Seeking Sustainability the Building Industry Targets Human Health

Even with the progress that both designers and governmental offices have made in bolstering the ecological stewardship of our new building stock, the average baseline of construction is still notably far from the realm of consistently viable options we have at our disposal, let alone the cutting edge. All too often, too many aspects of our new buildings have more to do with the past than the future. The call for sustainability in the built environment has undeniably gained in strength and continued to garner support from municipalities that raise the minimum standard of building codes. Still, sustainability has faced the same headwinds in the design and construction of buildings that it has in other areas of business as well as the social and political arenas.

The United States Green Building Council’s LEED rating system, the most widely used measure of sustainable criteria for buildings, has come under fire from multiple directions from pressure largely exerted on governmental offices by corporate interest groups. Whether its resource value, financial benefit, habitat preservation or global climate, we have yet to find a connection with the broadest portion of Americans that spurs action to change societal norms.

How to clearly convey the complex idea of sustainability has been a challenge that the environmental world continues to grapple with—anywhere from its definition to the countless number of ways that it interfaces with our lives. But one facet of sustainability that has got more attention and increasing response is how it relates directly to our daily health, particularly in its relation to biophilia. A panel of industry experts moderated by Susan Szenasy, former chief editor of Metropolis Magazine, recently discussed the emerging focus of targeting biophilia in building projects for improving human health. Panelists included Bill Browning of Terrapin Bright Green, Rick Cook of COOKFOX Architects, Kevin Kampschroer from the U.S. General Services Administration and Chip DeGrace from Interface Flooring.Cook Browning Szenasy Kampschroer Panel

Biophilia describes the inherent, genetic affinity that human beings have for the natural world (more on that here).  Light creeping through tree canopies, the sound of water in a brook or the sensation of a breeze on the skin are all examples of a common force of human preference rooted in biophilic traces from the millennia that our species has evolved on the planet. Proponents take it a step further, arguing that tapping into this connection to nature brings more than just satisfaction but improves health. Buildings that can be more than simply green, but actually healthier (the two are not necessarily codependent) could provide a useful conduit in helping to convince more people to pursue sustainable projects.

To date, the sustainable agenda of the building industry has largely focused on systematic upgrades to provide increases in efficiency. While noting the progress, Szenasy thought there was still ground to cover in conveying both the message and its importance to the people using buildings. “The missing element is still the human element, paying attention to something that is dehumanized through marketing language.” ‘Greening’ measures that combine higher quality components with targeted payback periods can understandably be an easier sell for clients, but admitted lack a humanistic connection to occupants. The question isn’t whether or not the technological advances are a step forward, but whether or not it is a step that, if taken alone, makes subsequent steps more difficult. Szenasy rightly asked, “More technology, does it make us more passive?”  The more that society is lead to believe that technology is the solution, the less likely it is to address the deep seeded issues of waste that constitute the core problem.

Biophilia represents a divergence from a sustainable agenda that has largely focused on systematic upgrades to provide increases in efficiency. These measures that combine higher quality with targeted payback periods can understandably be an easier sell for clients, but their lack of a humanistic connection to users could be partly to blame for them not being more broadly demanded. “Energy is impersonal, “Kampschroer noted. “Health is personal.” Biophilic principles offer ways for nature’s poetry to complement technology’s prose in buildings.

Possibilities for inscribing biophilia into design for healthier spaces are bountiful. Efforts may start with visual and physical connections to nature through things like green roofs and courtyards or orienting views out of buildings onto vistas and parks, but in many cases having a window that brings in natural light makes a big difference. According to Bill Browning, whose firm’s newly published white paper, 14 Patterns of Biophilia, explains avenues for the integration of biophilia into projects, the non-visual connections to nature can be just as fruitful. Whether it is tactility (natural materials for surfaces people come in contact with), olfactory response (how spaces smell) or building acoustics (which sounds are kept out and which are encouraged) these sensory cues can have a large impact on how we are affected by the space around us.

Selling Natural

Though it might be easier to categorize the integration of biophilia as a “feel good” effort, the entire panel underscored the financial results that root it in fiscal sense. Browning walked through an outline of costs for a typical business saying that energy usually comprised less than 1% and rent coming in around 10%, with personnel related expenses accounting for the vast majority of 87%. Aspects of company policy that help its people and how they can do their work are incredibly valuable.

A growing number of studies are linking workplace health and with worker productivity, essentially pairing a healthier work environment with better utilization of time. Work spaces that are designed with attention to thermal comfort, improved lighting, minimizing dangerous chemicals and connections to nature can help things like combatting absenteeism, honing concentration or increasing learning rates. There is no quicker way to a company’s bottom line.

For those that aren’t convinced, Kampschroer pointed out that healthcare costs are the equivalent to one sixth of our economy. Reducing the strain that the indoor environment, particularly workplaces, put on Americans could have rippling positive impacts for lowering the cost of living in addition to improving quality of life.

Biophilia represents an untapped resource in our broader goal of making our building stock more sustainable. “Biophilia is where sustainability was 25 years ago,” Kampschroer said. “Right at the edge. Most people don’t think about it.” But given the progress that green building has made over the past two decades, prospects for biophilia could be very bright.

Photo Credit: Nick Venezia COOKFOX