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Episode 01 – Biophilic Design – Part One

Discover how you can “green” your life by building a knowledge base of current sustainable and eco-savvy trends. This series will delve into hot topics, current standards and practices, ways to design better spaces, and specify materials that benefit not only us, as consumers, but the world as a whole. Members of CaraGreen, a sustainable materials distributor, and other industry leaders weigh in throughout the series. This is Build Green Live Green. 

In this first episode we will be discussing biophilic design – what it is, how to implement it, and why. This episode is the first in a two-part series on the topic. We are here today with Jessica McNaughton and Kim Loftis of CaraGreen, our shows producer and sustainability think tank.

JESSICA: Hello. Since this is our first episode, we want to talk a little bit about why we are starting this podcast in the first place. We’ve been in the building industry for 10 years um and we’ve always had a thirst for information and we feel that it’s important to share that information. We’ve done that through lunch and learns to the architect and design community for years and we feel that this podcast is a way for us to broaden our reach and, you know, to bring relevant topics to um the building industry and you know in a broader scope than we can do in person. We’re hoping that the result of this podcast is giving you, our listeners, the tools that you can use to build a better, greener, and more productive lifestyle, which is why we decided to call this Build Green, Live Green.

I’m Jessica McNaughton, the President of CaraGreen and I have a background in technology, so I was never really bought into the um sustainability thing, I will call it, then after joining CaraGreen and being around the people that are here, I drank the Kool-Aid. It’s really important to me because we incorporate sustainability into everything we do in our office from things as simple as recycling and saying no to straws, eliminating plasticware to actually the design of the space as well and incorporating elements like carpets that look like grass and acoustic treatments that look like clouds or lighting that makes employees more productive so sustainability is very important to me, and CaraGreen, and hopefully my employees as well.

KIM: Hey everybody, I’m Kim Loftis. I’m the Director of Business Development and Marketing at CaraGreen and my background is in design so when I went through design school 11 years ago, designing with nature in mind was really kind of the norm with how we designed. There wasn’t really anything specific that is was called, it was just kind of common sense and the way that we were designing our work, so I really enjoyed following around with the green building movement and watching it change over time. In 2009, I became a LEED AP, so that I could further my knowledge in these growing movements and continue to educate myself on the trends because they are really important to me, as a designer, but also as a professional in the building industry. I’m also a mom, I have a 3-year-old and she is in preschool right now and she will be going to what we call “big kid school” soon, so, I think about how the built environment impacts her um so that hits you know really close to home for me, thinking about how that affects her education, how that affects her life, and in turn, how that affects our family so um were covering some really important topics and how they affect all facets of our life.

JESSICA: I think it’s important to mention that biophilic design applies to the office environment, which I kind of talked about, and also to your personal life. I have three kids that are in “big kid school” and they are directly impacted by um the incorporation of nature into a space and we’ll get into some specific examples of those.

This will be a two-part series. In the first part, we are going to talk about biophilic design and what it is and in the second part we will get into some specific examples and talk about the data that backs this up. This is not an idea, this is a substantiated design technique that has proven results, and part two will get deep into those.

So Kim- biophilic design, what is it, and why do we need it?

KIM: Yeah, lets dive in. So biophilic design is a method of design that has really been around for a while, actually, and it has just recently come into the limelight, so I’m sure you guys have heard of it before. Biophilic design is fundamentally incorporating nature into your space. This is based on our inherent need to affiliate with nature, so everybody knows that they like to go outside. And when you think of taking a break, taking a breather, usually you are going to walk outside to do that, it’s just nice to do that and biophilic design kind of gets into the specifics and the science behind they that is. So, it has been shown in repeated studies that building natural elements into a space causes us to focus, be more efficient, makes us less stressed, and it makes us more productive, so in effect, biophilic design has been proven to make us healthier. And this is a design technique itself that’s based on 3 pillars and within those pillars, there’s 14 patterns, and we will elaborate on those in a minute.

JESSICA: So the actual definition of “biophilia” is the affinity of nature or desire to associate with natural things, so, you know, doing that can be as simple as bringing a plant into your home or as elaborate as building this monstrous water feature and having a green roof and walking paths and it can really be done at different levels but even the smallest step towards biophilic design has an immediate impact and improvement, a small plant helps purify the air, you know, the sound of water automatically calms people down. Your body has a sympathetic and a parasympathetic system and the ideal situation is when those are both in balance, and nature has been shown to stimulate your parasympathetic system which calms you down, it relieves stress so, there is a science behind this, a biological science behind this, that is really kind of the underpinnings of these 3 pillars that you mentioned and the 14 principles that we will get into. I think it’s important that it’s not an all or nothing approach, you don’t have to go all in.

KIM: Absolutely.

JESSICA: Okay, so talking about you know the biological response you have a sympathetic system and a parasympathetic system. Sympathetic system is your fight or flight and your parasympathetic, that’s the one that-

KIM: Calms you down, reduces your stress level.

JESSICA: Right. They show that taking a nature walk, for example, that’s going to stimulate your parasympathetic system and calm you down.

KIM: Oh, and there’s that Japanese study about forest bathing-

JESSICA: Shinrin-yoku.

KIM: Yes. Where they talk about, where the study is basically showing that a walk on the treadmill is good for you, but a walk in nature is even better for you. It’s not just about the exercise, its about being out in nature.

JESSICA: Right. Right. Those were diabetic patients, they showed that their blood-glucose went down. KIM: Yes.

JESSICA: Um and you know their parasympathetic system compensating, calming you down just being around nature decreases stress, so you know, that’s not just, you know, you can apply that to different areas, right, healthcare. Think about lowering stress in a healthcare environment. I would love my doctor to be less stressed out, I would love to be less stressed out at the doctor. I would love my kids to be less stressed out at the dentist.

KIM: Absolutely. Yeah.

JESSICA: I don’t know where you take Sydney but if you look at some of these pediatric dentist offices they have fish tanks and all of those natural elements that they have built in are meant to calm you down, to stimulate that parasympathetic system, it’s all biophilic design and it’s all around us, and we don’t even notice. I hope the listeners after listening to this podcast start to recognize some of these biophilic techniques that are all around them that you may not notice every day.

KIM: So, lets dive into the pillars of biophilic design-

JESSICA: And there’s three.

KIM: Yes, there’s three. So, there’s nature in the space, nature of the space, and natural analogues. So, we mentioned nature in the space a little bit already, Jessica you were talking about plants in the space so this is a very literal sense of nature in your space, so adding plants, adding water features. We’ll get into more details later, but that’s kind of the gist of what nature in the space is.

JESSICA: I think of nature in the space. It’s basically something that, something natural, that stimulates you and you know you’ve got 5, 6 senses and so it can be a smell, it can be a feel, it can be visual but its something that represents nature that you engage with on a sensory level.

KIM: Absolutely.

JESSICA: And I mean I think that’s one of the easier ones to do, like we talked about getting a tree.

KIM: Yeah. You don’t have to do everything, you can do small steps. So, the next one is nature of the space, so this is how your space is laid out basically and how we respond to how that space is laid out. So, this is things like putting your water fountain not right in the center of your office so people are moving around. This is things like having a walkway that maybe has a little bit of risk to it, maybe there’s a glass walkway or a glass staircase or a hallway that maybe has a curve to it or turn that is unexpected, so creating something that you don’t expect, something that makes you think about your space differently and interact with it differently than you would normally.

JESSICA: And how does interacting with your space differently make you more productive or why is that good?

KIM: Well it basically makes you not run through your space like you would any other day, if your brain is going through a process where it has to think about something a little bit differently or ask itself a question, then it’s going to engage different systems in your body and make you more alert, make you more productive over time.

JESSICA: Okay, okay so just the sense you describe, I can see halfway over a wall but not all the way over, so I’m curious, and when my curiosity is piqued, I’m more engaged. It doesn’t mean I’m sitting there trying to peak over the wall instead of doing my work, it just creates that whole atmosphere which keeps people more engaged and more productive in their jobs.

KIM: That’s exactly right. And you’re looking out of the room and you see a blank white wall, maybe people will think that that’s not distracting, because you don’t have anything there to look at that’s distracting you. But if you have something that is engaging, it actually gives yourself, your brain, a break, so then you can get back to what you’re actually, doing, what you’re trying to focus on.

JESSICA: So I read a really interesting article by Interface Carpet, they are a really sustainable carpet brand, but they have this great story on their website and it was about three schools and the schools were designed with a savannah outlook, which meant, you know, it’s the most preferred human position, is to be protected but have a view of everything.

KIM: Right.

JESSICA: So, these classrooms were designed with this protective, you know, cove area or alcove and you look out and you can see nature.

KIM: That’s so neat, I’m sure the kids love that

JESSICA: Oh, I’m sure, yeah, but you know, it’s the human body’s preferred situation, so uh I thought that was really neat, that schools were starting to do that.

KIM: Absolutely, yeah, and there’s different ways you can do that in an office space as well. We kind of think of offices as being one level either offices or cubes all in the middle but there are different ways you can achieve that savannah experience as well. Even something as simple as um phone booths, a place where you can go and have a private conversation but maybe you can still see out into the regular office space.

JESSICA: Or even those chairs we are looking at for the office! They are kind of like egg-shaped chairs where you feel protected and kind of create a place for someone to go where they feel safe, but they can still see the office and what’s going on. So, like we said, it can be as simple as a chair or as intricate as an entire school. So, the ability to implement biophilic design at the most, at the minimal level all the way to the maximum is really important.

KIM: I think having a basic understanding of it as well and being able to notice those things, because I think that we, know that we know about it, can appreciate it a littler bit more, and say “Oh, I know that that’s affecting me in this way,” so its really cool to know the basics of it, just in general.

JESSICA: Okay, so, recapping, we’ve gone over the two pillars, nature of the space, which is bringing nature inside. Water features, fish, grass, all that stuff. And then nature of the space, which is layout, building, creating that kind of sense of awareness that it’s not- Nature of the space, you don’t have to do it from the beginning.

KIM: Right.

JESSICA: I could go into our office which is already laid out and still create some of that mystery.

KIM: I think it maybe helps a bit to think about it in the beginning, but you can incorporate it after you design the space and implement it after the fact.

JESSICA: Which is great, because other building standards like LEED is difficult to go in after the fact and try to achieve that.

KIM: Yeah, yeah.

JESSICA: Okay so what’s the last one?

KIM: The last one is natural analogues, so this is where you’re going to simulate things that are found in nature so like Jessica you mentioned earlier the acoustic treatments that you can get that mimic clouds, that mimic clouds, that’s simulating something that’s in nature.

JESSICA: Or light fixtures.

KIM: Yep. Light fixtures, carpet that looks like grass, things that look like trees. There’s this really cool library in Colorado that has this children’s space where they have all of these really tall pillars that are clad in bark, so they are not trees but they look like trees, so it probably gives you that element there.

JESSICA: We recently did a project where they used the bark to make trees in this little baby’s nursery. Yeah, it was architect in Texas, yeah, and they used the bark in those trees and that was the biophilic thing.

KIM: Oh pretty

JESSICA: Yeah, it has the texture as well.

KIM: Yeah, so there’s a lot of examples there, even wood grain. So, it’s not an actual tree, same scenario, but when you see woodgrain, it makes you think of nature and you can use that in some really creative ways to you know achieve some really awesome designs.

JESSICA: I would guess there’s probably situations where you can’t actually have something organic in a space, like maybe there’s a hospital room or something where it has to be really clean.

KIM: Absolutely.

JESSICA: And you know be able to simulate nature without actually having something organic in there is probably a similar effect.

KIM: Oh, for sure, we were actually working on a job that was for NC State they were working on I think it is their natural science building and um they have labs inside the space, so they couldn’t have any natural actual plants because it could contaminate the work they are doing. So, they were looking at a lot of different products that simulate nature or they simulate plants in some way, and they kind of gravitated towards this panel that looked like kind of cells.

JESSICA: Oh, nice.

KIM: So, you know there’s a lot of different was, a lot of cool products out there you can find.

JESSICA: Alright so there’s 3 pillars and there’s 14 patterns within these. So, the patterns are kind of, they are called patterns, but they are really just the 14 techniques to use to incorporate um biophilic design.

So, nature in the space. The first pattern is a visual connection with nature and that’s what we talked about sort of I mentioned earlier, that’s a plant or a fish or you know Meesha’s turtle.

KIM: Something you can actually see. And then there’s nonvisual connection with nature, those are the other sense that you talked about, like something you might smell, like an herb garden. That’s something you can see and smell. And then there’s non-rhythmic sensory.

JESSICA: Non-rhythmic sensory stimuli. That’s when you’ve got an open window or something where airflow is coming through or building or light, natural light is changing. It’s basically something that’s not repeated because rhythmic can sort of lull you where non-rhythmic is more natural, and it changes, so it keeps you alert, it gives you something to focus on, because its changing. So, if you have a window open and a breeze flows through, or a curtain moves-

KIM: Or seeing the clouds move, or watching the leaves change through the seasons.

JESSICA: And with the air flow is thermal and airflow variability too, and that’s just having, again, that heat or wind, air you know circulating, changing-

KIM: Making it comfortable.

JESSICA: Yeah. And then what else? Presence of water.

KIM: The presence of water, yeah, so honestly in all these patterns there’s going to be a naturally-occurring and a man-made option, right. So naturally occurring for presence of water, you can be near a lake or a river or an ocean or you can create something within your space, like a water fountain, that’s going to be your man-made option.

JESSICA: And that’s the nice thing about biophilic design, you can do things after the fact. You don’t have to sit there and be like, “Well, can’t do that because we don’t live near a pond” or, “Shoot I forgot to locate our warehouse next to the ocean” you know? So, instead we could get one of those little water fountain things and just the sound of that water, in itself, is calming.

KIM: Absolutely.

JESSICA: And then dynamic and diffuse light. That’s what we have in our office! We have those light fixtures that-

KIM: Oh yeah!

JESSICA: That mimic the circadian rhythm.

KIM: So, you can change them.

JESSICA: Yep. Your body responds to different types of light at different times of day. Its natural. We spend how much time indoors?

KIM: 90 percent of our day.

JESSICA: 90 percent of our day. Not just us, this isn’t us, this is you too, listeners. So, we wanted to put in a big window in our office and when they came to cut it out, they said we can’t do it, we looked at skylights and those solar tunes, we looked at everything. And we couldn’t solve the problem the way that we necessarily wanted to, but what we did do is the next best thing. We got these lights where you can adjust the blue and red light and you know, we adjust it at different times of day and we know how to do that and what the right light is, and, you know, it’s worked well for everyone. That was our way of doing that after the fact-

KIM: Exactly.

JESSICA: -within limitations and again, you know, one of the great things about biophilic design.

KIM: And then there is connection with natural systems as well, so there’s things like, again, if you have a nice window, looking out your window, you can watch the pollination of plants. Maybe you see some bees buzzing around, pollinating the flowers and things like that. If you have fruit trees, you know, you’re watching that over time. And then man-made options are construction of habitats for animals, like if there’s a constructed bee hive, or you know all kinds of different options for that. And then even something like rainwater capture, if you have a rain barrel outside and those can be made really beautiful as well so there’s different ways to incorporate that connection with natural systems.

JESSICA: So those are all the patterns that apply to nature in the space. And nature of the space, this is some of the things that we mentioned, how things are laid out. So, there’s 4 patterns, prospect, refuge, mystery, and then risk or peril. And prospect is what we talked about, having a vantage point where you can see in front of you. So, designing a platform in an office space where you can look down and see what’s happening below you or green roofs are a great example of not only are they green, but often they are walkable, and you also have a really nice vantage point because you’re up high and you can see down below you.

KIM: Absolutely. You see this a lot in office design today where there’s a very open layout so not everybody is sitting in an office with a closed door. You’re kind of sitting together and you have that nice vantage point where you can see out instead of just looking at 4 walls and a door.

JESSICA: Right, also this is where you need the second pattern which is refuge. So, we worked in a wide open office space at Industrious and we loved it, but you had to have these spaces you could go to be alone, you know, be kind of protected, not physically protected. But you wanted to go somewhere, have a phone conversation without everyone overhearing you. And those coworking spaces do a great job of designing those areas of refuge in there. Its great to have prospect but you also need that refuge. And that was why that savannah situation, its prospect and refuge. And you attain both by designing that way.

KIM: And with refuge, you can do a lot of different things like not only the cubicle areas or the phone rooms But you can design in um the acoustical clouds you talked about, making those at a lower ceiling height So you feel a little bit more protected within that space, um even like meditation rooms or a place you can go and relax, drop ceilings, of any sort, if going to kind of give you that feeling.

JESSICA: Yeah and like a nursing room, just don’t use the nursing room if you’re not nursing, Kim will come after you.

KIM: Haha, I will.

JESSICA: And then mystery. This is probably one of my favorite ones. It is the idea of, it’s what invokes that curiosity and you don’t notice it until, hopefully now you’re going to notice it, when you walk into a space it may have been designed to create mystery. I realized when we go into many architect and design offices, you can’t see beyond. It’s usually like a ¾ wall or an angled wall where you can kind of see in. When we went to a large adventure park (which we’re not allowed to say the name off), it was designed like that too. You could see stuff hanging from the ceiling, but you couldn’t see into the office. It really created- you can feel yourself get really curious. When you and I toured the ASID headquarters in DC, the first thing we noticed when we walked in-

KIM: Oh, I loved that.

JESSICA: That’s a WELL Building, we’ll get more into WELL Building in one of our next podcasts, but that WELL Building Standard is based on biophilic design, immediately the conference room was frosted just enough so you could almost see the tips of people’s heads, but you couldn’t see in there.

KIM: The hallway, the curved hallway, I loved that, its such a simple thing but I feel like that was such an interesting way to Do something so simple.

JESSICA: And then you mentioned the acoustic panels with those cutouts in them, it creates that sense of mystery because you can’t see beyond.

KIM: Right.

JESSICA: And the last principle, or pattern for nature of the space is risk, so give an example of risk.

KIM: Yeah so this is an interesting one. This is one that I mentioned earlier where you have a balcony that has a glass floor, or it has a glass railing, so It looks like it’s scary but it’s not actually. So again, it is getting your brain to trigger um even like a glass staircase, so it getting your brain to trigger something different That you don’t normally experience on a day-to-day basis. Just kind of get your brain moving in a different way.

JESSICA: So, you’re kind of scared. And again, that’s what keeps you alert because you think “I’m going to fall off this thing,” but you’re really not. You know its structurally sound, it just evokes that response.

KIM: And there’s ways you can do that in your building as well, actually experience but you see so like if you have a corner of a building that has this funky little window on the side and it looks like there’s not a support there, you look at that and you say,  “Oh no! Something’s missing,” but you know it’s not actually, so you’re not standing on a glass walkway but you’re seeing that in the design.

JESSICA: Well, that’s not actually true because one time when we first moved here I was looking at a house and I went to open the sliding glass door to step on the balcony, and there was nothing there. It just- it dropped off, like 10 feet.

KIM: Did you actually step off of it?

JESSICA: No, no, no, thank God. I think my sympathetic system kicked in. But you know a lot of the examples we gave are ones that sound very scary, right, like glass and stairwells and all the risky, scary things, but you can do something as simple as, and this is totally a shout out to Shark Week, but you can put a photo of a shark up on the wall and it looks scary, and that is another way to do this. Kind of an after the fact, slightly tacky Shark Week shout-out where you incorporate risk.

KIM: That makes me think of those posters that have like a snake on them and then some sort of cheesy motivational quote at the bottom.

JESSICA: Yes, they do serve a purpose, yes, they do. Okay and then lastly is natural analogues and this is, you know, we talked about this. This is kind of everything that we talked about earlier, but you know, when you can’t bring the natural nature in, bring things that remind you of nature.

KIM: Right. Mimic it and simulate it.

JESSICA: I think I see this most in the Fibonacci sequence. You know, that’s a very natural occurring ratio.

KIM: Right.

JESSICA: You see a lot of people build staircases or things like that.

KIM: Right, like use it as the basis of design, its very pleasing.

JESSICA: Yep. So, I think that would be considered biomorphic forms and patterns, which is the first pattern. The second one is material connection with nature, which like you mentioned, it’s like using, you know, bright green solid surface and cutting it to the shape of trees or using tree bark, well not using tree bark in this case, but using something unnatural to mimic something natural. And then complexity and order, can you talk about that a little bit?

KIM: Yeah, so complexity and order is a really interesting one because you can do this in almost anything. You can do this in your building façade, you can do this in your furniture, you can do this in your layout. Even in the way that you design the HVAC, there’s going to be kind of a rhythm to that, and a pattern, so it just kind of makes it a little more pleasing to your eye. You really enjoy those when you see something that has a pattern to it.

JESSICA: Right so that’s the order part of it and then the complexity is kind of marrying that with, so its not so repeatable and predictable, but you’ve got right some level of you know ambiguity, I guess, where something is orderly but it’s also complex at the same time. It keeps you engaged because it’s not so repetitive.

KIM: That’s true, yeah.

JESSICA: Okay so those are the 14 principles. There is a downloadable document on our website that is a cheat sheet for these. So, if you go to caragreen.com you will find these. Terrapin Bright Green, they have some of the best reporting. That is where I learned almost everything I did Initially about biophilic design when it first came out. They have two great reports on it.

KIM: That’s where all of the case studies come from.

JESSICA: Right, the case studies we are going to talk about next week, all that data. They went out, and thank you, Terrapin for doing that, and compiling all that data and putting it in one place. So that we can, you know, all see that this is not some fly-by-nigh thing that is a fad that is going to go away.

KIM: Right.

JESSICA: This will make you healthier. This will make you happier. This will make your employees more productive. This will make your students healthier. And your teachers healthier. And honestly, I don’t want to spend the day home with my kids. I don’t want them to spend the day in a classroom with a substitute teacher. So, if you want to download these, go to our website, caragreen.com. There’s a primer on biophilic design there for you. Yeah, next week were talking about the-

KIM: Part two. Part two is the case studies, all of the case studies and really diving into some of the facts about why this is a proven method that, again, hits those points that you talked about making you healthier, more productive, really just enjoy your day more. I mean, really, who doesn’t want that, no matter what you do or where you are.

JESSICA: Right and you can baby-step biophilic design, it can be a plant, and then a fish, and then a rug, and then a chair. You know, and that’s what were kind of doing in our office, and I hope someday we are a case study for biophilic design, you know we can have people come to the showroom, do a walkthrough, show them all these things we’ve done with our office. I’m excited to do that. So, this is Build Green, Live Green.

KIM: Thanks for joining us.


To hear more about biophilic design, check out our next episode where we will be delving deeper into the benefits of biophilic design and ways to implement it

For a written manuscript of this episode as well as supporting resources, Visit our website at caragreen.com/blog. Want to know more about a specific industry related topic? Shoot us an email at social@caragreen.com.

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