Sustainable building and architecture is currently generally centred around measurements such as energy efficiency and the rating, locality and renewability of certain products. While those measures have their own benefits, according to a new field of thought they are only a small part of a much bigger picture – that of working with, not above, nature.
That concept has been touted biophilic design, and its philosophy is much more complex than our commonly-taken approach to sustainability. “In contrast to sustainability, biophilic design really focuses on health and wellbeing of humans in the built environment as well as the health and wellbeing of nature as part of our cities,” Deakin University’s Dr Phillip Roos says.
“It is much more than just efficiency or incorporating greenery into an environment. It follows the patterns of nature, which are central to our health. Just because greenery is incorporated into a space, it does not mean it is healthy. Biodiversity creates a healthy ecosystem, and more often than not, small areas of greenery within our buildings or cities don’t have healthy ecosystems.
“Biophilic design goes well beyond just greenery.”
An extension of the concept of biophilia, biophilic design recognises the importance of nature for human health and the fact that humans have evolved as a species in response to the natural world, not to artificial or human-created environments as has been the case for the last short period of our existence. That period represents just a tiny part of our history but the development of un-natural and artificial environments in that time is having an unprecedented impact both on us and the natural world.
There are 14 patterns of biophilic design, each of which addresses a complex set of principles that together define biophilic design. The patterns can be broken down into three main areas: nature in the space, natural analogues, and nature of the space.
“Fractal geometry, for example, is important to biophilic design because it describes naturally occurring objects,” Dr Roos says. “These types of concepts influence our psychological wellbeing and by applying all the principles of biophilic design we can improve both our psychological and physiological well being.”
Biophilic design is not a new concept: rather, it could be described as an age-old one that we are now just starting to explore and define. Humans have, until recently, always lived amongst nature, and in some of the oldest known dwellings, depictions of nature were etched into walls.
“Even if you look closely at old buildings that still exist in our cities, they are often decorated with leaves or beautiful ornamental patterns or sculptures influenced by natural patterns.
“We have evolved in a consistent relationship with nature, which is why when walking in a forest, for example, you just feel good. The sensory experiences are healing for body and mind. Biophilic design is about bringing those sensory experiences into the built environment – not just vegetation or greenery that exists without a healthy ecosystem within large built structures.
“Our architecture and built environment at the moment is plain and cold.”
All the steel, glass and concrete we employ in our cities is a far cry from the natural patterns of rolling waves, of a forest, of rock formations. It’s this distinct break from the natural environment that has led to sprawling urban centres devoid of life and nature; and in which ecosystems are often anything but healthy.
When you enter a building with limited windows, or an office space with none, where you’re breathing ventilated air the immediate physical response is often to want to leave the building. This happens in many modern buildings where natural rhythms and patterns are shut out.
According to Dr Roos, there is not yet a good example of biophilic design in Australia. He points to Singapore as a place that’s at the forefront of this architectural movement. “There, a lot of their buildings have to include rooftop gardens, and creepers cover buildings not as a matter of chance, but because structures must sit in native vegetation.”
If we can move towards biophilic design, it is Dr Roos’ belief that we will create healthier, more liveable spaces and work in sync with the natural environment. “I believe this is what we need to do to survive as a species in the future. We need to work with nature, not be above nature.”
Biophilic design is a quicky emerging concept. While there are still limited resources available, more universities are starting to incorporate biophilic design in various courses. The Biophilic Cities Project is an organisation aiming to advance biophilic design. Run by Professor Tim Beatley and his team at the University of Virginia, it aims to work with global cities through a combination of collaborative research, dialogue, exchange and teaching.
Sixteen cities are currently part of the project including Fremantle, Australia and Wellington, New Zealand.