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'An Innate Need For Us To Connect': Centuries-Old Design Principle Is Going Mainstream

Architects are increasingly incorporating nature when they design new buildings, a trend they say connects occupants to their ancestral roots while also improving health and well-being.

Biophilic design, which incorporates various natural features into the built environment, is popping up in commercial projects across the Metroplex, industry executives said at Bisnow’s Dallas Architecture and Design Summit Wednesday at the Dallas Marriott Downtown.

The trend has a storied history but made a major comeback as the pandemic brought a focus on employee health and wellness.

Studio Outside's Mike Fraze, Complete Landsculpture's Chris Strempek, Michel Borg Architecture's Michel Borg, HLB Lighting Design's Katherine Stekr and Kirksey Architecture's Brian Malarkey

“Biophilic design is imperative to our overall health,” Complete Landsculpture founder and President Chris Strempek said. “As humans, we were formed in nature and we evolved in nature. As we urbanize nature, we now have to reconnect nature to living things.”

Early examples of biophilic design in Texas date back to the 1900s, when German settlers built dogtrot houses to help contain heat.

The method involved separating the kitchen and bedrooms by incorporating a large, open breezeway that not only optimized airflow but kept the living quarters cool, said Michel Borg of Michel Borg Architecture.

“They connected to nature by addressing their environment,” he said. “It’s really important that we as architects and designers and landscape architects have that connection to nature and understand the environment we’re in.”

The benefits of biophilic design are well documented. Employees in buildings with ample natural light and greenery tend to have lower levels of stress and anxiety, an easier time focusing, increased productivity and improved memory. 

Anchor Construction's Crystal Kingsbury, Gensler's Lillian Giering, Foxcroft Studio's Jesse Neargarder, Ink + Oro's Tiffany Woodson and Ibañez Shaw Architecture's Gregory Ibañez

Adding plants to a previously bare space can improve productivity by 15%, University of Exeter researchers found. Employees with good access to daylight studied by the UK Green Building Council reported 18% fewer sick days compared to those with limited access.

The practice can also boost sales by making customers happier, said Brian Malarkey, partner and director of interior design at Kirksey Architecture. A study by Walmart in the early 1990s determined products located beneath skylights sold better than those under fluorescent lighting, with the company even going so far as to move merchandise around to support the hypothesis. 

“Psychologically, our brains produce more serotonin when we have exposure to natural lights and views, which increases alertness, a sense of well-being and health outcomes,” Malarkey said. “It makes sense. Who doesn’t want an office near the glass?”

Mass timber is gaining momentum as companies embrace biophilic design. Gensler opened North Texas’ first mass timber office building in Frisco earlier this month, and another in the Houston area is expected to debut next summer.

Omniplan Architects' Amanda Buckley, Kohn Pedersen Fox's Forth Bagley, HKS' Peyton Booth, Caroline Todd Interiors' Caroline Todd, Corgan's Emily Strain and Woods Bagot's David Brown

“They’re such well-crafted buildings, and when you walk in, you can feel the love that went into the design,” said Katherine Stekr, associate director of HLB Lighting Design. “They’re really special buildings to work on.”

While some elements of biophilic design can be costly to implement upfront, businesses tend to save money in the long run due to improved productivity, sales and retention. 

But selling developers on the benefits of biophilic design elements has become tougher as they reckon with higher interest rates and less available debt, Stekr said.

“In reality, you can have really successful spaces without doing fancy, crazy stuff,” she said. “We like to use the term ‘cheap and cheerful.’ What can we do that’s beneficial to the project’s budget but still provides moments of whimsy or enhances materiality of the space?”

The pandemic triggered a shift in mindset around health and wellness, which has pushed biophilic design into the mainstream, panelists said. Companies now have to go the extra mile to get workers back to their desks, making connections to nature and each other all the more crucial. 

“There is an innate need for us to connect with each other that just got emphasized because of the pandemic,” Malarkey said. “This connection has become a regular part of the conversation now in workplace design.”