Bringing the Outdoors in
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As we have moved into a life spent mostly indoors, biophilic design seeks to rectify the disconnect between natural and manmade environments.
I look around my office and see four plants without turning my head, a wall sheathed in bright, natural colors, with a white board surrounded by natural wood. I recently learned that the flowers in my office are routinely cared for and changed with the season. On the 19th floor of our building, we have an atrium with a windowed ceiling to give the appearance of the outdoors, all to enhance the worker experience. Am I happier than the average worker because of my surroundings? Research suggests this just may be the case, and biophilia, the human tendency to interact or be closely associated with nature, could explain why.
We spend about 90 percent of our time in a “built environment”—at home and at work—and it is no secret that the walls surrounding us have progressively taken us out of nature. We spent thousands of years evolving in nature, relying on the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water, but now we’ve removed ourselves, supplementing the elements with technology and modified substitutions. As we have moved into a life spent mostly indoors, biophilic design seeks to rectify the disconnect between outdoors and in.
Biophilic design traces its roots to E.O. Wilson’s 1984 book “Biophilia." Wilson was a biologist and research professor at Harvard University, when he outlined the innate tendency of humans to be attracted to nature and crave natural structures in everyday life. This provided the guiding principle for biophilic design: to create architecture and interior design that is an extension of nature.
Molly Stillwell, who has an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Psychology from Saybrook University and is currently a Ph.D. student in Saybrook’s Transformative Social Change program, found particular interest in biophilic design. When she arrived at Saybrook, she intended to study environmental psychology with a focus on transformative social change. She ended up combining her interests in the environment and social consciousness through an independent study, which led her to explore biophilia and the long-standing relationship of the environment and humans.
“There’s no separation between ourselves and the natural world around us,” Stillwell says. “This is an important part of our lives and always has been. Our relationship with nature was part of our survival mechanism. One of the most important collaborations was with the world around us, because if we didn’t listen to and pay attention to it, we weren’t going to survive.”
Our relationship with nature was part of our survival mechanism. One of the most important collaborations was with the world around us, because if we didn’t listen to and pay attention to it, we weren’t going to survive.
Should nature come inside?
A study from the Journal of Happiness Studies found that psychological health is directly correlated with nature relatedness, with nine in 10 office workers reporting improved well-being after incorporating natural elements. Yet in office buildings often dictated by cubicles and personal computers, it is easy to see how the relationship with nature may have been forgotten. “We feel like we can be so separate because we’ve removed ourselves so much, but then we realize something is missing,” Stillwell says.
Perhaps that missing link is causing the problems we see, including stress. The World Health Organization has dubbed stress the “health epidemic of the 21st century.” A recent study suggests that much of this comes from the workplace. Seventy-six percent of respondents said that workplace stress “had a negative impact on their personal relationships,” and 66 percent lost sleep due to work-related stress. A stunning 16 percent have quit jobs because the stress became too overwhelming, yet we seem to be at a loss for long-term solutions.
With biophilic design, we can address some of this stress and disconnect by simply changing the interiors of office buildings. Research suggests that by effectively recreating nature indoors, one can reduce stress and restore energy levels with the same impact as real contact with nature. By simply introducing more plants into an office space, productivity increased by 15 percent.
In the workplace, the importance of these natural elements has been proven to make a difference over and over again. In an office of 90 people, a study found that workers who had a window that afforded a view of nature recovered from low-level stress at a much quicker rate than those who only had a view of a blank wall. Further, the longer participants spent looking out the window at nature, the more quickly their heart rate tended to decrease.
Stillwell explains how biophilic design seems to work in tandem with mindfulness to focus on the holistic health of the individual.
“I think that the rise of mindfulness is really connected to bringing more awareness to our lives and the connections that we have. When you boil it down, it isn’t all about the connections that we have just with other people, but to our environment—to the space in which we’re living,” she says. “As we move from focusing on simply surviving, mindfulness allows us to say, ‘Wow, we’re experiencing some disruption and dysfunction in our life, why is that, why am I feeling depressed when I have everything on paper that I could want?’ I think the more we look internally we realize we’re missing some fundamental connection in our life, and that is to the natural world,” Stillwell says.
I think that this emergence of biophilic design is one of the best things that we can do because it's bringing together technology and the natural world
The importance of letting the outdoors in
One of the guiding tenets of biophilic design is spirit of place, and the ways that designers and architects attempt to create this spirit are varied—from natural light, ventilation, and quality of view, to natural materials, spaciousness, green walls, plants, and even pet-friendly work places. Businesses are increasingly adopting the design principles.
“I think that this emergence of biophilic design is one of the best things that we can do because it's bringing together technology and the natural world,” Stillwell says. “People are not going to give up technology. We're not going to give up our societies and go live in the forest, it’s just not very likely. But finding that middle path, I think, is always the most effective answer.”
As we explore this middle path, the design will continue to have to evolve because the built world continues to segregate from the natural world. Unemployment rates are the lowest they’ve been in 50 years, and depression rates are higher than they’ve ever been. It’s hard not to imagine these two things could be related.
A study by Human Spaces shows that 58 percent of office workers report they do not have live plants in the office and 47 percent report having no natural light. With the United Nations predicting that by 2050 68 percent of the world’s population will live in urban environments, the imperative for biophilic design continues to grow.
“We must remember to care about our happiness, instead of just surviving,” Stillwell says. “The natural world is a fundamental piece of that happiness. We just haven’t always related to it that way.”
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