Biophilic Design, Part I

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unknown-2Note: This is the first of three blog posts on biophilic design. Part 1 introduces the topic. Part 2 will discuss a case study on biophilic design. Part 3 will explore the idea of biophilic cities.

Given complete freedom to choose their ideal home or office, people generally choose spaces that connect them with nature. This instinctive attraction to nature, called biophilia, is explained in part by the way humans evolved. Humans spent 90% of their existence as hunter-gatherers, living in caves and other dwellings seamlessly integrated into their natural surroundings. They evolved to respond to and thrive amongst these surroundings. Only relatively recently, with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, did humans move into cities en masse and begin to separate themselves from nature.

Since then, the human habitat has shifted indoors to the built environment, where people spend the vast majority of their time.  Imagine the modern office. “We put people in windowless offices and give them a computer and a desk and think they should be able to work just fine because they’ve got all the obvious things they need, like air to breathe, artificial light to see by and access to all kinds of information,” says Stephen Kellert. “But we find that they don’t actually work all that well in those kinds of environments. They are more likely to experience fatigue, lack of motivation and higher rates of absenteeism.”

Insert biophilic design. Biophilic design aims to address the human-nature disconnect and improve human well-being by bringing nature into the built environment. It does this by incorporating environmental features (water, air, sunlight, plants), natural shapes and forms (shapes resisting straight lines and right angles), and natural patterns and processes (sensory variability). It can be seen in buildings small and large, from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater to Bank of America’s One Bryant Park

Studies over the last 20 years show that it offers significant benefits in many different settings.

In offices, staff with access to nature see increased productivity, decreased stress, and reduced absenteeism. Biophilic offices also help attract and retain top talent. This leads to significant cost savings because, at more than 90% of a company’s operating costs, staff is a company’s most expensive – and valuable – asset.

In hospitals, providing patients with a view to nature reduces the average length of hospital stay by 0.41 days and can amount to $93 million in reduced hospital costs every year.

In retail stores, one study showed that adding skylights resulted in a 40% increase in gross sales. Additionally, shoppers are willing to stay in a store longer and visit a business district more often when plants or trees are present.

In schools, studies have shown that good daylighting “improves tests scores, reduces off-task behavior, and plays a significant role in the achievement of students,” with learning rates 20-26% faster in these classrooms.

In neighborhoods, the presence of nature is correlated with lower crime rates and higher residential property values, because people have shown a willingness to pay more for access to nature. For example, one study showed that home buyers were willing to pay 127% more for property with a lakefront view.

Studies have documented these benefits for years, yet biophilic design has remained a relatively unknown concept.

That may be changing.

Health and wellness – an area under which biophilic design falls – has become an increasingly hot topic. In 2012, McKinsey produced a report calling the emerging industry a trillion-dollar market. Shortly after, the WELL Certification was formed. Similar to LEED, WELL is a certification for buildings. But unlike LEED, it focuses on the aspects of buildings that impact occupant health, not those that impact the environment.

WELL is young, so it is too soon to know whether it will scale like LEED. Nevertheless, proponents of biophilic design have surely taken notice.

Luke Patton is a second-year business student at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and is currently a Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative.

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