August 3, 2007

Biophilic Design Connects Humans with Nature

by Tracy Ostroff
Associate Editor

Summary: Humans crave nature in the design of their buildings. So much so, says Yale professor Dr. Stephen R. Kellert, that “buildings deficient in facilitating the positive experience of nature hypothetically result in diminished human functioning, whereas facilities possessing biophilic features foster higher levels of human health and productivity.” These biophilic design features, Kellert notes, are the “direct, indirect, or symbolic occurrence in the built environment of the human affinity for nature.”

This design strategy, Kellert says, is “derived from the theory of biophilia, which posits that biologically based need developed over evolutionary time for affiliating with nature is instrumental in human health and well-being.” It is part of our genetic heritage, Kellert says.

That means that for people to connect to buildings, natural elements must be present, whether actual—light, air, minerals, plants, animals, and other natural elements—or by representation in pictorial, elemental, or narrative form. The human’s connection to nature is rooted in evolutionary development, as these natural elements proved “instrumental in fostering fitness and survival.”

For people to connect to buildings, natural elements must be present

Kellert is the Tweedy Ordway Professor of Social Ecology and director of the Hixon Center for Urban Ecology and Program in Sustainable Development at Yale. He has been a driving force in the development of the joint program between the university’s school of environment and the architecture school.

Natural features disappear
In our haste to build quickly, Kellert says, designers lose, or do not have enough time to make natural elements play out in their designs. Biophilic design does not refer to one building type. It can be incorporated into any piece of the built environment. He says there are many architects who do this well, particularly by asking questions about how the design considers natural elements in their exterior and interior environments.

“We labored in the wilderness in a minimalist way,” he says. “We must come to terms with our own being and not forget that fact we have a genetic affinity for natural form in process.”

The human tendency to affiliate with nature is still very much a part of our emotional, intellectual, and physical development

The human tendency to affiliate with nature, Kellert explains, is still very much a part of our emotional, intellectual, and physical development and fosters our capacity for problem solving and critical thinking. It becomes manifest in the built structures that we have around us, he says. And when that occurs, it tends to provide satisfaction and comfort and enhances performance, productivity, and comfort.

But Kellert laments that much of our architecture has, unfortunately, moved away from that recognition and understanding and created forms that are the artificial and fabricated. “This isn’t bad in itself, but if it doesn’t have any tendency to mimic natural form and processes, it is quite alien,” Kellert says. “You can have things that are theoretically quite efficient but that people don’t feel comfortable in, and often don’t function well in.”

Representational elements
Because the built environment, by definition, insulates us from the natural world, our experience can often be indirect and symbolic. Materials and orientation can reinforce the connection representationally. Kellert associate Martin Mador notes that these can be represented through the use of natural materials, a la Frank Lloyd Wright, that bring a sense of warmth and an emotional attachment to the building.

All architecture forms can coexist with biophilic design—even stark Modernism—if the Modernist tendencies are rooted in nature or are in some kind of complementary balance, Kellert notes. “There’s no formula that I know of, but my intuition tells me that two can live in some kind of compatible relationship.”

Biophilic design is related to other disciplines like biomimicry, which, Kellert notes, looks more at how to integrate natural systems into design processes.


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Biophilia in Practice: Buildings that Connect People with Nature (COTEnotes)