrich described a 1992 study he was involved with that examined rates of recovery from heart surgery with different wall treatments in the recovery rooms. Rooms had either bare white walls or various types of artwork, including photographs of deep, dark forests, photographs of open landscape vistas, and rectilinear abstract art. Ulrich and his fellow researchers found that the closed forest images resulted in little difference to patients compared with the blank wall, while the open landscape scenes dramatically reduced pain and anxiety. Significantly, the abstract art hindered patient recovery; in fact, according to Ulrich, the negative effect of the abstract art was so significant that the researchers discontinued that aspect of the experiment in the interest of patient health.
Attention and learning
In Last Child in the Woods, Louv quotes a number of experts suggesting that “nature may be useful as a therapy for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)” and that lack of contact with nature may be one of the contributors to the dramatic rise in ADHD among children in recent years—an idea he refers to as “nature-deficit disorder.” While much of the evidence Louv cites is anecdotal, it is compelling—and leads him to conclude that “yes, more research is needed, but we do not have to wait for it.” He argues that we should be providing much greater contact with nature in learning environments.
The Heschong Mahone Group, Inc., in its most recent study of daylighting in schools, found statistically significant evidence that access to views through windows in school classrooms improves student performance by 5% to 10% (see EBN ). While earlier studies had found a correlation of faster learning with higher daylighting levels, this study found a stronger correlation of faster learning with views to the outdoors than with daylighting levels.
Productivity, creativity, and satisfaction
In almost any building type, there are benefits to improving the performance and satisfaction of the people working or living there. We often lump the wide-ranging benefits of human performance under the rubric of
productivity. While measuring productivity is difficult, there is growing interest in doing so. Researchers from the Rocky Mountain Institute and Carnegie Mellon University have reported significant improvements in productivity as a result of green building features, including daylighting and views to the outdoors (see EBN
). Even more difficult than demonstrating whether certain building features boost productivity is figuring out why. At the Bringing Buildings to Life symposium, Kellert cited studies suggesting that contact with nature improves cognitive functioning on higher-order tasks, which may explain some of the effects.
A number of researchers have examined whether there is a connection between creativity and childhood contact with nature. Louv cites various studies that show connections between time spent with nature during childhood and creativity as adults. In her 1977 book The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood (Spring Publications, reprinted in 1993), Edith Cobb reported on her studies of childhood experiences of some 300 autobiographical descriptions of childhood written by people who gained recognition in adulthood as creative thinkers. “She concluded,” wrote Louv, “that inventiveness and imagination of nearly all of the creative people she studied was rooted in their early experiences in nature.”
Appreciation for nature
From an environmental standpoint, one of the most compelling reasons to incorporate biophilic design features in buildings is to inspire interest in—and appreciation of—nature. This appreciation, in turn, can motivate people to protect the environment and preserve natural areas.
Richard Forman, Ph.D., a professor of landscape ecology at Harvard University and a widely published author in the landscape design and planning fields, argues that, in addition to the anthropocentric benefits of buildings, biophilic design offers significant benefits to nature itself. “Structures can be designed to provide habitat for targeted rare species, to enhance surrounding natural systems, to attract the richness of fine-scale nature on the texture of building surfaces, and even to educate people—leading to nature protection elsewhere,” he told EBN.
The potential of buildings to inspire and motivate people about the importance of natural systems is particularly important with children. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Schoolyard Habitats® program () provides educators and school administrators with a framework for using the school grounds as an interdisciplinary teaching resource that also enhances natural habitats on the school property. To date, NWF has certified some 2,000 schoolyard habitat sites in 49 states in the U.S. Not insignificantly, studies have found dramatic improvements in student behavior, attendance, attitudes, and performance in schools with environment-based curriculum such as NWF Schoolyard Habitats, according to the organization.
Biophilia and Building Design
Efforts to put people in closer contact with nature can focus on building design, landscape design, interior design, or any combination of the three. Many of the strategies are simply common sense. Once the benefits of biophilic design are understood, the strategies for achieving it are fairly intuitive. See the table, “A Sampling of Biophilic Design Strategies”.
The SkyCeiling system described in the sidebar above is a popular strategy for easing stress, particularly in healthcare facilities—but it comes with a penalty of increased energy consumption. Incorporating this biophilic feature may make it more difficult to achieve energy conservation goals. Other strategies, such as large glazing areas of high-visible-transmittance glass, operable windows, and indoor-outdoor spaces that connect people with nature, may carry even more significant energy penalties.
On a different level, providing large open areas around buildings—to serve the evolutionarily based desire to look out on savannah-like vistas that many biophilia proponents suggest we have—may conflict with the strategy of high-density development, or may encourage sprawl and development of the most beautiful greenfield sites.
These conflicts are real, but they are surmountable. By understanding these potential conflicts and working with integrated design teams to address them, all of these goals can be achieved. Designers may need to work a little harder to maximize energy efficiency elsewhere in the building to compensate for some energy penalties with biophilic designs, and building owners or developers may have to invest more in ecological restoration and landscaping to turn urban brownfield sites into beautiful biophilic assets, but these are doable. Biophilic design involves understanding potential conflicts and achieving the right balance.
At the same time, significant synergies can be achieved with biophilic design. Green roofs, for example, can afford contact with natural features in an urban environment while also reducing the volume and impacts of stormwater runoff and helping to mitigate the urban heat-island effect (see EBN for more on green roofs). Restoring damaged ecosystems around a building benefits the ecological health of the area, and walking or jogging trails around a corporate office may benefit worker health. Increased glazing areas (key to biophilic design), when implemented effectively, can reduce energy use for electric lighting and cooling, and natural ventilation (in some climates) can reduce energy consumption for heating, ventilating, and air conditioning.
Convincing clients to spend the money necessary to incorporate biophilic features is a challenge. Robin Guenther, FAIA, principal of New York City-based Guenther 5 Architects, which specializes in healthcare design, says that biophilic features often seem like decoration or ornamentation. “People haven’t connected them to some core human need,” she told EBN. She often has trouble convincing her healthcare clients to invest in such strategies.
While many of the benefits of biophilic design may be hard to attach specific value to, the benefits are real and ultimately quantifiable, according to experts EBN spoke with. Vivian Loftness, FAIA, of Carnegie Mellon University, argues that both the benefits of biophilic design and problems experienced with conventional design can be measured. There are real costs associated with headaches, asthma, and depression, she told EBN. “You can actually translate those problems into dollars.”
An interesting question comes up in the implementation of biophilic design: to what extent is it necessary for the biophilic elements to be real? Are artificial representations of nature—such as SkyCeiling, artificial plants in a building, and wall-hung images of nature—as good as the real thing?
Some suggest that it is not views of nature, per se, that elicit the positive responses to biophilic design, but something about those views, objects, or images. James Wise, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and adjunct professor of environmental sciences at Washington State University–Tri-Cities, suggests that it is mathematically defined fractal patterns. Fractals are complex geometric shapes that appear to repeat at finer scales; such shapes are often found in nature and can be defined mathematically. Wise believes that the beneficial psychological effects of fractals have the same evolutionary basis as other aspects of biophilia but that these benefits can be achieved by fractals alone, obviating the need for actual images of nature. The implication is that we should incorporate fractal-patterned fabrics, wallcoverings, and artwork—as well as fractal patterns from nature (such as clouds, ocean waves, tree branches, or ferns) —into our buildings.
The relative merits of real vs. simulated nature is a hot topic of debate. Guenther is of two minds about this. On the one hand, she has a negative reaction to the representations of nature. “It’s a little too kitsch, a little too contrived,” she told EBN. On the other hand, she has healthcare clients who swear by the benefits of products like SkyCeiling, and her research into biophilia and simulating natural features has lessened her concerns. “It doesn’t have to be believable to have an impact on people,” she said. The general attitude coming out of the
Bringing Buildings to Life symposium was that the artificial representations of nature aren’t as good as the real thing, but they are beneficial. Ulrich said that nature simulations are increasingly common in hospital settings, though actual views of nature are better.
Advancing Biophilia in Buildings
Moving forward with the important concept of biophilic design could be significantly boosted through three efforts: research into biophilia and human performance, education about biophilic design, and incentives to spur the implementation of these concepts.
There is clearly a need for more research into the human performance benefits of biophilic design. Given the magnitude of the benefits that can be realized through biophilic design—especially the healing benefits—it is remarkable that there hasn’t been more interest in carrying out research to prove such associations. With healthcare design, Guenther puts a high priority on “continued research into the benefits of light and nature on healing.” Research to date has been hampered by the lack of buildings to study that incorporate biophilic features, but that is changing, she says.
The evidence collected to date is compelling, though integrating biophilic design strategies into buildings on a more widespread basis will require significantly more scientific data showing tangible benefits of these features. Federal and state agencies should take the lead in funding this research, but health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and insurance companies should get involved as well. Loftness has been working to convince the national Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund such efforts. “The NIH should be jumping in with two feet to study the long-term effects of buildings on health,” she says. She has put forward a proposal for both NIH and NSF to devote 1% of their budgets to address building science and building-related health issues. She believes that this should be long-term funding—paying for university research programs and supporting Ph.D. candidates. She expects that the U.S. Green Building Council’s new Research Committee will play an important role in advancing such priorities.
Even as research is carried out, efforts should be directed toward education about biophilic design. Architecture schools can play a big role in this, as can continuing education programs for the design community and healthcare community. The symposium Bringing Buildings to Life should be replicated on a wide level for both the design community and specialized building segments, such as healthcare and education.
Finally, there are opportunities for spurring the integration of biophilic design into buildings. The LEED® Rating System currently rewards certain features that relate to biophilia, including daylighting and green roofs, but there may be opportunities for more directly recognizing biophilic designs. LEED version 3, which is currently in development, could offer points for biophilic features. The next version of the Green Guide for Health Care™ rating system (see EBN ) will expand its “places of respite” credit based on the growing body of knowledge about health benefits of both direct and simulated contact with nature.
For more information:
Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection by Stephen R. Kellert.
Island Press, Washington, D.C.,
2005; 250 pages.
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2006;
Special thanks to Jenifer Seal Cramer and Benjamin Shepherd for input on the Biophilic Design Strategies table.