Biophilic Design: Biophilia, Living Systems, and the Human-Nature Connection

Nature Lab Director Neal Overstrom and Biological Programs Designer Jennifer Bissonnette co-taught the Spring 2016 course Biophilic Design: Biophilia, Living Systems, and the Human-Nature Connection. The workshop introduced students to evidence-based design research corroborating the benefits of nature on human physical, emotional, and cognitive well being, including in classrooms and workplaces. The theories and patterns identified with these outcomes were explored in the course, as were design strategies for integrating these concepts into the built environment.

Perspectives on the historical influence of art and design were reframed for students through the lenses of human evolution and deep-rooted connections to the natural world, and natural patterns and elements were explored as a way to evoke human response and strive for design approaches that integrate evidence-based design with aesthetic and functional concerns. Building on prior discussions of sustainability and problem solving from nature (biomimicry), the course promoted a holistic view of spatial design grounded in biology and the natural world.

The syllabus drew inspiration from the consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green, with the first session covering biophilic design principles and the history and origins of E.O. Wilson's theory of biophilia. The broader field of restorative environmental design was introduced, as were associated ideas such as the Savannah Hypothesis, which suggests that humans should have an innate affinity for environments similar to those in which our species evolved.

The second session of the course reviewed published research mostly from psychology, environmental psychology, and health sciences literature indicating the beneficial effects of connecting with nature, while the third session reviewed historical and contemporary applications of biophilic design principles merging natural forms, elements, and systems in buildings and communities.

Utilizing Nature Lab resources, students had the opportunity to observe and document elements from nature at multiple scales and consider how these naturally occurring patterns may be encountered more directly in work or learning spaces. Biophilic design was considered in association with green technologies and applications of living media in the built environment. The fourth and final session focused on the potential impact of biophilic design principles in art and design education and ways to bring these practices into a more mainstream dialog.

Students were encouraged to envision biophilic design projects of their own. On the last day of the workshop, they presented final concepts for making Room 11 of the Nature Lab and more nature-rich environment. The student interventions took many things into account, including natural analogs, context, materiality, daylight, ventilation, and ordered complexity. The variety of projects conceptualized is an impressive testament to the creative potential of the RISD student body in applying biophilic design thinking to future problems.

Hyekyung Won analyzes spatial experience of Room 11.
Hyekyung Won's design proposal integrates copper pipes with living plant features.
Hyekyung Won's final rendering of a living ceiling and wall environment.
Anushka Pai's design proposal reimagines existing aquarium systems as an integrated, pillar-like aquarium environment.
Natnaree Ruethaivanich's reimagined Rm. 11 space.
Karsten Goodwin's pillar design would provide both a lighting source and a base for living plants to grow on. It takes inspiration from the natural designs of passionflowers and Madagascar Dragon Trees, with attention paid to dynamic, diffuse light, complexity and order, visual connection, material connection, and biomorphic forms and patterns.
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