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Creating joy through biophilic design

by Sonja Bochart

Close your eyes and picture your happy place. Contemplate how your body and your state of mind might feel there: calm, relaxed, peaceful, energized? Is there a breeze, or a particular scent you may experience in this setting? Imagine all of your senses engaged, and fully absorb yourself in the context of this place. Most people would likely describe themselves somewhere in nature: at a beach, in a forest, on a body of water, or perhaps in their own backyard. Few, if any, would be in a workplace, classroom, or hospital setting.

In fact, a 2011 study of more than one million people found that people are happier in nature than any urban environment. This got me thinking about why our built environment so often fails to meet our standards of where we are happiest. My early interest in sustainable design showed me the importance of paying attention to the materials we use and the strategies we employ to harness nature through, for example, solar panels or rainwater harvesting. But none of these strategies spoke to bringing out the spirit of buildings and making them feel more comfortable for people. It was my involvement with the Living Building Challenge that introduced me to biophilia and biophilic design, and it has since become the foundation of my practice. It seemed as though we, as designers, had lost sight of what makes an environment joyful and inspiring. Buildings don’t do that—nature does that.

The Biophilic Design Initiative (BDI) is actively engaging owners, community members, engineers, architects, interior designers, researchers, educators, landscape architects, biomimicry practitioners, artists, and others in a meaningful way to help the broad adoption of biophilic design.

Biophilic design is more than simply the inclusion of plants in the built environment. It takes into account every aspect of the design including lighting, flooring, window placement, air quality, art, access to the outdoors, and more. Aside from the psychological and physiological benefits that people experience when working, living, learning, and healing in spaces that connect us to nature, the positive effects on our psyche also translate into measurable positive effects on the bottom line. Issues such as decreased absenteeism, staff retention, job performance, healing rates, classroom learning rates, and reduction of violence statistics are among those influenced by a biophilic space.

Generally, when I speak to people about the importance of nature and the power of natural elements, they intrinsically understand. So why do we not include biophilic elements in every project we design? I feel that a major stumbling block remains the lack of education and awareness around what biophilic design entails, and how it can be used to advance the goals of a project. I have found that most of my clients have not heard of biophilic design, but when I tell them about the possibilities and beneficial results, they are fascinated.

“The theory of biophilia says that, because we have spent most of our evolutionary history in nature, we have an innate love of nature and natural settings. We are linked to nature physically, cognitively, and emotionally. We aren’t just in nature, we are nature.”

Sonja Bochart, principal, Shepley Bulfinch

The most effective approach to the discussion is to meet a client where they are in terms of readiness and willingness to adopt a new way of thinking about design. I try to emphasize that it is not just about design; it is about solving the problem of how occupants can function better and be happier. I often adapt and shape the conversation based on an understanding of the drivers for their particular project. Healthcare clients, for example, are concerned about lessening fatigue for caregivers, promoting healing for patients, and lowering stress for families, while clients in the education sector are interested in building students’ capacity to learn in a supportive, engaging environment.

My best recommendation to designers and owners wishing to incorporate biophilic elements and patterns is to engage in these conversations early in the process, well before decisions around programming and space planning are made.

Now is a time of great potential for biophilic design. The most honorable projects emerging today are not “just” buildings; they are holistic environments that work together to impact different aspects of our communities, including nature, culture, governance, commerce, and design, which are all interconnected in support of overall wellbeing.

For full article, visit Prism magazine.

Multiple biophilic design elements are prominent in the Phoenix Financial Center, designed by Peruvian-born architect W.A. Sarmiento and completed in 1964. Shepley Bulfinch’s recent restoration of the project, one of the city’s most prominent mid-century buildings, for the firm’s design studio celebrates an important architectural landmark and advances the city’s vision for the revival of Phoenix’s Midtown Central Avenue corridor. Primary biophilic design elements include Natural shapes and forms, as shown in the iconic jewel-toned starburst skylight, which is based on universal natural geometry and provides a central focus for the workplace. The project also represents Human-nature evolved relationships of Prospect and Refuge with the design of its nest-like mezzanine level; allowing for more intimate conversations, reflections, and views beyond to the studio and outdoor spaces. Photo credit: Nic Lehoux.

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