The (lucky) 7 things we learned about Biophilic Design Last Week

The (lucky) 7 things we learned about Biophilic Design Last Week

How much of our lives do we spend indoors?


According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 87 percent of our lives are spent inside buildings. (Another 6 percent is spent inside vehicles, don’t get me started.) That is 87 out of every hundred days, 87 out of every hundred hours. It’s a lot.


It didn’t use to be this way. And that is the point of biophilia. Humans need nature and instinctively seek out natural systems. And it’s pretty hard to find indoors.


Last Wednesday night we gathered in honor of Design Week Portland 2017 to dedicate some time to a better understanding of biophilic design. Our panel was a collection of smart and experienced architects and designers who have thought quite a bit about the topic in addition to having some real-world experience to share.


Here are seven things we learned about biophilic design that we want to share with you:


1. It’s not rocket science.


Much of biophilic design—the idea of using natural, nontoxic materials, prioritizing daylighting, providing ample views of the natural world, and incorporating the use of plants in space planning—is just good design. For example, weren’t windows made to open since they were invented? Why is the incorporation of fresh air for inside spaces a novel concept?


2. But it’s more complex than it might first appear.


At the same time, biophilic design isn’t just about installing some planter boxes and calling it good. Carissa Mylin, interior designer with SERA Architects, spoke about some of the more nuanced aspects of the concept including prospect and refuge, the idea that good space design allows people to see freely around them while feeling protected in the space. Carissa described a health clinic for veterans that included an interior courtyard, but not a lot of windows or lighting from the outside. What might seem like a claustrophobic design to some, is incredibly soothing to sufferers of PTSD.


3. There is science to back up the importance of biophilic design.


Travis Bell, assistant professor at Portland State University’s School of Architecture, talks about biophilic design as part of a course he teaches on environmental design. The thing he likes to emphasize with students is that there is data to support the notion that biophilic design will reduce stress, stimulate cognitive function, and improve the health and well-being of the humans who inhabit the space. From the impact of natural views on the improved health of patients to nature’s restorative effects on cognitive function, it’s been studied and the proof is in the numbers.


4. Brands ignore biophilic design principles at their peril.


Alex Shapleigh, who as a Senior VP with CallisonRTKL designs retail space for the likes of REI, Nordstrom, and AT&T, was clear that he puts the needs of his clients above the requirements of biophilic design. But when you’re a brand like REI—which has made use of TerraMai reclaimed wood in several of its stores—biophilic design is a natural fit. He described the willingness of REI to give up space in their new flagship store in Washington D.C. to take advantage of a natural courtyard opportunity. It may not serve as retail space per se, but it is key to making REI customers feel comfortable and welcome in the space. Likewise, department stores like Nordstrom are reimagining their store designs to bring in more natural light, views, and fresh air. After all, if your customers don't want to spend time in your store, they won't—and that's a problem for retailers. 


5. There are alternative ways to bring natural elements into a space.


Dina Radzwillowicz, who does interior design for Mackenzie, developed an office environment for Yakima that dovetails with the car rack brand’s outdoorsy identity. In addition to natural wood paneling from TerraMai, big views, and lots of greenery, she used graphics to underscore the importance of nature to the design. Similarly, Alex described a yoga studio that used technology to bring in the sights and sounds of nature. While not everyone agreed that man-made technology could achieve the goals of biophilic design, it was interesting to consider more synthetic means to achieve design goals. A new trend in lighting design, for example, mimics the ebb and flow of sunlight over the course of the day, providing natural cues for human behavior.


6. Biophilic design is more than a checklist.


Yes, there are principles of biophilic design that you can tick off on your fingers. But unlike LEED and some other green design programs, biophilic design is not a checklist, and if not approached holistically, it can come across as ham handed. Alex gave the example of a Walgreens store that slapped up some reclaimed wood paneling, only to have it stick out like a wrong note against the plastic backdrop of the existing retails space. The broader nature of biophilic design prompted the panelists to predict that it was a trend with staying power and that it will become mainstream in the way that good design stands the test of time. Biophilic design is more profound than LEED. As Travis put it: “Energy efficiency doesn’t move us, poetry moves us.”


7. We owe it to ourselves.


Which brings us back to this idea that we spend 87 percent of our lives indoors. The imperative for biophilic design isn’t just about getting more productivity out of employees or more money from customers. It’s about creating design that serves our most fundamental nature. It’s both self-serving and selfless: improving conditions for humankind by catering to our most innate needs.


And before we go, here’s an awesome resource for understanding the basics: a rundown of the 14 patterns of biophilic design by Terrapin Bright Green.