By Sandra Gramley, principal at Platt/Whitelaw Architects, Inc.
The built environment plays a critical role in people’s health and wellbeing.
We are just beginning to find that when lacking natural elements, the spaces in which we live, work and play can foster fatigue, impair performance and spark symptoms of disease. However, by simply introducing natural lighting, outdoor views and natural greenery, we can enhance health and productivity.
Discovering ways to incorporate nature into our spaces may now be more important than ever.
People are spending an increased amount of time indoors and tethered to our electronic devices. In fact, according to the National Human Activity Pattern Survey, since 2001 the human race has spent some 90% of our time inside — be it at home, the office, school or while out in our communities.
Yet, during the pandemic many of us have found solace in nature, both by choice and necessity.
Why are we so connected to the natural world? No one knows for sure, but there is one theory that suggests there are innate, evolutionary reasons people seek out experiences in nature. The “biophilia” hypothesis was popularized by evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson in the 1980s after he observed how increasing rates of urbanization had led to a human disconnection with our natural environment.
Today, some 54% of the world’s population lives in urban environments separated from the natural world. This figure is expected to grow over the next two decades to about 70% or some two-thirds of the Earth’s population by 2050 — creating an even greater divide between humans and our natural habitats.
With increased urbanization an inevitable outcome, how can the design of our built environment ensure we recuperate our mental and physical wellbeing? Biophilic design may be the answer.
The fundamental connection humans have to nature has inspired designers to explore ways to reintroduce nature into our lives. With biophilic design, the natural world is playing a crucial role in the environments, and the architecture and interiors, in which we spend most of our time.
WHAT IS BIOPHILIC DESIGN?
Biophilic design emphasizes the human connection to nature and applies it to the built environment.
For more than 99% of our history, the human species has evolved and adapted to the natural world. As biophilia is fundamentally about these evolutionary tendencies, biophilic design focuses on the parts of nature that, over time, have contributed to the health and wellbeing of humans.
With all the world’s organisms being bound together as unified wholes or ecosystems, biophilic design emphasizes an environment’s overall setting and/or habitat rather than an isolated aspect of nature. This translates into the repeated occurrence of, and contact with, nature throughout design.
It’s a continual blurring together of the inside and outside worlds.
The concept of biophilia has even led to numerous sustainable design practices and initiatives in architecture and construction as well as paved the way for criteria such as the LEED, Fitwel and WELL standards that continue to take hold and remain of key importance within the built environment.
WHAT ARE THE ASPECTS OF BIOPHILIC DESIGN?
Greenery is one aspect of biophilic design but it’s just the beginning. Biophilic design incorporates direct and indirect experiences with nature. Direct experiences include light, air, plants and water, as well as natural landscapes and ecosystems. Incorporating the patterns and arrangements present in nature is a form of indirect biophilia that evokes similar responses in humans as a direct contact with nature does.
Design elements directly connecting people to nature include indoor gardens and vertical garden walls, aromatherapy and soundscapes, natural lighting, views of nature and access to open space, among others.
In biophilic design, indirect experiences with nature can come in the form of images of nature, natural materials, colors, shapes and forms, the simulation of natural light and air, mobility and wayfinding and the cultural and ecological attachment to a place or setting, as well as the integration of biomimicry or the materials, structures and systems modeled after nature-inspired solutions.
Much of our work at Platt/Whitelaw involves architectural design for public buildings. Many of these projects provide the opportunity to integrate public art. In collaboration with these artists, we’ve been able to provide biophilic design details in fire stations, libraries and even water treatment plants.
OUR PROJECT: OCEANSIDE CRISIS STABILIZATION UNIT
We are completing a Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU) in Oceanside for the County of San Diego. This project took a ground floor parking area and turned it into a healthful facility for adults experiencing a mental health crisis, such as suicidal depression or psychotic behavior. The CSU assesses each individual’s needs and provides referrals or treatment, and length of stay is less than 24 hours. PWA introduced outdoor and enclosed garden spaces, and a “living wall” with plants. The introduction of these elements of nature are expected to calm and evoke a positive response from the users of the facility.