• Bill Browning, founder of Terrapin Bright Green.
    Bill Browning, founder of Terrapin Bright Green.

Biophilia may not be a familiar term to most housing industry professionals, but the attraction to nature that is innate to all humans is an ancient concept that has relatively recently fallen out of practice, in large part from the myopic economic models of modern building design, construction, and operation.

Bill Browning and his associates at Terrapin Bright Green, a green building and real estate consultancy and design firm with offices in Washington, D.C., and New York, is out to bring biophilia back into the mainstream as an economic necessity, instead of a cost burden, to improve production and satisfaction. Browning’s perspective on sustainability and regenerative design goes deep, having worked for years with Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute and as a founding board member of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Terrapin’s recently released report, “The Economics of Biophilia,” relates a greater connection to nature with boosting productivity, an expense calculated as 112 times higher than energy costs in a typical workplace, among other financial, health, and behavioral benefits.

“We believe that incorporating nature into the built environment is not just a luxury, but a sound economic investment in health and productivity, based on well-researched neurological and physiological evidence,” writes Browning in the report’s introduction. “[There are] very low or no up-front cost [to] providing access to plants, natural views, daylight, and other biophilic design elements [that] provide very healthy returns.”

Ideally (and perhaps necessarily), he says, applying biophilic design principles begins in the master planning stage of a building or a community’s development, extending from compatible land use to individual homes and systems therein. “For most projects, we start by investigating the site’s ecosystem and biodiversity, especially historically,” says Browning, toward a matrix of site conditions past and present. “We need to know the history of a place so we can restore it and perform as well as when it was in its natural state.”

While that’s a stark departure from simply meeting LEED standards or going beyond the current energy code, Browning believes the process leads to a better place that still satisfies those goals. “It’s an aspirational conversation that will eventually lead to better energy savings and effective stormwater management, but in a much more interesting way and with a better connection to nature.”

Applied to a typical suburban plat, featuring a low ground plane similar to (and often built upon) a savannah of grasslands populated by small, widely spaced trees, a biophilia-based master plan would embrace that ecosystem instead of replacing or altering its legacy with shade trees and non-native plants.

“We can recreate and leverage the savannah’s ecosystem and still deliver a built environment that’s not only more comfortable and satisfying to our own nature, but also affordable to buy and live in,” says Browning.

Terrapin Bright Green is piloting the approach for a project in Manhattan, an effort that will inform and refine an ecosystem mapping process and database that Browning hopes to have available across the United States by 2020.

And he’s steadfast that his mission is not to discourage building, but simply make it better. “We’re not trying to take away buildings or not build, but instead build and operate in a way that replicates ecosystem scenarios that were in place before buildings came along,” he says. “We want to design and provide places that increase daily contact with nature for the people who live or work there.”

For more information about Terrapin Bright Green and to download a free PDF of “The Economics of Biophilia,” go to http://terrapinbrightgreen.com.

And if you’re curious about the company’s name, “Terrapin” (or turtle) is the core of Algonquin origin stories, and used out of respect for Browning’s and two other company partners’ cultural heritage; “Bright Green,” meanwhile, represents the company’s mission.