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Biophilia: Nature immersion and relationship in the home

Architecture itself cannot mend our disconnection from nature – the inanimate cannot make us whole— but it can foster that connection by elegantly and comprehensively seizing each opportunity to connect us with nature. Jason F. McLennan elaborates in part two of our series about biophilia in buildings.

The architect’s number one priority is decreasing the amount of time people spend inside through supporting nature immersion with constant connections to the outdoors and bringing the outside in.

Interior environments are, by their very nature, controlled and limited in sensory richness when compared to outside, not by a little, but by an order of magnitude of thousands.

What we experience when we’re immersed in nature is complex, layered, simultaneous, and multisensory, full of variability, chaos, and other life-giving and life-affirming stimuli. Proactively bringing aspects of this experience into our homes certainly reminds us of our connection to nature. What we need though is not ‘à la carte’ biophilic features, but exposure to the layered complexity of life.

The biophilic designer is invited to expand their view of biophilia beyond a checklist of interior, superficial biophilic applications to this larger, more critical need: connecting their design to the outdoors at every opportunity, creating porches, courtyards, interstitial spaces, inside/outside flow, ensuring that windows frame views down corridors and that outdoor experiences are properly designed for their particular climate. Attention paid in design to strategically creating multiple points of entry and exit, living close to the ground from which life emerges, creating interstitial spaces that allow people to be outside for longer periods, and insisting that every inside space have some outside connection and natural daylight, go far to meet our biophilic needs and are the ultimate mark of a truly biophilic design.

The goal of the design is to draw out and keep occupants immersed in nature for as much of the time as is possible and where practical to bring outside elements inside. To think that architecture could ever negate our need for nature immersion is maybe convenient but doesn’t hold up to science.

While biophilic interior design interventions do play an essential role in that they serve as reminders and symbols of our connection to nature, they are truly secondary.

Ultimately, their value is also in their ability to draw us outside, by gently reminding us of an immersive experience and creating a longing for more.

Getting outside is, of course, the first step, but what is the nature of the outside you get to? What is the quality of it? What is the level of immersion with diversity and quantity of life? How talented was your landscape architect? How well does the architect draw us out? People need connection with functioning ecosystems; how does the design surrounding your structures support that?

Incredible pockets of diversity and rich habitat can be created even in small urban spaces. Actively engaging in the regeneration of the land upon which we build is a critical part of biophilic design. More attention paid to the spaces between buildings – entrances, internal courtyards, front and back yards, setbacks and city right of ways – counts, and is crucial as this is often where people get the entirety of their exposure to nature in urban environments. Through this lens, we begin to see design and architecture as supportive armature and gentle guide, and, if successful, capable of shepherding us back out each time we move in.

It is not our buildings that are truly biophilic, only the life that they support and frame and to which they connect.

The architect doesn’t design biophilia, they design for it.

One of the most important aspects of biophilic design is allowing for the cultivation of a relationship with nature – a very critical type of interaction with the natural world, distinct from nature immersion explored previously. We have an inherent need to live in relationship with life to be holistically – psychologically and physically – well. Exposure to nature and various life forms has its own positive effect; here I’m delving deeper, exploring what it means to develop a deeply felt relationship, sense, and knowledge of a particular entity within a particular place. 

People undoubtedly have close relationships with animals; I believe they can also have relationships with specific plants, insects, and other life forms, ultimately forming familial or friendship bonds that elicit emotional responses that are positive and knowable. Over time, this kind of highly personal and individual connection can also extend to a specific place –  one’s    home or another location that holds special emotional and relational significance and personal meaning.

How do we bring this understanding of the natural relationship component of biophilia into our designs? How can our homes support and remind us of these relationships so significant in their implications to our wellbeing as individuals and collectively as a society? As discussed, increasing the amount of time people spend in nature via designs that connect the occupant with the outdoors at every opportunity is the first step. The biophilic designer should also remember that the responsibility of care is not a burden, but a means of connection. This ethos can inform natural design elements that require the engaged participation of a home’s occupant. By way of example, a green wall that needs watering, and in return provides a means of air purification, beautification, and connection makes clear the value of the relationship with nature. Plants that don’t belong to anyone are less impactful than plants that require individual attention and perceived ownership. Nature relationship requires a recurring and repeated relationship between interaction and transaction. 

Integrating the needs of pets in the design of homes demonstrates an understanding of this concept. Relationships with pets are some of the first and most formative nature relationships children experience, teaching them responsibility, empathy, and kindness. Designs that accommodate and integrate the needs of our pets support a critical opportunity for nature relationship. 

Even a home’s systems can serve as touchpoints to a relationship with place, drawing the home’s occupants into a quality of attention to the natural rhythms of the place that affect a given system, like HVAC or rain catchment systems that both directly respond to the conditions of place and, depending on those conditions require the occupants’ involvement and thereby their connection to the conditions of a place. 

The biophilic designer’s attention to this need for relationship is applicable outside as well as in. At my home, Heron Hall, we chose to use the trunk of a local tree as a supporting pillar of a porch that opens onto a private garden off the master bedroom. The tree provides a practical service: it holds up a roof. But an architectural pillar would have done the job as well. The choice to use this tree trunk was biophilically driven; the local Western Red cedar that supports the ceiling of this small porch reminds me of the ecological place in which I live and of which I am part. The roof is planted, and in the growing season, the effect is of a green canopy – a whimsical touch that further references our relationship to the cyclical nature of life. This tree is just one component of a design that took many opportunities to subtly remind my family and me of our relationship to our place in its embellishments and materials.

On the other side of the house, there is a small ash tree where I planned my porch that I didn’t have the heart to tear down even though it was technically ‘in the way’. At the last minute, I changed the porch design, incorporating a notch to keep the tree, carefully bridging over its roots so they weren’t damaged. The ash is now right up against the porch where I let my dogs out, so every time that task falls to me, I can touch the tree and the moss on it and I imagine this tree guarding the west side of the house. Our design planned for a literal relationship with this specific tree and we all now have that sense – that this tree is an intrinsic part of our family and home, along with the dogs, chickens, birds, and lizards. 

Designing opportunities for caring for outdoor or rooftop garden spaces provide strong nature relationship opportunities as well. If specific species of plants and trees hold importance for the people for whom a home is being designed, incorporating and highlighting those species in landscape design becomes especially impactful. Providing for these relationships in urban environments is especially critical to biophilic design. In particular, children in dense urban environments often miss the opportunity to spend time around trees and certainly lack time enough to develop the kind of relationship with one that my childhood afforded me. A courtyard or pocket garden space in which a tree is prominently featured – the same species that the home’s occupant was surrounded by in their youth or is surrounded by when they make it to a nearby forest – will serve as a strong nature-connection and reference. 

The possibilities for meaningfully referencing and making space for nature relationships in home design will differ from person to person and family to family, so a checklist approach on the part of the designer will be ineffectual. How then does the biophilic designer proceed? 

As we’ve seen, design deepens in its biophilic impact the more opportunities it seizes to immerse its occupant in nature. Though the distinction is subtle, the same is true of nature relationship and design; the more a design seizes opportunities to connect its occupants to their place and remind them of their varied and unique relationships with nature, the bigger its impact. The more opportunities provided to have occupants relate to and develop a specific relationship with a specific organism even better. 

This requires a dialogue between designer and client, carefully curated on the part of the former to draw out the richest possibilities. “Tell me about a place you love,” is one avenue into this conversation. Drawing clients out on their nature relationships, particularly with pets or other animals, will illuminate ample opportunities for a design that supports those relationships. The keen designer will draw upon these inspirations in their design, repeating, underlining, and highlighting, in as many ways as possible, these elements in the creation of spaces that allow nature relationship to flourish. 

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