How Biophilia Can Improve Our Lives - Part I

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Biophilia is the study of our innate love for the natural world. Biologists and ecologists have championed it for decades. Brought to the attention of the world by E.O. Wilson nearly 20 years ago, the theory says people love natural spaces like forests and meadows because we evolved within these ecological systems. Now, we've replaced living interconnected with nature with suburbia and megacities, and this change has complicated our ability to live healthy lives. Recently green building has prompted new interest in biophilia – and designers are gleaning new approaches to the built environment based on our instinctual passion for wild places. To help readers understand the vast opportunity of how this area of research can revolutionize society, this four-part series will explore and explain new findings within biophilia. These discoveries are teaching us that our inborn desire for ecosystems can lead to healthier people, buildings and cities while providing a more satisfying life.

© U.S. EPA

It is common to take a walk or go outside for a breather during stressful situations, but have you ever wondered why? The answer is at the heart of biophilia, and new studies are showing just how important going outdoors is. Walking in a park or through a landscape seeing squirrels, birds, deer and other harmless animals lowers your systolic blood pressure (the amount of pressure blood exerts on vessels while the heart is beating), eases the effects of disorders like ADHD, and improves well-being. Researchers have long suspected this connection, and sought empirical proof. In 1984, Roger Ulrich started doing this with a simple experiment of measuring the recovery time patients who'd undergone invasive gall bladder surgery. The study case was made up of two groups. One group was placed in rooms with a view to nature. The other group had a view looking onto a brick wall. His results showed that, on average, patients with a view to nature were released a full day earlier than patients looking at the wall.

Our reaction to natural daylight is also biophilic. Sunlight was our sole source of usable lighting for the majority of our evolutionary path. The human eye has adapted to operate most accurately and efficiently in outdoor conditions. This is why we complain about the harshness of fluorescent and LED bulbs as well as glowing computer screens. Mounting research shows that classrooms and workplaces washed in daylight produce more productive students and employees. The Heschong Mahone group, a California-based consultancy focused on energy-efficient building practices, conducted a series of studies where students were observed in daylit and artificially lit classrooms. They concluded that abundant daylighting enhanced learning rates by 20-26%. Research has shown that premature babies recover faster when exposed to natural light. Studies by the European Sleep Research Society and Blackwell's Journal of Sleep Research revealed that newborns sleep better and more sound in natural light than in artificially lit rooms.

© Neil Chambers

The Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island incorporated this thinking into their five-story South Pavilion that opened in 2009. In earning a LEED Gold rating, the design used daylighting techniques in nurseries to improve recovery rates and quality of interior spaces for newborns and mothers alike.

Evolution has made us predisposed to want and need nature. The modern suburb and city are largely absent of spaces and living organisms that could satisfy our genetically-originating craving. The jump to high-rises, concrete and curtain walls could be the cause of most disorders present in society today. As a species, we are unaccustomed to these new non-biological environments. If green building focuses as much on biophilia as it has on saving energy and water in the past, it could help us rediscover the ecological interaction and relationship we need to thrive. At a minimum, biophilia brings about a new dimension for sustainable design that necessitates the integration of nature to trigger human health and wellbeing. At best, biophilia can radically alter the entirety of the built environment. Unknowingly, the things we build cause physiological pain to individuals, hampers healing and disassociates us from our evolutionary heritage. Biophilic design would reconnect us to nature, help us appreciate natural resources and give us a sense that we are back home.

(This series on biophilia was co-written by Chris Garvin and Namita Kallianpurkar of Terrapin Bright Green)

Tags: Architecture | Biology | Evolution | Green Building

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