Biophilic Design: Indulging Our Love of Life

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New biophilia metrics pin down what it means to engage the love of nature through design.

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The mysteriousness of a curving pathway may tap into our innate curiosity to explore what’s ahead.

Photo: Aconcagua. License: CC BY 3.0.

Staring into a fireplace or watching waves crash against the shore can provide some of life’s most deeply comforting moments, but it is hard to explain exactly why. The theory of biophilia, popularized by the scientist E.O. Wilson, attempts to explain these experiences by contending that humans have an innate desire—even an evolutionary need—to connect with nature. We’re hardwired to seek out the natural resources that sustain life, the theory goes, so interaction with these elements triggers feelings of well-being.

When the built environment isolates us from these connections, we are more stressed and less productive, and we even take longer to heal from injuries (see “Biophilia in Practice: Buildings That Connect People with Nature”). On the other hand, certain spatial and design strategies can provide restorative benefits by bringing nature back in or by triggering the same physiological responses by simulating nature’s features.

A set of principles adopted by the Living Building Challenge encompasses roughly 70 biophilic design attributes, spanning from utilizing egg-shaped or tubular forms to building a historical connection to place. According to Bill Browning of Terrapin Bright Green, these can be summed up in three broad categories:

• Nature in the space—This includes both visual and non-visual connections to nature, such as a window with a view, natural sounds and smells, the presence of natural light, and airflow variability.

• Natural analogues—Incorporating natural materials like stone or bamboo satisfies our desire for complexity and order. Simulated natural shapes and fractal patterns, such as a leaf pattern etched onto a glass door, have also been shown to have beneficial effects, even though they are created artificially.

• Nature of the space—The form of a space can create a sense of prospect or refuge (which our forebears prized for safety) or inspire mystery or a sense of peril (which can trigger pleasurable feelings of anticipation). Examples include a cozy loft that allows you to watch all that goes on below or a curving pathway that entices you to see what is just around the corner.

Some of the mechanisms through which these principles operate are still unclear, according to Browning. Researchers are just beginning to explore leads suggesting that design elements that inspire mystery or a sense of peril can trigger the same anticipatory response as when one listens to a new piece of music. There is also ambiguity about why humans are attracted to materials like wood, Browning explained. Despite recent neurological studies mapping responses in the brain, “We are not sure if it is the semantics of looking at a piece of wood and perceiving it as ‘tree’ or if people are responding to the fractal patterns.”

Nevertheless, the metrics do help designers identify which strategies elicit pleasure responses, an effect that can be magnified if several biophilic strategies are utilized together. By incorporating these principles, designers can use our innate love of life to ensure people love their buildings.

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March 3, 2014