A simple walk in the park will relax even the most tightly wound individual. But what about the places where people spend far more of their time, such as schools, office buildings, and hospitals? What role can design play in incorporating nature into those environments? And at what additional cost? Bill Browning has published a book—The Economics of Biophilia: Why Designing With Nature in Mind Makes Financial Sense, 2nd Edition (written with Catie Ryan and Dakota Walker)—arguing that the cost of bringing nature into building projects isn’t prohibitive, but additive. An environmental strategist with a long history in green building, Browning is one of the founding partners (with architects Bob Fox and Rick Cook) of the sustainable design consultancy Terrapin Bright Green. Recently I talked with Browning about biophilic design—and, because he was a founding member of the U.S. Green Building Council’s board of directors, about the strengths and shortcomings of the LEED rating system.
BB: Bill Browning
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
I see the word “biophilia” thrown around so much now that it’s in danger of losing its meaning. Why don’t we start by defining the term, as you understand it.
I tend to use E.O. Wilson’s definition: “Biophilia is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.” The research that we’re interested in is how experiences of nature impact people, psychologically and physiologically. Biophilic design, then, is the process of translating that into the built environment.
The book’s title caught my eye. The economic case for green building is pretty straightforward: energy performance. What’s the metric for biophilic design?
It depends on what you’re measuring. In an office, it might be staff retention, productivity, or lease rates. In education, it can be test scores, graduation rates, absenteeism. In retail, it may be sales pressure, pricing values, staff retention. In healthcare, it’s patient healing time and staff retention and turnover.
How do you scientifically tie those to biophilic design?
All of those are based on specific studies. An example would be a landmark study done at a call center for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, in a LEED Gold building, with great indoor air quality, good day lighting, raised floor displacement ventilation so people could control their own airflow. On the second floor, there was a view of trees and a playing field. The utility knew how many calls per hour people could handle. Lisa Heshchong, who had done work for the California Energy Commission on daylight and productivity, conducted an experiment where she shifted all of the desks to 11 degrees off of perpendicular. What that did was, movements outside the window—a bird flying past, the leaves fluttering, a butterfly—are now in the peripheral vision, and movement in our peripheral vision will get our attention faster than movement directly in front of us. It causes you to look up at that movement.
We know that if you look at a scene of nature for even a short period, the prefrontal cortex quiets down, the brain expends a lot less energy, and when you come back, you have much better attention and focus. This is called Attention Restoration Theory. When I look at my computer screen, my eye is in the near visual focus, so all the muscles on the eye are contracted around the lens. You can only do that for so long until you start getting a headache. If I can get you to look up and away at a distant view, particularly something more than a hundred feet away—that’s now the infinite visual focus—all the muscles in the eye relax, and the lens flattens. This distant view of nature quiets down one of the more energy intensive parts of the brain and creates a physical relaxation response, just by moving those desks slightly off of perpendicular. By doing that, they got a 6% increase in handling capacity, which translated to about $3,000 per desk in return.
A lot of these moves are easier to do with new buildings, but we’re going to see a lot of building reuse. How can biophilic design play into that?
We were involved in a study looking at minimal interventions in a sixth grade mathematics classroom in Baltimore. The interventions involved wallpaper carpet tiles and window blinds in the classrooms. All of those measures were done using patterns that were either biomorphic forms, or what are called statistical fractals, which are repeating mathematical patterns that occur frequently in nature. When we see those in human-designed objects, because the brain is so attuned to seeing them in nature, we see an almost instantaneous drop in stress. It was a yearlong study looking at learning outcomes for 125 students over the course of the year, compared to 122 students in the same classroom, with the same teacher, teaching the same curriculum the year before, without changes in the room. What we saw was a marked increase in academic performance among those 125 students, in their learning progression over the course of the year.
We also did four months of biometric testing, in that case in a different setup with a control classroom involving about 20 students, and 20 students in each the experimental classroom. In the early afternoon, we measured heart rate variability, which is a good indicator of stress recovery characteristics. We did the measurements three times a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at the beginning and the end of class. What we saw in the control classroom was not much change in outcome, but in the biophilic classroom [there was] significant stress recovery, and the response got better over time.
We are following another experiment that’s not been published yet, looking at a biophilic break room for hospital staff, in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis in New York City, at Mount Sinai Hospital. It was a 15-minute biophilic immersion experience created by Studio Elsewhere. The neuroscience team at Mount Sinai measured outcomes for the hospital staff that used this break room and found that, over time, their ability to deal with stress, and their ability to recover, improved.
What was done specifically to that break room?
It had some comfortable seats that embraced you and created what’s called a refuge experience. There were some plants in the space. There was a large video screen that showed a 15-minute nature video. People would just go sit in that space and watch the video.
Is that break room still in operation today?
Those are now in more than 60 hospitals around the country. The papers on that are still in peer review, but we know that it definitely helped with stress rates, but also with staff retention, one of healthcare’s biggest expenses.
There was a whole movement that came out of one of the first studies of biophilia, done in the early 1980s by Roger Ulrich at Texas A&M University. He looked at patients recovering from gallbladder surgery. There was one ward where half of the patient rooms looked out onto a brick wall. The other half looked out onto a little clump of trees and shrubs. They went through hundreds of patients and eventually found 78 that they could match by demographics and even the paint color of their room. The one variable was the view from the bed. The patients who had the view to the trees and shrubs got out of the hospital almost one day sooner than the patients who saw the brick wall. They took fewer painkillers and had far less nursing calls.
That study helped launch the whole “healing gardens” movement. Healing gardens were intended for the patients, but hospitals discovered that they were also incredibly beneficial for the staff. In Singapore, at Ng Teng Fong, a high-rise urban hospital designed by HOK, with CPG Consultants and Studio 505, they wanted to immerse every patient in nature. The patients, four to six to a ward, are in naturally ventilated, daylit rooms. Each ward is fan-shaped, so that there’s a vertical window at the head of every bed, with a view out to sky gardens, which step up the facade of the building for 20 stories. Every patient has a view to a garden from the head of their bed. There’s also a separate rooftop garden area and water feature for the hospital staff.
The health benefits to biophilia seem obvious. What are the larger planetary benefits?
One of our main patrons in supporting a lot of our research over the years has been Google. Mary Davidge, former director of campus design, said that one of the things she hoped to accomplish having these biophilic design elements in the Google offices and in the campus design—besides helping with how people felt, relieving stress, and improving cognitive performance—was enhancing their experiences of the environment and helping to raise their environmental awareness. We don’t have strong measurements on that, but we have some indications that biophilic experiences do make people appreciate real, living nature even more so.
You’ve been involved with green buildings and the USGBC for as long as it’s been around. Where are we with LEED now?
LEED is moving into version 5 and pushing energy performance further, but also looking at the embedded carbon and of the materials. As buildings become more efficient, the measurements start to shift from the operational implications to how much carbon did it take to construct it. In version 4, there are credits around biophilia. In fact, we’ve been approached by a number of folks asking us, Why don’t you do a rating system on biophilia? Our response was that biophilia is now a component of a number of major rating systems.
Are rating systems even the way to go now? I understood them 25 years ago, but it seems like there’s got to be a different way to do it now.
The value of the rating system is not the rating itself. The value is in the rigor of going through it and making sure that you actually implement what you designed. Years ago, we did a study for the U.S. Navy, where we looked at a number of buildings that were built to LEED and then a number of other buildings actually certified through LEED. We found a marked difference in the level of performance between the ones that were certified to LEED and those that weren’t. So for us, the value is not the plaque. The value is the process of actually making sure that you’re achieving what you designed.
The plaque is kind of meaningless in places in California, where you can achieve LEED certification by simply following code.
Right, but I would argue that the rating systems helped move the codes. Some of the work that we’re doing now is beyond any of the rating systems. We’re working with Google and Interface, the carpet company, exploring performance metrics based on the ecosystem services of the site.
What does that mean?
Asking the biomimicry question: What would nature be doing here? If there was a functioning ecosystem on the site, how would it be dealing with carbon? If it’s a carbon-sequestering ecosystem, how much of it is sequestered, per acre per year? How is the site dealing with water? What’s the evaporative transpiration rate? How is it dealing with infiltration and runoff? How’s the cycling nutrient? What are the biodiversity counts? All of those are things that we can measure, and then ask: How can we replicate those with our building?
So is this beyond the Living Building metrics?
Yes. Living Building is about getting you to net-zero, which is important, but we want to take a step past that. As biologist Janine Benyus says, “Nature doesn’t do zero,” and so we want to move past zero.
Featured image via ArchDaily.