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Biophilia Becomes a Design Standard

Biophilia Becomes a Design Standard

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    Stephen R. Kellert

Stephen R. Kellert, professor emeritus, Yale University, views our fractured relationship with nature as a design problem rather than an unavoidable aspect of modern life. He responds to man-made environmental problems with practical and creative solutions based on reestablishing conviviality with nature in the built environment.

In addition, he may have quietly planted the seeds to the next step forward in architectural standards when he coined the term “biophilic design,” which means an architectural response to how we design buildings and neighborhoods cut off from nature, no matter how efficient, and how much we suffer in consequence. Rick Fedrizzi, president, CEO and founding chairman of the U.S. Green Building Council, describes biophilic design as, “… sure to be the next great design journey of our times.” Fedrizzi writes, “When nature inspires our architecture--not just how it looks but how buildings and communities actually function--we will have made great strides as a society.”

This stride involves stepping back to acknowledge that our relationship with the built environment goes beyond the basics of health, safety, and even energy efficiency. In Kellert’s view, the greatest challenge we’re facing is how to live in compatible and even harmonious relation to the natural world. The simple answers on how to achieve this include using fewer resources, producing less pollution, and generating as much clean energy as we consume. But will that be enough to accomplish sustainability? Kellert believes the prevalent approach to sustainability is still missing a key ingredient: nature itself.

“In our attempt to create a more sustainable environment, we attack the negative consequences of our artificial life on the natural world, but we have done nothing to bridge the widening gap between humans and nature itself,” he says. “We now regard keeping higher vertebrates in old-fashioned, barren cages as inhumane. We outlawed the old zoos and replaced them with exquisite reproductions of natural animal environments, but we keep humans in inhumane environments. We give them a computer with a nice screen saver and maybe a poster of a potted plant, and if it’s energy efficient, we call it ‘Gold.’”

In Kellert’s words, “People don’t live by efficiency alone.” Low-impact design as exemplified by LEED standards rarely enhances people’s physical and mental wellbeing when it fails to address the beneficial experience of nature. “By ignoring the human need to connect with nature and place, low-impact designs are often experientially and aesthetically deficient,” says Kellert. But this does mean he eschews conservation, he believes this is important, but only half the equation.

He describes the amalgamation of low-impact design, exemplified in LEED, with biophilic design principles that “contain the essence of natural objects without being exact copies,” as a new standard, Restorative Environmental Design, a means for achieving true and lasting sustainability.

In an effort to codify Restorative Environmental Design, Kellert developed a set of biophilic standards based on six elements and 75 attributes, calling it “a pattern language to help people who want a checklist.” The standard provides a basis, but you cannot check off 10 things and automatically have biophilic design, as you would qualify for LEED or Energy Star. According to Kellert, biophilic design has to make sense in context, and it must make sense culturally. The six elements of biophilic design are:

1. Environmental features. Characteristics and features of the natural environment such as sunlight, fresh air, plants, animals, water, soils, landscapes, natural colors, and natural materials such as wood and stone.

2. Natural shapes and forms. The simulation and mimicking of shapes and forms found in nature. These include botanical and animal forms such as leaves, shells, trees, foliage, ferns, honeycombs, insects, other animal species, and body parts. Examples include tree-like columns rising in a building interior to support a roof that projects the feeling of a forest canopy; building shapes that simulate the appearance of bird wings; ornamentation suggestive of a natural shape like a crystal or geological feature.

3. Natural patterns and processes. Functions, structures, and principles characteristic of the natural world, especially those that have been instrumental in human evolution and development. For example, designs that stimulate a variety of senses, simulate the qualities of organic growth, facilitate the organization of complexity, or reflect the processes of aging and the passage of time.

4. Light and space. Spatial and lighting features that evoke the sense of being in a natural setting. These include natural lighting, a feeling of spaciousness, and more subtle expressions such as sculptural qualities of light and space, and the integration of light, space, and mass.

5. Place-based relationships. Connections between buildings and the distinctive geographical, ecological, and cultural characteristics of particular places and localities. This can be achieved through incorporating geological and landscape features, the use of local and indigenous materials, and connections to particular historic and cultural traditions.

6. Evolved human relationships to nature. Basic inborn inclinations to affiliate with nature such as the feeling of being in a coherent and legible environment, the sense of prospect and refuge, the simulation of living growth and development, and evoking various biophilic values.

Kellert says that we are living the greatest migration in human history, with millions moving from the countryside to the city over the next 50 years. Yet we come to the city with an essential need to relate to the natural world on a daily basis. “We need to be very clever about how we provide this opportunity in the built environment and it’s going to require very clever, brilliant designers to balance the contradictory demands.”

Kellert admits there are times when the biophilic objectives will conflict with the most energy-efficient design, “But you must try to have your cake and eat it too,” he says. “It’s tougher, but if you want sustainability, you must weigh these objectives and blend them.”

For more on biophilic design, see Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World (Stephen R. Kellert, Yale University Press, 2012, in preparation); Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life (co-editors, J. Heerwagen, M. Mador, John Wiley, 2008); Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection (Stephen R. Kellert , Island Press 2005); and a 60-minute documentary video, “Biophilic Design: the Architecture of Life” (http://www.biophilicdesign.net/; http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/).