Jason McLennan Proposes an Approach to Scale for Biophilic Design

Sourced from the Kendeda Fund - Living Building Chronicle

Our bodies crave nature — of this we are sure. We are all familiar with the innately restorative effects of a deep breath of fresh air. We bring fragrant bouquets into our homes, hoping to waft the scents of nature into our sterile spaces. We walk out into the world, jump into lakes and streams, and plant herbs in our backyards. And until recently, we had little but our intuition to back this up, confirming how good it feels to interact with the natural world as part of our natural heritage.

The last few years have shown a rise in scientific and architectural interest in our relationship with nature, a topic known as biophilia. Edward O. Wilson coined the word in his 1984 book of the same name. He described it as “the innate tendency to focus on life and life-like processes.” We are meant to engage with the natural world, for the health and benefit of our bodies, our minds and our communities. We’ve known for some time that a lack of access to natural ecosystems is an impoverishment for humankind, and we are finally beginning to produce hard data to prove it. Access to nature – along with clean air and water – must be recognized as a basic human right.

Stephen Kellert, a friend and colleague, was a pioneer of biophilia and wrote the 1993 book The Biophilia Hypothesis. In this critical text, he names a “human dependence on nature that extends far beyond the simple issues of material and physical sustenance to encompass as well the human craving for aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction.”

Kellert wrote, “This daring assertion reaches beyond the poetic and philosophical articulation of nature’s capacity to inspire and morally inform to a scientific claim of a human need, fired in the crucible of evolutionary development, for deep and intimate association with the natural environment, particularly its living biota.” With his recent passing, we revisit his work and add some new thinking to the emergent field of biophilic design.

The initial rubric

When I wrote and published the Living Building Challenge in 2006, it became the first green building program to include biophilia as a dedicated topic. The field was still quite young and barely defined beyond a general thesis. We included biophilia for two reasons: to elevate the level of discussion among practitioners and to use the standard as a way to help advance the topic. We knew that getting designers to think intentionally about our relationship with nature was a critical first step and that we could use LBC to shine a light on critical issues under-appreciated within the green building world.

Our initial biophilia requirements put forth Kellert’s original design principles and encouraged an awareness of our own connections to life and “life-like processes” through design. The parameters were simple and loosely defined – the topic was so new, and we wanted to get people thinking and learning collaboratively with our project teams. The industry’s understanding of biophilia has evolved significantly since — our decision to include biophilia as a topic was timely.

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