Architecture + Timber in Biophilic design lecture for wood solutions

Thank you. I would like to firstly acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today the Wadjuk people of the proud Noongar nation their elders past present and emerging.  I also acknowledge the Noongar people as the traditional owners and custodians of the south-west of WA and their role as the first forest managers. 

The forests of the south west have provided the aboriginal people with timber for shelter, spears, tools, implements, food and medicine for the past 50,000 years and to this day are a key part of their social lives holding an important place in their cultural, spiritual, mythological and ceremonial practices.   

Using their traditional firestick farming method of burning the forests the Noongars ensured a continuous supply of fresh vegetation, access to their food sources and ease of travel through the forests that we still enjoy today. As many of you will know unlike the rain forests of the Amazon many of our native trees particularly Karri require fire to re-germinate.

It is a great honour to see so many timber experts in the room today and a little daunting.  I have been asked to speak about Biophilic Design in relation to my practice’s architecture and the impact this theory can have on our lives.  I also have a rally call for the industry to end with.  I am not a great fan of power-points so I hope my work speaks for itself – images of my architecture and my inspiration will scroll behind me much like a meditation in case you get bored.

It has been fascinating to hear from the previous speakers.  I recommend reading the Planet Ark report Wood – Housing Health Humanity [update].  While not relating directly to the theory pf Biophilic Design the intersection between the benefits of using timber internally in the report and the theory of Biophilia are remarkable.  I am disappointed but not surprised that most Australians are not aware of wood certification or the benefits of wood or (I would add) the sustainable forestry practices of our own timber industry. 

To help you I highly recommend a quick visit to one of our latest projects the refurbishment of the Marshall Clifton State Timber Museum in Manjimup to find out more about the state’s timber industry and current forestry practices.  In addition to restoring the listed building, our team liaised with a local working group comprising aboriginal elders and generations of the forestry industry, to research, design and prepare the updated interpretative exhibition.  Just a little plug if I may – the Shire of Manjimup picked up the Museum and Galleries National Award for Exhibition and Fit-out recently on behalf of our collaborative team which is cool for this architect. 

Biophilic Design has intrigued me for some time.  But opportunities like this are a rare excuse in one’s busy life, to pause, and dig deeper into the origins behind a design theory that has piqued your interest.    What an enjoyable experience it has been, and a revelation to find that something that has innately grounded my architectural design style has the scientific evidence to back it up.  Like all architects I love a bit of post design rationalisation of my work and I now have it, so thank you. 

I had no choice but to love wood.  I grew up in a house designed in the 60’s by my architect Father. A Sydney School or nuts and berries style house hidden behind native gum trees.  Designed as an open plan free flowing split-level home around a central landscaped courtyard the skillion tiled roof pavilions were supported by exposed jarrah beamed ceilings, huge jarrah framed glased doors and windows and exposed clinker bricks. All my parents’ friends had homes of a similar ilk.  These homes grounded my love of timber and the inter-relationship of architecture, interiors and landscape which still informs my practice’s work.  But it also demonstrated the constraints of a natural material that in our case was never maintained properly, in a house 500m from the beach.   

I am also inspired by the natural beauty of our Australian bush; our big skies and beautiful light; the simplicity of beautifully detailed Japanese architecture where the architectural structure forms, and informs, the interior design; the work of the first biophilic architectural master Frank Lloyd Wright – think Falling Water –  and of course my clients and their particular site’s context.

My ethos is that great architecture nourishes people’s lives not only physically but spiritually and emotionally.  I want the houses we design to express harmony, warmth and a calm simplicity. I believe that good architecture is good for you. And what better product to ensure that we achieve this than timber. However, not one to spend too much time self-reflecting it was interesting when preparing for this talk, reviewing the practices portfolio, just how integral timber detailing is in our work. 

But to biophilia – What is it? A quick history lesson!

Aristotle was of course the first …claiming biophilia as the love of life. In the 60’s German-born American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, was the first to define biophilia as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.”  However, Harvard Professor and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson is seen as the grandfather of the theory defining Biophilia as our innate love of life & the natural world. 

The baton then passed to the late Professor of Social Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Stephen Kellert who further developed the theory of evolutionary psychology in The Biophilia Hypothesis. 

His hypothesis is the idea that humans have an innate attraction to nature due to our evolutionary dependence on it for survival and personal fulfillment. In fact, Kellert believed that nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.

To put it simply – our attraction to nature and Biophilia as a philosophy could be defined as the feeling of your toes sinking into cool soft sand, or the richness and diversity of colour across the landscapes at sunset. The wonder of intricate patterns on a shell that make living things both functional and beautiful or the feeling of calm as you walk in the bush.

Professor Kellert  believed that in architecture, biophilic design was a sustainable design strategy that not only connects people and nature within our built environments and communities it was good for the health and well being of those that inhabited our buildings.  

He felt Biophilic Design should be seen as a necessary complement to green architecture. Because while decreasing the environmental impact of the built world Green Architecture does not address human reconnection with the natural world. Which Biophilic Design does!

Creating a framework where nature in the built environment is used in a way that satisfies human needs – Kellert’s principles are meant to celebrate and show respect for nature and provide an enriching urban environment that is multisensory. His theory is so broad that it equally relates to cities, large and small buildings, and even personal activities like bushwalking, health and well-being. 

While we don’t have the time to go into all the fine detail Kellert’s framework of Biophilic Design, I thought I would give you a taster in case you wish to investigate further.  He has three principles of which there are a number of attributes:

Principle 1 The Direct Experience of Nature –is a tangible contact with nature through the natural light, air, water, plants, animals, natural ecosystems, and fire. 

Principle 2 The Indirect Experience of Nature is where you can have contact with nature through photos, natural materials and colour inside.  He found in his research that:

– People prefer natural materials like timber, stone, rammed limestone, brass and leather that are susceptible to the patina of time; this change invokes positive responses from people.

– Other opportunities for indirect experiences include simulations of natural light and fresh air; repetitive and varied patterns and naturalistic shapes evoking nature and, by using materials that mimic nature called biomimicry.

Principle 3 The Experience of space and place. This principle relates particularly to architecture, design in architecture to enhance well-being. The main attribute is of Prospect and Refuge:

Refuge: refers to the buildings ability to provide comfortable and nurturing interiors these can include using timber or really considering the spaces we design to make them functional but also humanistic. 

Prospect emphasizes horizons, movement, and sources of danger.  Examples of design elements include providing long vistas to native vegetation, or a window at the end of a long corridor, the use of balconies, alcoves, or lighting linked to the circadian rhythm in psychiatric wards.  

– The use of wood in architecture falls under this principle as an element from nature that, through minimal processing, reflects the local ecology or geology to create a distinct sense of place from where it came.  And as we already know from the Planet Ark research spaces that use timber feel rich, warm and authentic, and are good for our health and well-being in addition to looking beautiful. 

The other design principles to be incorporated in Biophilic Design are:

Organized Complexity: this is done in design through repetition, change, and detail of the building’s architecture.

Integration of Parts: Is when interior design elements use clear boundaries and or the integration of a central focal point like a central sculpture or water feature.

Transitional Spaces: This element aims to connect interior and exterior spaces by blurring the lines to create comfort by providing access from one space to another using decks, bridges, fenestrations, and foyers.

Mobility: Ensures the ability for people to comfortably move between spaces, even when complex by providing a feeling of security.

Cultural and Ecological Attachment to Place: Is when as architects we create a cultural sense of place in the built environment by incorporating the area’s geography and history into the design.

Each of these experiences are meant to be considered individually when using biophilia in projects, as there is no one right answer for one building type.  

Each building’s architect(s) and project owner(s) must collaborate to include the biophilic principles they believe fit within their scope and most effectively reach their occupants. 

Stephen R. Kellert believed We will never be truly healthy, satisfied, or fulfilled if we live apart and alienated from the environment from which we evolved.”

He believed that Biophilic Design points the way toward creating healthy and productive habitats for modern humans.  While it is argued to have a wealth of benefits for me it is the proven health and wellbeing benefits that a connection to nature can have that is so striking and important. 

As the world’s population continues to urbanise, we are spending up to 90% of our time indoors.  So, creating more opportunities to connect with nature in the spaces and places where we spend most of our time is a no brainer.  

Health, Wellbeing and Economic Benefits

There is ample evidence where incorporating biophilic design principles into the built environment is not just a luxury, but a sound economic investment in health and productivity, based on well-researched neurological and physiological evidence.

– inclusion of plants in interior environments reduce stress and increase pain tolerance;

– the use of water elements and incorporating views of nature are also mentally restorative.

– Hospitals that allow patients to heal more quickly by simply giving them a long-distance view, offices that boost creativity and productivity, schools that improve students learning and grades, retail outlets with higher sales, or homes where there is a sense of retreat and calm. 

Environmental Benefits include reduction of carbon emissions, increase in biodiversity, sustainability, better infiltration, reduction in heat absorption and a resurgence in critters like bees and butterflies 

Ok we need to discuss assumed negative economic benefits.  Yes installing timber and incorporating biophilic design into your architecture will slightly increase the cost– good design always will but to me this monetary impact is far outweighed by the improved health and well-being, the environmental benefits to our planet as well as increased productivity, faster healing times etc negate this. 

As an architect that starts and finishes every project examining and detailing the site’s geological context, its climate – wind and sun patterns, native vegetation, history and existing eco-systems of our client’s site along with their brief I really get Biophilic Design I also know there for many architects this type of holistic design theory is innate. 

There are of course others that would never have considered the effect of their architecture on the mental health and well-being of the end user. I have met a few in my work as a presenter on Channel 10’s Australia By Design.

They are generally incredibly famous architects and often (not always) lovely. Their architecture is big bold and look at me.  In my experience it appears that the interior design is not something that they are too concerned about as long as it meets the functional brief and doesn’t affect the exterior architecture.  Ok maybe that is a gross generalisation, but you get my drift.

In a country with an aging population, with health issues and an increasing population of young people presenting with depressive disorders I believe that the benefits of biophilic design are extraordinary and will in the long run reduce the cost to taxpayers. I believe that government needs to understand the economic benefits of this theory.  I also believe that all building professionals should be strongly encouraged to use elements of biophilia in our projects.

But let’s get real – you all know that we are experiencing the “worst in a generation” recession so the only way that the building industry is going to incorporate a theory that may increase up-front costs is either by reward (that is using the theory will get us more work or by receiving awards) and legislation requiring healthy buildings.  Yes, and here I mean mandated legislation.  And this is only going to happen if we can demonstrate to policy makers the savings (or increasing profits through increased productivity and sales) to government, business and property owners. 

However, always the optimist, I believe that if more in our profession knew of the benefits of biophilia and the benefits of timber in our buildings on the health and wellbeing of our clients this could start as an aspirational grass roots endeavour. 

In large multinationals the movement has already started.  In my desktop research the benefits of timber and biophilic design are seeing multi-national organisations such as Google and others beginning to incorporate the concept into their standards and rating systems to encourage building professionals to use biophilia in their projects. Who said Silicon Valley techies are no longer leaders?

I was also surprised to see that there is recognised certification.  As of now, the most prominent supporters of biophilic design are the WELL Building Standard and the Living Building Challenge.

The International WELL Building Institute uses biophilic design in their WELL Standard as a qualitative and quantitative metric. The qualitative metric must incorporate nature (environmental elements like timber, natural lighting, and spatial qualities), natural patterns, and nature interaction within and outside the building.  For the quantitative portion, projects must have indoor and outdoor landscaping and water features.   Verification is enforced through assurance letters by the architects and owners, and by on-site spot checks.  

The Living Building Challenge calls for the creation of building projects at all scales that operate as cleanly, beautifully and efficiently as nature’s architecture.  It proposes a question: What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place?

A rigorous building standard that aims to maximize building performance. This standard classifies the use of timber in a biophilic environment as an imperative element in their health and happiness section.

The living building challenge requires a project and its occupants to connect to nature directly and indirectly through interaction within the interior and exterior of the building. These are then verified through a preliminary audit procedure.

In April 2017 the crosswalk document was prepared to simplify the process for new buildings that are seeking Living Building Challenge certification, the Well Building Standard approval and a Green Star – Design & As Built certified rating. I was recently interviewed on ABC discussing the pitfalls and abuse of the Green Star certification [by some of the low-level builders] so this more holistic form of combined certification should be applauded.

In addition, a key driver in the Living Building Challenge is to eradicate or reduce our reliance on chemicals to achieve the performance that we need from our products, such as durability, fire retardation, setting agents, preservatives and much more.

The challenge asks us to employ the ‘precautionary principle’ — that if we are not sure about a chemical or product’s toxicity or health impacts, we shouldn’t use it.   Even in my small practice our clients are demanding this of us.  The Declare label is a ‘transparent’ ingredients label for building products. It would be great if the timber industry could help us with this or something similar. 

While I appreciate that very few of our buildings will achieve the rigorous expectations of the Living Building certification, I believe that we could possibly achieve the Well Building Standard. My practice for one will be considering investigating this further in 2020.

I see this form of certification as aspirational, a point of a difference with our competitors and the right thing to do for our grandchildren.

As architects our projects generally commence with a very expensive champagne brief and a cheap beer budget and continue until together with our clients, we find a beautiful West Australian wine as a compromise.  We are trained in design thinking and problem solving, being inspired and inspiring simultaneously to find the perfect solution to the many variables for our clients, the community and the planet.  We are the jack of all trades knowing a little about a lot. 

As a profession we are, in the most part, good caring committed global citizens on the front line.  We can and want to do the right thing in a changing landscape.  We care deeply about the environment and our local suppliers. 

But it is difficult to find the time in this fast-paced world with low margins filled with white noise spruiking the latest and often contradictory “research” to keep up to date. To support the timber industry, we need the most up to date research data presented in a way that is easy to translate, factual and relevant – our clients demand it!  Only today I have heard about Wood Encouragement Policy, the sustainable labelling, and forestry practices that I was unaware of and I like to think I am generally informed about this product that we specify in every project.

 As architects we are the front line and need your help. Factual data sheets that are not supplier based, that can be inserted into our specifications so a product can not be swapped for a cheaper unsustainable one.

We need good government policy that recognises the benefits of Biophilic Design and mandates it.  With an expected population of 3.5m in 2050 it is good for our state’s economy, our environment, our people and our planet. 

Under the shadow of the Climate Strike last week, the Amazonian fires and other natural disasters our future on this planet depends on us reconnecting with our living, natural life support system rather than its destruction. 

Let’s work together to make the world a better place.  Thank you