Buildings designed for life

This post was published within the book of essays: All we can save: truth, courage, and solutions for the climate crisis, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K Wilkinson.

Read more about this inspiting and comprehensive publication (now out in paperback) and the movement behind it.

During the 20th century, humans became "inside creatures". More than 90 percent of our time is now spent indoors: eating, sleeping, learning, working, socializing. We have largely ignored this growing separation from nature, as well as the significant contribution, it's having on climate change. In the United States 40% of energy goes to buildings to heat, cool, light, cook, and power, and most of that is from fossil fuels. We adopt energy efficiency measures while overlooking a root cause of energy addiction: separation from nature. Buildings embody our perception of nature, as other something to destroy or dominate. By rethinking the built environment, we can reclaim a relationship with nature, and find remedies for the climate crisis at the same time. Having a thriving positive and hopeful relationship with the world we inhabit, could be a path to addressing the climate crisis.

Many buildings are made of too much glass yet, without operable windows; they overheat like greenhouses, then guzzle energy to cool down. Large square structures house dark interiors with little natural light, then tap the electrical grid to light them. We ship construction materials across the world, ignoring local alternatives, and the amount of carbon emitted. This is the norm for the built environment today, given an almost singular focus on maximizing square footage, and return on investment, we can append this status quo by remembering that buildings are actually rightfully human habitats.

My vision is this: When any building is created it emerges in response to the unique climate, ecology, culture and community of its specific location. The structure becomes a story of that place and it embraces the same natural breezes and sunshine to heat, cool, and light the space that have been used to make buildings comfortable for centuries, even millennia. When any existing building is renovated it reintroduces daylight and natural ventilation and opens up to the outside. Building in this way can significantly reduce energy consumption and emissions, ultimately, opening the door to achieving zero carbon buildings that use no fossil fuels during construction, renovation or operation.

It's a simple concept, connecting to nature in the built environment and for thousands of years it was the only way we knew how to build. In every part of the world people have infused architecture with plants and animal motifs incorporated gardens, ponds and atria into buildings, and brought the outside in by keeping plants and animals close. Indigenous homes worldwide have long been heated and cooled naturally using the evaporation of water to cool spaces in desert climates, for example. Traditionally buildings were an expression of their people and unique to their place.

The movement to reclaim this way of thinking is called biophilic design - philia meaning "love", bio meaning "life". Rooting the design of the built environment in a "love of life" is about much more than daylight, fresh air and views; it is a strategy to reawaken hopeful and positive connections between people and nature. Our buildings shape us. They express and inform our values cultural beliefs and economic stature, because the climate crisis calls for all aspects of our society to transform our buildings will have to look, feel and function, fundamentally differently too.

At a busy restaurant, the only tables free are in the middle. We prefer to have our backs to a wall to view the outdoors. If you watch where people hang out, patterns emerge: in the sunshine around one another, along the edges of open spaces and shorelines. We can't escape our intuitive craving for comfort, safety and security. We are instinctively connected and responsive to the living systems that are that have evolved with us. Yet our buildings sever and ignore this innate connection.

Many other intuitive patterns of behavior that are present when we are immersed in nature can be incorporated into our built environment: the exhilaration, fear and awe we experience at the edge of a waterfall; the excitement of exploration and discovery we feel when we uncover something new; the peace and tranquility that arise from being in nature, with its variation of light space, texture and pattern. Our buildings can evoke all of these emotions and experiences, allowing us to be happier, healthier and more productive. Biophilic design is starting to transform our workplaces from dingy beige cubicle farms into spaces full of sunlight, fresh air and colour, and starting to revolutionize our hospitals and schools where the young and the sick, too often spend their days in lifeless dark rooms. It is no surprise that transformations of space can precipitate new transformations of creativity, healing and learning too.

Just one hour nature has been shown to improve our memory and attention by 20%. Imagine the feeling of lying in a park and watching the clouds drift by, the awe of discovering newly hatched chicks in a bird's nest, the exhilaration of riding waves at the beach. Those experiences clear our minds, leave us refreshed in spirit, and fill us with a renewed sense of possibility. Imagine that connection to nature is commonplace, every day, in the midst of growing cities, and the urban lives that more and more people are adopting rather than only on weekends or when we are on vacation.

It may be hard to picture now, but buildings of the future will eliminate heating and cooling systems for most of the year and rely on natural ventilation and daylight. Already a combination of very high efficiency and passive solar can maintain comfortable indoor temperatures with outdoor temperatures as low as 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The buildings of the future will remove the line between inside and outside, and zero carbon will be the norm rather than the exception.

Te Kura Whare is the first cultural centre created in generations, for the Tuhoe Maori in New Zealand, As I described in Creating Biophilic Buildings, the centre's biophilic design reflects a renewed vision for a future not saddled with the colonial devastation of the past. The building is created from local materials, wood harvested from the Tuhoe lands and mud bricks created from the earth, as part of a drug training program. The inside spaces vary in volume and scale, mimicking the natural patterns of the regions vast forests, light create sensory variation as the sun cast hermetic shadows that move across rooms throughout the day and seasons, natural ventilation and openings to the outdoors, allow the spaces to be full of the sound of wind and laughter of children running in and out of the central cafe. The building is able to represent and reinvigorate the deep connection, that the Tuhoe people have with their land, with one another and with all living species.

Resources and programs are on the rise to support the broad transition toward biophilic building. The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED rating system now references biophilic design, and it is included in the WELL Building Standard and as one of the imperatives of the Living Building Challenge. Building owners, designers and engineers are deepening their knowledge, and increasingly, universities are incorporating biophilic design into curricula, so that the next generation of professionals get the training they need to shape the buildings of the future.

Biophilic design is the underlying design solution for addressing the impact of the building sector on climate change. It's also an essential opportunity to change our relationship to one another and to all life on Earth. Implicit in the choice we make about the built environment is a choice about ourselves. Are people separate from nature or are we part of nature. I believe we are part of nature, and that we are intricately connected to all other living species. It is essential that we start creating habitats for humans to thrive in instead of developing buildings purely to make a profit.

If we design new buildings and redesign existing buildings to celebrate that human nature connection. We will have rooms filled with dappled light and shadows. We will feel the breeze on our skin and hear the sounds of birds and the rustling of trees when we are inside. In essence, our indoor spaces will make us feel as vibrant and healthy as we do when immersed in nature outdoors. We will develop a deeper connection to ourselves as earthly beings, while inside while lightning the impact that our human made habitats have on the world.