Friday, June 1, 2012

Biophilic Building Design Held Back by Lack of Data

Biophilic design is still at the bleeding-edge of green building design and hasn’t taken off yet. The obstacle may be the lack of data on the impact of biophilic design on health and well-being. Or perhaps it’s because there still hasn’t been that one model site that makes current practice irrelevant. Other possible reasons: “collective ignorance” or a ”lack of imagination.” At a session at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) conference in Washington, D.C., some of early innovators in this field, Bill Browning, Founder, Terrapin Bright Green, Jason McClennan, CEO, International Living Future Institute / Cascadia Green Building Council, and Bob Berkebile, a principal at BNIM and an early green building innovator, discussed the many obstacles preventing more widespread use of these approaches and argued for rapidly stepping up research and promotion efforts.

Biophilia, which has been defined in earlier posts, is “the innate emotional affiliation of humans with all living things.” Defined by famed biologist, E.O. Wilson, the concept of biophilia has kicked off rich areas of research and practice in the fields of biophilic and bio- or eco-mimetic design among all kinds of designers.
To make the case for biophilic building design, Browning repeated arguments he has made at other conferences, but also highlighted some interesting example projects. Administrators at a U.S. post office building where people sorted mail kept careful records of how many pieces were actually sorted per hour. With the redesign of the building to let in natural sunlight, a biophilic design enhancement, ”levels of productivity went up dramatically.” In another project, Walmart tested the impact of sunlight, creating a store with one half with a regular roof, and the other half with a skylight. The sky-lit side had “much higher sales.”
He described how our opioid receptors tell us when we are having a biophilic reaction. For example, when we see a plain grey background, we don’t get much excitement. However, when we see a lush garden under a clear sky, with a foreground and background, paths, and water, our brain says “I like, I like, I like,” with our opioid receptors firing full blast.
Fractal patterns are something we also like. The dense organic network of forests, waves rippling on the ocean, or a roaring fire can be stared at for hours. And looking at these things may actually be not only interesting for our brains, but also soothing, emotionally. In Japan, there’s Shinri-yoku or “forest bathing,” which involves sitting out in a fractal-rich forest for a few hours to simply soak in the natural environment. In one Japanese study, stress hormones were found to simply “drop away in the forest.”

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