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Biophilia - beyond the green wall


Rachael Lee, Chrysalis series 1-7, 2017, collagraph, linocut, stencil, ink, spray paint, embossing, cutouts, piercing, thread, LED, various sizes from 485 x 220 x 150mm to 1100mm x 310 x 250mm.

Rachel Lee's Chrysalis series 1-7, illuminated and photographed against a black background


How buildings affect the environment is not the only element of sustainability that should be front of mind for everyone involved in the design and delivery of our buildings. How the spaces we inhabit affect human health is equally important.

One of the design philosophies that attempts to unite these two strands of human and planet is biophilia. This is often expressed in terms of architectural forms, the use of materials such as timbers and incorporating green wall elements, particularly in commercial, retail and hospitality spaces.

There is a significant body of evidence to show green walls have indoor environmental benefits including passive cooling, absorption of pollutants including VOCs, and benefits on the physiological level such as decreased cortisol levels and improved cognitive function.

However, they are not the only or even in some cases the best way, to connect humans with nature in the biophilic sense. Medical research has found for example, that hospital patients who had views of landscape art experienced similar physiological benefits in terms of reduced heart rate and improved healing times as patients who had an outlook on plants.

As humans, it would appear we are programmed to respond positively to art that draws on nature as much as we respond positively to seeing actual leafy greenery. This broadens the potential for how we improve wellbeing beyond thinking of green walls.

Prior to becoming a sustainability consultant and WELL AP, I had a lengthy career in public art, landscape design, community engagement, interior design, and other creative industries sectors. So, I understand the many layers of benefit to incorporating creativity as part of a biophilic design ethos.

For example, commissions to create artworks for buildings are the lifeblood of a practitioner’s career, not only for the immediate income that helps ensure the artist can continue to maintain themselves, but for the exposure and long-term profile such commissions generate. So, when we commission biophilic art for a project, we are actively contributing to the wellbeing of an artist in an economy where the word ‘artist’ is often synonymous with ‘struggling’.

By commissioning art that has a nature-centric dimension or rich cultural meanings, we also serve the wellbeing of all those who enter, pass through, or spend time in that space. This is recognised in the WELL building rating system and the Living Building Challenge through specific credits focused on connecting people to beauty, culture, identity, and place.

There have also been studies done that show when spaces lack meaningful cultural connections, they can contribute to mental health issues. As humans, we need to belong to places, and it is through the textures, shapes, images and colours within a place that we find a sense of shared identity that is beneficial for wellbeing and mental health.

Taking this into account, a green wall, while ornamental and typified as ‘biophilic’, may not result in the expected productivity and general positivity benefits a designer predicted if that greenery is a monoculture of similar plants divorced from any meaningful context of sense of place. By the same token, an artwork in a space that is otherwise devoid of biophilic elements may also fail to elevate the mood of those who encounter it on a daily basis.

To gain the full benefit of biophilia, both nature and culture must be blended. This blending needs to go beyond an artefact-based approach to embed the principles and features of nature – both environmental nature and human nature.

As the body of work utilising evidence-based design grows with greater adoption of the nuanced biophilic approach, we can see the tangible results. These include measurable outcomes such as reduced staff turnover, improved engagement, reduced leave days, increased profitability, and greater attachment to place.

We talk a lot about place-making, but we need to keep in mind the physical fabric of a place is only part of the equation. When we ‘activate’ a place, it is the culture, activity and sensory dimensions of sound, smell, colour, taste and touch that make it memorable and nourishing for a community.

Rachael Lee, Beyond the elements, 2018, Installation at Logan Art Gallery for Envisage–unseen rhythms exhibition.

Rachael Lee, Beyond the elements, 2018, Installation at Logan Art Gallery