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  • Writer's pictureDeeDee Birch

Healthy Design In The Wild: A Biophilic Home For Play & Place in SF

A critical component of implementing healthier design means learning to identify it in existing projects, regardless of whether or not a project was conceived of as biophilic, neuroarchitectural, or sustainable in the first place. Many of the formative voices in biophilic design theory and practice - Kellert, Salingaros, Wilson, Heerwagon - contend that many buildings, particularly those pre-Industrial Revolution, are biophilic simply because people have always loved nature and possess inherent preferences for places that are connected to nature, culture, and location. This phenomenon still occurs frequently in the context of contemporary residential interior design, which focuses on what feels good without having to navigate the performance benchmarks, multiple stakeholders, and massive scales that plague construction projects.

It was Stephen Kellert who warned practitioners of the dangers of "piecemeal" applications of biophilic principles. In other words, biophilic design reduced to a single potted plant in the corner will accomplish very little in terms of improved human and planetary health outcomes. There should be multiple, complementary elements of biophilic design acting in concert with one another throughout any given space.

This particular example of biophlic design excels at fostering the human-nature connection. As shown in the analysis above, it embraces views and vistas, prospect, fire, curved lines, natural materials, ornament, and tactility in a way that roots one in their humanity and ecology. But there's more to this space than just these patterns of biophlic design. They accumulate into something that is much greater than the sum of its parts.

An often overlooked facet of biophilic design is creating a sense of delight and play. Leading sustainability-focused architect Bjarke Ingels has long spoken about the idea of hedonistic sustainability, which suggests that sustainable design should not and cannot be sacrificial, boring, or depressing if the public is to adopt it. Rather, sustainably designed environments should be pleasurable, fun, delightful - it should invite occupants to play and enjoy. Ingel's architecture firm, BIG, consistently embeds hedonistic sustainability into all of its projects.

This biophilic renovation accomplishes a great deal in terms of hedonistic sustainability. Its use of a curved, nearly formless beanbag chair forces the one to get low to the ground to sit down, which changes our perspective and becomes reminiscent of childhood - the act of playing or sitting on the ground. It also allows the person to depart from the typical sedentary position (sitting in a chair with feet flat on the ground and back straight). Instead, one can be flexible and malleable with their bodily position, once again recalling childhood days of criss-cross applesauce, slouching, and lounging before we were trained to sit upright in desk chairs at school. The fireplace in this space, too, can viewed through this hedonistic lens. Humans have a long, rich evolutionary history with fire that often elicits a pleasure response from contemporary building dwellers. As I mentioned above, food expert Michael Pollan writes about fire as central to our large brains (and therefore, evolution) because it enabled us to cook, which decreased the energy required to consume it. Yet fires are also nostalgic and playful; they remind us of bonfires or roasting marshmallows and making s'mores. The leather beanbag and conjunction with fire make this a joyful space to inhabit.

The question of place remains. Biophilic design counteracts the the placelessness and heavily mechanized architecture and design of the 20th century by grounding building occupants in an awareness of their physical location in time and space. A room or a building cannot be biophilic if it does not make an occupant more aware of where they are. Here, the massive picture windows provide detailed views of the plants and animals immediately outside the home while simultaneously highlighting the San Francisco skyline; this creates an awareness of both the local ecology and climatic conditions as well as one's geographic location. It creates an awareness of the diurnal cycle, seasonal cycles, of growth and change in nature while acknowledging its urban context.

Perhaps the greatest lesson in this interior is that one can create an enriching, biophilic area in their home without redoing their entire house. All it takes is one corner or one room, a little attention to your needs, and how your home functions in the context of its place. The effort is well worth it. The benefits will compound over time and your relationship with the world around you will continuously grow stronger and more meaningful.

Sources & Further Reading


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