Vivian Loftness on Biophilia and Why We Must Design Buildings Connected to Nature
Vivian Loftness is an internationally renowned researcher and educator, and arguably one of the world’s leading experts on biophilic design. A professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, Loftness trained at MIT and spent her formative years studying architecture during the first energy crisis in the 1970s. “A whole generation of practitioners emerged from the schools of that time, focused on issues of energy and the built environment,” says Loftness, who works at the university’s Center for Building Performance & Diagnostics. Recently I spoke to her about a wide range of issues related to biophilic design, nature and the built environment. This interview originally appeared in the architectural circular, pulp.
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NK: Nicolas Kemper
VL: Vivan Loftness
Let’s start with the basics. What is biophilia?
Biophilia is a critical subset of energy design in the 70’s, sustainability design in the 90’s and now regenerative design. Some people believe that sustainability is passé, a “We have been there and done that,” and we are basically saying “No! We’re not even close!”
It is not just about sustaining about what we have, it is about regenerating what we have used. It is also resiliency: making sure that what we have built is not going to be underwater in three decades, or is not going to be blown away by incredible wind storms and hurricanes that we never anticipated because of climate change. These worlds are highly tied together: sustainability, resiliency, and regenerative design.
So is biophilia not then just a different way of saying sustainability?
Sustainability actively focuses on the question, “How can we reduce demand?” It proposes highly insulated, highly efficient equipment, essentially trying to shut out climate and nature that contribute to the energy loads and inefficiencies. There has been a very strong focus on how to tighten everything down, creating “thermos bottle” buildings for easy conditioning with mechanical systems.
The antithesis of that is a focus on ways in which we can open up our buildings to natural conditioning. Many cities around the world have long periods of benign conditions. People move to Florida because Florida has nine months of beautiful weather, and maybe three months of beastly heat and humidity. But if you design a thermos-bottle in Florida, you’re dooming yourself to living in artificial conditioning for twelve months: you are basically running mechanical systems all the time. Why move to Florida? That’s a phenomenon that we are trying to balance out with biophilic design. Balancing the super tight, super insulated buildings with the open building that embraces climate and nature.
Is “thermos-bottle” another way of saying “passive design”?
Not necessarily. For many, embracing nature’s offerings of solar heat, natural ventilation, time-lag cooling, with highly climate dependent design is passive design: What we do in Florida is different from what we do in Dubai, which is very different from what we do in Stockholm. Passive design, however, may now be more associated with the “thermos bottle approach.” Most of northern Europe is cool and cold, not hot—internal loads—the people and the lights and the equipment—often are enough, in a thermos bottle, to meet the loads. And then you in let a little sunshine to top it off on sunny days. It is sort of a perfect equation for the cool and cold climates. Except it turns out people need more contact with the outdoors.
What sort of contact?
Water, for instance: humans are less stressed when you hear the sound of water. Daylight is a critical factor to human health, to sleep, and alertness. If you look at the spectral quality of daylight, it is blue-ish in the morning and red-ish in the afternoon, and it turns out the human body responds to those spectrum, the color and the intensity—the frequency of light—by putting out hormones. We put out serotonin, which suppresses melatonin, in the morning when blue and white daylight enters the eye, which keeps us very alert. We should get out in the morning; school kids should take recess in the morning; and windows should allow for blue light to get directly into the eyes of people—through windows in classrooms and offices, indeed every long-term occupied space. Windowless classrooms are not something that you worry about in Europe, but we worry about in the US, since we have no laws guaranteeing a right to daylight.
But wouldn’t all this water and light make it hard to keep spaces at a steady temperature?
That may be a good thing. In our buildings today, we aim for absolutely dead constant temperatures. We’re desperate to give you 22 C, all year round. No matter what. Take the temperatures to 22, contain the humidity, and everyone will be effective, and happy. So we’re working very hard to get to a narrow band, on the assumption that that is what we need.
We’re now realizing, wait a minute, that is not what we need. The emerging field of Alliesthesia posits that there might be an inherent physiological and psychological response to variability that we need; maybe we need a more dynamic thermal environment. Maybe we need to walk across a campus that is cold and chilly, into a building that is warm, but not overheated, in order to provide us with the adrenaline and other hormonal reactions in order for us to be productive for the day.
How do we get the amount of stimulus, and thermal diversity, that the biophilic design community is beginning to pinpoint as critical? The answer is, what would nature have done? We really need to ensure that all occupants are re-connected to nature and the richness of natural environmental variations.
It is not just architecture, but in some ways it is a reorganization of society.
It is, in a sense. There is certainly a lot of architecture that has embraced biophilia before we put the name on the paper: for instance eco-resorts in beautiful places like Bali and southern California where the climate is so benign. The problem is that we occupy much less benign climates than we vacation in. We live and work in places that can be extremely cold, or extremely hot, or extremely humid, and our answer to those not so benign climates has been to lock out nature.
I was amazed when I first went to Finland on a Rotary Scholarship, and how many outdoor restaurants there were in Finland. I came from an American city where there were literally three terrace restaurants in the whole city: everyone just ate indoors.
It is in some ways cultural.
Exactly. Indeed, when I lived in Finland, I noticed that when you step out of your apartment building, there are eight baby carriages, all lined up in a row, with bundled up kids just getting their three hours of fresh air. It was assumed that it was healthy for kids to be outdoors for long periods of time, even if it was extremely cold.
So there is a lot of precedence to the biophilic agenda. What I would love to see is architecture that is slowly changing the balance of how much indoor super-insulated space, and how much indoor-outdoor space is being created. So that rather than taking a building program, like a restaurant, and thinking, “I want to have 50 tables, and figure out how to put 50 tables all indoors,” saying, “I want to have 30 indoor tables and 20 outdoor for the brave and those who love the briskness of a meal outdoors.” And if you do that with schools, with museums, with hospitals and with hotels, we have a biophilic, nature-engaging future.
In cities like Sydney, a large office lobby might be a fully outdoor space, with the breeze going through and the sun shining in—this is so stimulating! The people who work in the open air may have micro-conditioning units to allow them to be comfortable where they are standing and working, but for people walking through and having a cup of coffee, they’re in a much brisker, more energizing environment.
Can you talk a little bit about the importance of the ground plane?
One of the areas of biophilia research that has advanced the fastest is the critical need for visual connections to life, to the dynamics of climate, to visual signs of not just greenery and growth and seasons, but also to community. We need to visually connect to nature and community.
Yes. We need to see greenery, and we need to see people. And we need to know that it is winter, spring, summer, fall. Research is showing the importance of views to health outcomes in hospitals, the importance of views to students’ ability to concentrate in classrooms, and the importance of views for office productivity. The research around the importance of views of the “ground plane,” for simplicity sake, is strong. I might argue that this need for visual connection to the ground suggests that we need to stop designing high-rises.
That is a pretty strong position.
Some designers may say: I can bring biophilic content up to the 50th floor. I can design continuous green space climbing the façade of the buildings, connected in planters and terraces, so you have a garden on the 50th floor. Well yes, that is better than not having a garden on the 50th floor, but I think there is a huge need for humans to connect visually to the ground and to the greenery and to the humanity that occurs on the ground.
It is part of building a sense of community, and it is one way of building safe streets—as they say, eyes on the street, is the way to keep the street safe—so my feeling is that we probably have an obligation that we make cities more like Paris, and less like Shanghai. Paris has as much urban density as Shanghai with a 7-story height limitation!
With a seven-story building, you do not hesitate to run down the stairs and go out to pick up some bread. In a 50 story building, the whole process becomes more contained. You take an elevator down, and once you’re in the elevator, you may as well go down to the parking garage and get in a car, rather than going on the street, and then you’re only shopping once a week instead of daily…The very social fabric that is critical to the street, and time in nature, is best supported by buildings that are not high-rises.
When you were head of the architecture school at Carnegie Mellon, you taught biophilia. How do you teach it?
I believe biophilia is integral with one’s understanding of place, climate, and culture. And teaching it has to happen in every generation, because truthfully it’s not a one-time activity. It is a year after year commitment to the way in which you educate the next generation of architects and engineers who are responsible for the built environment. That commitment comes from global awareness and compassion. Compassion cannot necessarily taught, but can be nurtured to make people aware that, certainly for those of us in the industrialized world, we’re using resources at a level that can not be sustained globally.
Another critical direction is teaching actual metrics and expertise in building technologies and performance. If we cannot measure it, we cannot improve it. So it’s important for every generation of architects to embrace quantification—the metrics of whether their buildings are actually superior.
Are there questions in architecture that are not quantifiable?
Absolutely, moreover with biophilia, there are questions and goals that are not easily quantifiable. Terrapin’s 14 patterns of biophilic design, identifies characteristics that would be very difficult to quantify, such as complexity and order, prospect and refuge, and risk and peril—
There are many moments where you feel in peril in nature, say, walking near the edge of a cliff. There is research showing that exposure to risk and peril are beneficial to human health—to animate your heart rate, raise adrenaline. But can we quantify how to design risk and peril into our buildings? Maybe not,
All of us are inspired by Christopher Alexander, in one way or another. In some ways that is the answer to your question, do we need to quantify everything or to understand the patterns that have meaning?
There is also another pattern that is hard to quantify: the notion of refuge versus prospect—being able to have command of your realm, and to be sheltered from danger.
People love to capture vistas from the top of a mountain, to have views as far as the eye can see, to look down and know they’re safe. There is a huge evolutionary need in humans to know they’re safe from attack. On the other hand, there is an equal need to be able to find a refuge, a nook that is yours alone. Every child has built a fort or cave from the pillows on a couch to build a place that is theirs, defined and safe. This reflects a parallel evolutionary need that is about finding shelter and not be seen.
So when you study the patterns of biophilia, captured by Terrapin and authors such as Steven Kellert and Amanda Sturgeon, you find that some of them are easier to quantify than others.
How would you say biophilia relates to “high design”—what happens at the Chicago Biennial, the Venice Biennale, or what happens at the Architectural Association when Eva Franch became the director and said something to the effect that: We need to be part of the Avant Garde and our fidelity is to that. How does this conversation connect to that one?
Great question. I think high design has a number of different roads to triumph. One of the roads is unusually shaped and clad buildings. I use the words shape and drape to describe something that has never been seen before—top heavy (perilous), or fragmented, frenetic, or “blobby,” maybe even bio-inspired.
The shape and drape gets a lot of press, because they have never been seen before, but in many cases they actually diminish biophilic links. They’re often very insular buildings, so people inside those buildings have weak visual and physical connections to nature and to community. They often do not meet the street well, and they do not have the tactile qualities of nature spilling into the building. They are about the iconic game of “what has never been seen before.”
Yet that is only one path. Another path is actually looking at nature: biophilic rich architecture. These buildings celebrate tiered gardens, green walls, biophilic atria and courtyards, saying “What if the line between nature and building is erased?” These projects are also beginning to get press coverage.
What if I just grow the building? What if I build the façade and let nature celebrate the seasons? Architects who are letting nature become a much more integral part of the aesthetics and the place-making are equally leading the High Design future. I was just giving a lecture at the New York Times building in New York City, by Renzo Piano. The entire back wall of the lecture hall was glass, which is very unusual, looking at a beautiful captured tree garden. The color of the bark, the moss, the ground plane, and the changing qualities of the light throughout the lecture, was stupendous. This is biophilic design at its best, and today we can bring nature in and still ensure crisp projections, even though we have daylight right behind us.
For biophilic design, what comes next?
I look forward to innovative design that breaks down the walls of the building into sliding, swinging, folding layers of engagement with nature, and re-engages the activity in the building with natural conditioning and the street itself. I look forward to innovative design that peels off a lot of space that does not need to be highly conditioned into flexible, environmentally engaged workspace, public space, and retail space. The work of Lake Flato and Overland Partnership in Texas are two firms that are essentially taking the program that they are given and saying, “How much of this do we need to have in the conditioned space, and how much of this can be merged with the landscape?”
And in that carving away they are creating far richer, more interesting links to the landscape itself. That is just beginning of the whole process of peeling away the hard edges of our buildings.
Last question: is there ever a good reason for a building to be intentionally ugly or uncomfortable?
Uncomfortable thermally? Or scary uncomfortable?
Everything is on the table.
(laughs) Well that gets at this non-quantifiable element of nature, which includes risk and peril, prospect and shelter—design provisions that are important to our evolution. Maybe designing risk and peril will be uncomfortable. Thermal comfort also is being challenged by discussions of the importance of alliesthesia, arguing we need a level of discomfort in order to have delight in comfort. It is the contrast to battling windy, cold spaces that bring that surge of satisfaction when you walk into a warm, sheltered space. It is in the process of transition that we enjoy things the most. Yet we should not design for discomfort, we should design for biophilic diversity.