Biophilic Design and the Pandemic

One of the perks(?) of working these days has been randomly connecting with colleagues who I have not kept in touch with for a long time.

A few weeks ago, I reconnected with a colleague who was one of the panellists for the same presentation I was part of, Grey to Green Conference in 2019.

Just seeing her popped up on my iPad screen during a professional webinar session brought me back all the memories of how things were before the Pandemic….and how our lives have completely changed to an unrecognizable setting we all face. 

We presented the topic, Biophilic Design from different perspectives; me from the architect’s view and hers from the roofing industries. My particular focus was on the economics side (both good and bad) of Biophilic Design.   

The attendees for the presentation were from various design and construction industries, who were eager to learn about the concept, and to share those knowledge/ benefits with their colleagues, consultants and mostly with their clients. 

Pass forward two years, our lives have completely changed to unfamiliar settings with new letters, phrases or technologies to match:  COVID, masks, social distancing, zoom calls.  

With these disruptive changes, the topic, Biophilic Design has a new and urgent meaning to not only people like us who are in the industries, but also for EVERYONE ELSE who are going through this “new normal”. 

What is Biophilic Design?

The first time I heard the phrase, Biophilic Design, I thought it had to do with some scientist’s work or discovery made which had nothing to do with the type of design work I do as an architect

I did not think it had anything to do with me, let alone how I work. 

That was about 12 to 13 years ago. 

However, I quickly learned that architects have been doing this type of design work for a very long time…we just didn’t have the name for what the work was.

Biophilic Design simply means design work that can “bring outside in”,

It means all the fundamental outdoor elements we take for granted – air, water, light, nature – and incorporating them with our homes, offices, any indoor settings.  

Just going out after long hours of work, taking a deep breath in a park or lying on the beach on a sunny day (ok, not that often in Canadian weather) all conjures up happy and healthy feelings we all strive for, especially in this pandemic era.

It is a design idea striving for creating those happy/healthy feelings in our homes, offices…any indoor space we spend time in.

With the forced indoor lifestyle since the pandemic last year, the idea of bringing those outdoor elements sounds like a necessity rather than a luxury.  

Even before the concept, Biohphillc Design became popular, professionals in architecture/construction industries knew the concept and benefits of incorporating outdoor elements with the built environment.  

There have been many examples of Biophilic Design ideas, some recent and some old:  green wall in office buildings or enclosed courtyard design in old Japanese houses with trees, waterfall feature.

Designing homes/buildings with consideration of nature have been one of the oldest ideas…even though the name, Biophilic Design came much later in the ’80s. 

Back in my architecture school years (really really long time ago), the idea of connecting the inside and outside has been a fundamental design idea all of us students worked on; they can be accomplished through an actual physical connection or simply a visual one.    

Of course, back then, the “ visual connection” we were focussing on was all about an aesthetic emphasis on a superficial level, rather than the actual health/wellness benefits now we all came to value.

There have been many studies done to see the benefits of Biophilic Design; seeing productivity level increase from employees sitting by the window and seeing the trees outside or improving the rate of patient care in hospital settings with lots of daylight are some of those benefits. 

Therefore, many commercial and institutional clients (aka people with much bigger budgets than you and I) value the benefits even if it came with a higher price tag (sometimes).       

However, when it comes to residential clients (aka the ordinary people like you and me with a smaller budget), it is not always easy to insist on the value of elusive concepts like “feelings”, “wellness” or even “happiness” 

With this hesitancy, the Biophilic Design stayed as a trivial “nice to have” item … Until now.

Pandemic and Biophilic Design

With this pandemic, everything changed, especially our priorities.

Recognizing the importance of health/wellness in our everyday lives has been a huge wake-up call in the “mask everywhere/social distancing/work from home” lives we are all forced in. 

Photo by Uriel Mont on Pexels.com

While waiting for our good old times to come back, I suspect even the diehard optimists would not believe that our life would truly “go back” as it has been. 

With this unprecedented period in our lives, not only how we live changed, but how we think also changed with it.

Reading about some companies’ permanent shift to work from home or a hybrid model (office plus home setting) is one of the inevitable consequences of how this pandemic completely rewired the way we live and think. 

It is the point about the “live” part that people are thinking about more and more these days. 

Recognition of considering health/wellness as part of business decisions has been established with building owners for some time. However, on the individual level, the same recognition has been slow coming.    

We are ALL forced to reflect on those same issues with new approaches (or new fashion choices); putting on masks before heading out, or thinking about which jacket to wear with the same lounge pants I have been wearing for the last a few days for “another” zoom meetings…the list goes on.

It has been a strange time, to say the least.

Even before the pandemic, I was surprised to learn that we were spending 90% of our time living an indoor lifestyle!  

Now with this 100% indoor lifestyle forced upon us, the recognition of “bring outside-in” becomes a critical factor in our well-being and possibly survival. 

Biophilic Design like Building Code?

Like the ever-popular energy requirement like LEED Certification or Building Code in the permit process, the Biophilic Design should be considered at the same level as those absolute must requirements. 

It needs to be elevated to the same level from the nice to have to the absolute must concept in our everyday life.

Designers have been “early adopters“ of Biophilic Design. We just have not been skillful at articulating the “WHY” part of this significant design idea. 

With clear health/wellness benefits laid out for the commercial and institutional projects, implementing Biophilic Design has not been a difficult decision for those building owners.

However, it has not been the case with residential projects, or more accurately with those project owners.  

Going through this unprecedented period in our life, our attitudes towards Briophillic Design or more importantly towards our health/wellness would have to change. 

Final Thought

I guess the impact of the pandemic has not been all bad. 

Being forced to recognize the importance of our surroundings in our everyday lives has been a valuable lesson for all of us, even though it came with a high price.

Although I had no idea how our life would be completely changed from the day I gave the presentation, the topic became one of the most significant design ideas I came to share with others as well as with my future clients:)

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