The concept of biophilia—first coined by American biologist Edward O. Wilson in the 1980s, theorizes that humans have a biological need to connect with nature on physical, mental, and social levels, and that this connection affects our personal well-being, productivity, and societal relationships. The concept is easy enough to understand on a micro level. We are all inspired by nature in some way, and respond positively to fresh air, landscape views, and natural light. But on the macro level—as a design concept that can shape the entire built environment—biophilia is somewhat more complex. An offshoot of the sustainability movement, biophilic design seeks to integrate nature and structure by focusing on bringing nature into indoor space, incorporating materials and patterns that evoke nature, and planning open space configurations that allow for expansive views.
Bob Fox, a founder of COOKFOX Architects in New York and a principal of Terrapin Bright Green, an environmental consulting and strategic planning firm committed to improving the human environment through high performance development, policy, and related research, has long been dedicated to the principles of biophilic design, as evidenced in many of the firms’ more recent projects.
One Bryant Park
Also known as the Bank of America Tower, the now-iconic One Bryant Park in New York City was the first commercial high rise to achieve LEED Platinum certification. The 2.1 million-sq.-ft., 55-story tower set a new standard in high performance buildings when it opened in 2009. Among its many sustainable features, it draws on the concepts of biophilic design by emphasizing daylight, fresh air, and an intrinsic relationship to the outdoors.
In response to its dense urban context, the building blurs the boundaries between public and private space with a highly transparent corner entry. A daylit and neutral space, the lobby creates a layered connection to the public realm of Bryant Park, whose restorative green spaces extend into the building through green roofs and a publicly accessible Urban Garden Room. Solid, natural lobby materials anchor the tower to the earth; small, tactile details such as white oak door handles, fossil-embedded Jerusalem stone, and leather paneling keep the massive tower intelligible to the human hand and eye.
As it rises from the street grid, the massing of the tower shifts, increasing the surface area exposed to daylight. The resulting angles offer views around and through the forest of Midtown Manhattan skyscrapers, and on its southeast side, a deep double wall orients the building in its full height toward Bryant Park. A floor-to-ceiling glass curtain wall provides expansive views while minimizing solar heat gain through low-e glass and heat-reflecting ceramic frit.
641 Avenue of the Americas
COOKFOX “walks the green talk” in the design of its own offices. Its LEED-CI Platinum certified space at 641 Avenue of the Americas in New York serves as a showcase that reflects the firm’s studio culture and its commitment to sustainability, as well as its vision for the future of biophilic design. The light-filled studio—in the penthouse of a former department store in the Ladies Mile Historic District—features and open floor plan, 14-ft. ceilings, and original column and ceiling details from the early 1900s. Daylight fills the interior space through a sweeping curve of 9-ft. windows that offer breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline, including many of the city’s most iconic buildings. An upgraded HVAC system, operable windows, and low-VOC materials provide natural ventilation and high indoor air quality. The interiors palette gives priority to natural, local, and eco-friendly materials.
A 3,600-sq.-ft. roof garden is the office’s strongest biophilic element and is visible from nearly every work area. The green roof, planted with drought-tolerant, low maintenance sedum species, reduces stormwater runoff, decreases the building’s cooling load, and houses an apiary with over 50,000 Italian bees. Three COOKFOX staffers who are amateur beekeepers tend the colony.
All of these sustainable features serve as the backdrop for regular office tours and a monthly environmental lecture series.
510 West 22nd Street
Inspired by its proximity to the High Line as much as by biophilia, the 10-story office tower for real estate developer Albanese Organization that is planned for 510 West 22nd Street will provide maximum visual and physical connection to the landscaped environment of the High Line and views of the Hudson River beyond.
A glass-enclosed lobby captures natural light from the High Line above, and offers tenants and visitors a view of the ground level garden, while a rooftop garden enhances the connection to the surrounding natural environment. The glass curtain wall relates to the park’s infrastructure with structural elements in dark charcoal metal, and all terraces feature natural wood ceilings recalling the plantings and wood benches below.
Panoramic windows, coupled with support columns pulled back 15 ft. from the perimeter window walls, ensure light-filled office floors with expansive views over the High Line and West Chelsea. Exterior solar shades allow abundant natural light to enter work areas while mitigating glare and reducing heat load. Operable window panels enable tenants to enjoy fresh air and listen to birds living in the High Line’s birch tree thicket below.
510 West 22nd Street also features over 15,000 sq. ft. of outdoor space for office tenants’ use, including landscaped terraces cut into the building profile to offer close-up views of the landscape and trees along the High Line.
The tower is being designed by COOKFOX to achieve a LEED Platinum rating.
“If you are a decent architect today, you will focus on saving energy and water,” says Bob Fox. “But how do you create architecture that has a direct connection to nature?” Biophilic design, a practice that essentially melds the two, is gaining popularity worldwide, and is already becoming an increasingly important conversation on the sustainability horizon. COOKFOX’s work is evidence that biophilia can inform projects as diverse as super tall architecture for a global financial giant, to a speculative office tower for a real estate developer, to the adaptive reuse of an historic interior for a creative organization. What they share is a better vision for healthy, sustainable, high-performance space.