Biophilic Design

The what, why, and how guide

By Celeste Behe

Remember the old children’s favorite “And the Green Grass Grew All Around”? It told of a simple hole in the ground that sustained the “prettiest” root, tree, branch, twig, nest, egg, bird, wing, and feather that the listener “ever did see” — all while the green grass was serenely growing around it.

Recent trends in architecture would allow for the filling of that simple hole with an innovative kind of building: one that served as a habitat for both people and “pretties.”

And Carol Rickard-Brideau would be the one to design it.

Rickard-Brideau is a partner with the architecture firm Little, at whose Washington, D.C., office she also serves as president. A proponent of salutogenic design — that is, design which promotes good health — she often speaks on its ABCs: active design, biophilia, and circadian rhythms. These three factors, explains Rickard-Brideau, work together to help keep the human body running the way God intended.

Active design encourages people to be more active as an extension of their daily activities. For example, at a workplace that follows active design principles, people who are typically deskbound might do their work while standing.

Circadian rhythm is the mechanism that keeps our bodies in balance, and it is closely tied to the day-night cycle. A healthy circadian balance may be maintained simply by leaving one’s workplace at different times of the day to go outside and take in a bit of sun.

Both active design and circadian rhythm can be incorporated into educational spaces to promote students’ well-being. But it is the third factor of salutogenic design, biophilia, which lately has been capturing the attention of educators and architects.

As Rickard-Brideau defines it, biophilia — from the ancient Greek bios (“life”) and philia (“love”) — is “the concept of exposing people to nature for the physical benefits that we derive, thanks to our evolutionary response to it.” Biophilia lends its name to an innovative architectural style called biophilic design, which “allows for exposure to nature and natural analogues, i.e., natural materials, patterns, colors, and shapes.”

But biophilic design can do more than produce a nurturing environment. As a blueprint for educational spaces, biophilic design has, according to the late Stephen Kellert, “the potential to transform children’s schools.”

In his article “Build Nature into Education” (Nature, 15 July 2015), Kellert, a former professor and senior research scholar at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, identified biophilic design as a new and much-needed paradigm.

“Modern society,” he stated, “has erected increasing barriers to children’s contact with nature. Children’s residential, educational, and recreational environments, for example, are often highly artificial and sensorily deprived.”

He went on to say, “[The biophilic design] approach to building and landscape design encourages direct and indirect contact with nature” and builds on children’s “affinities for the natural world.”

Sadly, those affinities are often smothered by a sedentary lifestyle. Explained Kellert, “The typical child in the United States spends 90 percent of the time indoors. Most children devote just 30 minutes daily to unstructured outdoor play; a generation ago, it was more than four hours.”

Consequently, the emotional and intellectual growth of modern-day children is in danger of being stunted.

“In engaging with other life forms from redwood trees to hedgehogs, [children] encounter an endless source of curiosity, emotional attachment, and a motivation for learning,” wrote Kellert. “In adapting to the ever-changing, often unpredictable natural world, they learn to cope and problem-solve. Findings indicate that contact with nature remains vital to child development, and it may not be possible to find a substitute.”

As Kellert noted, it’s abundantly clear that the natural world “is more than a decorative backdrop or a dispensable amenity.”

Indeed, to Catholics it is much more. Said St. Augustine:

Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?”

Through its deliberate connections with natural systems, biophilic design helps “the believer recognize the wonderful result of God’s creative activity,” as Pope Benedict XVI said.

But even in those spaces intended for use by Catholics, the biophilic design revolution was a long time in coming. Architect and liturgical design consultant James Hundt says that “many Catholic schools were built in the 1950s and 1960s with what were practically glass walls. Over time, due to failing systems and energy concerns, many of these ‘window-walls’ were rebuilt with other materials, significantly reducing the amount of daylight. Most schools were also built with hard, durable materials, such as concrete block walls, vinyl tile floors, and plaster ceilings.” These modifications resulted in “ease of maintenance and lower life cycle costs,” but they did nothing for the students’ and teachers’ well-being.

Now, however, the architectural tide is turning, and Hundt is delighted. Hundt calls himself “a big proponent of biophilic design,” not only because such design “results in some of the most naturally beautiful spaces,” but also because its beneficial effects are well-documented.

He refers to a 2011 study which found that “high-school students who were taught in classrooms with floors, ceilings, and walls finished in real wood had lower heart rates than students taught in classrooms with no wood elements. The students also reported lower stress levels.”

It comes as no surprise that these and other salutary effects of biophilic design have an impact on students’ receptivity in the classroom. Says Carol Rickard-Brideau, “It’s only natural that when human stress levels are reduced, students are more open to learning and creativity, as is shown in many studies of brain activity and other physical factors.”

Biophilic design identifies 14 “patterns” — such as diffuse light, visual connection with nature, and the presence of water — that can be implemented to reduce stress, improve cognitive performance, and positively impact emotions and moods.

A high-profile example of biophilic design is the new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It stands on the site of the former Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a mass shooting in 2012 took the lives of 20 students and six staff members.

The biophilic design elements used in the construction of the new Sandy Hook school “have the effect of creating a warm, comfortable building,” says Hundt, thus establishing “a place of calm in a place of previous violence and trauma.”

Prof. Kellert, who acted as a design consultant for the school, says that the building’s biophilic features “encourage learning and, just as importantly, affirm life.”

Yet despite its value, biophilic design probably won’t become the classroom standard anytime soon.

“Design is easy, but behavior change is hard,” says Rickard-Brideau. “I think that in time society will understand how our bodies are affected by our environments. Then salutogenic design measures will be demanded as a typical part of every environment, and we should expect to see greater levels of human health, cognition and memory.”

And if Pope Leo XIII was correct in saying that “learning the meaning of creation in our daily lives will help us to live holier lives,” we should expect to see greater levels of virtue, as well.

How can a teacher with limited resources bring biophilic design into the classroom?

James Hundt has a few suggestions:
1. Have students study the local ecology or geology that evokes a distinct sense of place. Encourage them to produce artwork that reflects this sense of place and use it to adorn the classroom walls.
2. In the study of mathematics, encourage students to look for numerical arrangements that persist in nature. Help them to appreciate biomorphic patterns — i.e., designs that have been inspired by living things such as plants and insects.
3. Include not only live plants in the classrooms but mini ecosystems, such as terrariums, that help students understand natural processes.
4. Whenever possible, open at least one window so students can have an auditory or olfactory connection with nature and experience changes in air temperature, relative humidity, and airflow across the skin, even if for only a moment.
5. Have students take turns adjusting the window treatments during the day so they are aware of the pattern of the sun’s movement and can create varying intensities of light and shadow over time.
6. Provide a place for withdrawal from the main flow of activity, where the student is protected from behind and overhead. This can improve concentration, attention, and perception of safety for younger students who are uncomfortable in a more open environment.

Homegrown biophilic design

Photo courtesy of Carol Rickard-Brideau. Used with permission.

Photo courtesy of Carol Rickard-Brideau. Used with permission.

A parishioner at St. Ann’s in Arlington, Virginia, Carol Rickard-Brideau designed a rosary garden on the grounds of the parish school.

“It was a project on a shoestring budget,” she says, “and the parents in the school provided the manpower to build it. The rosary garden had built elements illustrating the luminous mysteries, so it had a small footbridge illustrating the River Jordan. We built a pergola with climbing vines to illustrate the wedding at Cana and other things that illustrated the mysteries. Lastly, we placed two large stones in the garden so the teachers could bring the students into the garden and hold their lessons. The children were literally surrounded by nature and by the things that they were learning about, and it gave them a break from the traditional ‘sage on the stage’ method of classroom lecture.”

Image credit: Sean Busher Imagery, TAIRA

Image credit: Sean Busher Imagery, TAIRA

Celeste Behe is a blogger, speaker, and ardent Toastmaster. She lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with her husband, Mike, and eight of their nine children.

Image credit: Sean Busher Imagery, TAIRA

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