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Rediscovering Biophilic Design

Biophilic design is not new.  While the use of the somewhat elusive term “biophilic design” has been on the rise over the past few years, the concept is not new to us.

So, what is biophilic design? Biophilia means “love of life” (1).   It understands that, like all other living things on this planet, humans are part of a larger ecosystem.  We have evolved in response to our natural surroundings, and although we have moved into urban settings that often remove us from nature, we still have an inherent connection to natural systems and processes.  Humans have adapted to systems such as changing sunlight, moving trees or wind, sound, texture and detail, and the interaction between these systems (2, 3, 4).  These systems are how we process information about our environment, and we thrive on those details.

Biophilic design is an approach that applies our connection to nature to the built environment. Our first built structures were based on our basic human needs, providing us with shelter and proximity to food and water.  These shelters used locally available materials and were intimately connected to nature.  We built with the materials that surrounded us and, in turn, our built environments provided a complexity that benefited us psychologically.  We adapted and evolved our architecture over time and although the structures changed, our use of natural materials, daylighting, details and natural ventilation kept many of our ancient buildings highly biophilic.

 

Hoi An, Viet Nam & Jerusalem, Israel

Figure 1: Hoi An, Viet Nam
Figure 2: Jerusalem, Israel: A walk through the Old City

One example is the UNESCO World Heritage town of Hoi An, Viet Nam, filled with beautiful color, stone and wood structures, details, changing light, plants, and natural motifs.  Another example is the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel which is built nearly entirely from Jerusalem stone, a combination of local limestones.  Here, the stone itself is biophilic, connecting one to the local landscape and history of place.  Fossils and hand cutting allow for gradually shifting complexity in pattern, color and varied effects of light.  These cities are special places for many reasons, arguably because the biophilic qualities draw us in, urge us to explore, and connect us more deeply to a sense of place.

Throughout history, the more removed we became from natural environments, the less reflective of nature our built environments became.  Although we may not have been consciously aware of the gradual disconnecting, this changing environment negatively affects us psychologically, physiologically and emotionally.  To our benefit, this disconnect has allowed us to understand the problem we now need to solve.

At the time the aforementioned structures were built, the builders weren’t using the term “biophilic design.” They were merely drawing inspiration and materials from their surroundings.  Today, however, a conscious effort has to be made to reconnect us to the natural environments in which we exist in order to help facilitate higher wellbeing in our built environtments. Drawing inspiration from the beloved architecture of the past, imbued with intrinsic design traditions, it is now up to designers to apply these ideas to our current buildings and spaces.  Sometimes, in order to better understand a concept, we have to “put it in a box,” so to speak, and label it.  The “biophilic design box” informs us on how to use our innate connection to nature to design our built environment with human wellness in mind.

With this term, we are able to gather the benefits found in our connection to nature into a field of study, research, and project deliverables. From the period of disconnect with nature came a resurgence of focus on the human aspect of architecture.  We now better understand how to create spaces that are the most beneficial for the people who use them. We can label this box with whatever term we like, with an understanding that with this knowledge we can have a positive and lasting impact on the people we design spaces for.

References:

1. Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia (Reprint edition). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

2. Friedman, B., Freier, N. G., Kahn Jr., P. H., Lin, P., & Sodeman, R. (2008). Office window of the future?—Field-based analyses of a new use of a large display. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 66(6), 452–465. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhcs.2007.12.005

3. Kaplan, S. (1992). The Restorative Environment: Nature and Human Experience. In D. Relf (Ed.), The Role of Horticulture in Human Well-Being and Social Development (pp. 134–142). Portland, OR: Timber Press.

4. Salingaros, N. A. (1999). Architecture, Patterns, and Mathematics. Nexus Network Journal, 1. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/758827036?OpenUrlRefId=info:xri/sid:primo&accountid=465

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