What Nature can do for People

It is now recognised that we spend 90 percent of our time inside buildings. And yet often, too little attention is paid to what buildings really have on people. However, says Sustainability Provocateur Martin Brown, we are seeing a real increase in interest and application of biophilia, biophilic design and connecting with nature to create spaces that give more than they take in respect of inhabitant and planetary health.

As a ‘Provocateur’ with Fairsnape, vice chair of the EU COST Restore programme and Ambassador with the Living Building Challenge, he challenges people to think differently about the sustainability of buildings. This was the core message in his book ‘FutuREstorative’, published in 2016, in which he called on designers and builders to scale up sustainability: “We no longer have the opportunity to only be less bad”.

We have had a definition of sustainability for thirty years (the ‘Brundtland’ definition), but in practice we do nothing if we can and continue to put future generations at risk, as highlighted in the recent United Nations IPCC Report that gives us 12 years to avoid climate change catastrophe. Many of our KPIs are heading in the wrong direction,” explains Brown.

Unhealthy buildings

Sustainability only pays lip service to the issue. The amount of CO2 emitted by buildings and the construction sector is increasing. The same applies to the amount of waste we produce. We continue to pollute. We also continue to build buildings with materials that are potentially ‘bad for people’, with components that further down the supply chain, that might have elements of modern slavery”

According to Brown, ‘unhealthy’ buildings are still topical. The lack of, for example, light, fresh air and views can be a direct threat to the health of the building occupants. Sadly, school buildings in particular still score badly. “Where the air outside can be better than inside.” A UK survey by RIBA in 2016 found that one in five teachers had considered leaving their school as a result of stressful, overcrowded working environments caused by the poorly designed buildings.

The use of toxic chemicals and adhesives in construction contributes to this poor air quality. “We don’t pay any attention to this, and that’s strange,” says Brown. “After all, it is people who design for people. And that comes with a responsibility towards inhabitant health.

Biophilic design

Regenerative sustainability is going beyond sustainability to give back more than we take, to the environment, to nature, people, communities we work in and to society in general. If sustainability is about reducing our footprints, then regenerative sustainability is about increasing our positive handprints.

Though my work and presentations, I draw attention to regenerative, biophilic design, as a pathway to make buildings healthier“, Brown continues. “We often overlook how natural elements can really benefit people, and what wonderful positive impact buildings can have when connected to nature. Imagine that feeling you have during a forest walk, and if you could experience that when you’re inside buildings.

As an example of healthy buildings, he mentions Living Building Challenge projects, such as the Cuerden Valley Park project in the UK and the Bullitt Center in Seattle that, designed to function and feel as a tree, makes optimal use of daylight, cleans its own water and generates more energy than it uses, while screening materials to eliminate some key chemicals of concern.

However, sustainability doesn’t stop at design and construction,” Brown emphasizes. “You can have a beautiful design and responsible construction, but it’s about how the building is operated and how inhabitants live, work and play within the building.

For example, if a canteen sells water in plastic bottles and serves unsustainably sourced food products, if the lights stay on unnecessarily and waste is not managed or eliminated, then that makes the whole building unsustainable. Note that a building will only qualify for Living Building Challenge accreditation, the worlds most rigorous sustainability standard from the International Living Future Institute, following an evidence based ‘proving’ period of 12 continuous months.

Return on investment

Biophilia is not a new subject, as Brown knows better than anyone having researched the theme for FutuREstorative. The benefits of connecting with nature have been written and talked about by for example Patrick Geddes in 1915, E.O. Wilson in 1984, Stephen Kellert in 2008, and many others, yet for most in the built environment it remains poorly understood.

Unfortunately the focus is still on capital costs, but return of sustainability investment depends on how we value the building and the impact on inhabitants. Biophilic principles soon become clear: whilst we can create a building that is ‘unsustainable’ at a much lower cost, we also build health and business risk costs into the future. And that is too short-sighted. In the long term, a sustainable and healthy building gives a much better return on investment.

In the longer term, a regenerative sustainable building will save cost,” concludes Brown. “Especially if a building, like a flower, gives more than it takes, to peoples health, to planet and to the purpose of the building.”

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