Natural Selection: Biophilia in Education

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in Learning by Design’s Spring 2022 issue as part of a content partnership with the title, “Natural Selection.” 

Architecture is an experience. Among the best of it, context, character, and community inform place, purpose, and point of view to shape a myriad of choices made along the way. In architecture for learning, the decisions made during design influence a learner’s capacity to absorb and retain information as much as the building provides a place from which a learner obtains an education. For researchers Bill Browning and Terri Peters, Ph.D., infusing the innate human instinct to connect with the natural world into the spaces where we live, work, learn, and play is more than a matter of aesthetics; it is a mission.

“Biophilia is about accommodating the human desire and need to connect with nature in the spaces we occupy,” says Browning, who is the managing partner of Terrapin Bright Green, a sustainability design and research consultancy committed to creating a healthier world. “On the simplest level, biophilic design begins with good views of nature through windows and enlivening the spaces we occupy with plants and natural materials. However, these are just 3 of 15 different patterns of biophilic design that can enhance the built environment. There is no shortage of evidence that these things improve cognitive functions, physical health, and psychological well-being.”

Terri Peters, Ph.D., is an architect and an assistant professor in the Department of Architecture and Science at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, who has devoted her career to studying human conditions that are hard to measure.

“The most effective biophilic design solutions are holistic and immersive,” says Peters. “Spatial proportions, the quality of light, textures, air flows, and smells all combine to enhance space in meaningful ways.”

Through nearly 30 years of research and consulting on biophilic design strategies, Browning shares that the established science around infusing space with nature falls into three application areas.

Nature in the Space is the literal idea of adding natural influences like views, vegetation, and daylight to invigorate space by design. The second application, Natural Analogs, is the indirect experiences of nature by including natural materials, fractal patterns, and biomorphic forms in architecture that provide accessibility to nature through non-living elements. Finally, Nature of the Spaces entails spatial experiences that apply naturally occurring spatial patterns that induce a psychological sense of calm and security within a space. For example, unimpeded views through an area enhance prospect awareness, while a wall at your back and a shelter overhead provide a comforting sense of refuge within a space.

Image by Wade Griffith Photography
Redbud Elementary in Round Rock, TX
Architect/Design: PBK Architects

“The effects of biophilic design decisions are quantifiable. Studies in educational environments reveal that students learn better, retain more, and enjoy the overall experience of education in spaces with biophilic influences,” says Browning. “Several studies prove that daylight variability improves visual acuity and keep us in tune with our circadian clock. Being able to see nature, even through a window, has an impact on our prefrontal cortex that helps restore our attention and allows learners to increase cognitive focus and information retention.”

According to Attention Restoration Theory, the human brain’s capacity to focus on a specific stimulus is limited – too much time on task results in directed attention fatigue. Breaking away from intense concentration in a restorative natural environment for a little as 40 seconds can reset a person’s mental state from negative to positive, enabling them to resume concentration at total capacity in a relatively short period.

“In educational settings when children are allowed access to nature during the day, teachers report students return to the classroom in a calmer state of mind and are better able to get into the next task quickly,” says Browning.

Peters shares that at Ryerson University, while participating in a classroom audit of campus facilities, the team found a lot of challenges related to classroom design, use, and spatial hierarchy.

“Issues as simple as walls cluttered with posters, mismatched chairs, and tables, and poor levels of light are examples of everyday basics that are easily improved,” says Peters. “Next semester, we will establish a test classroom that incorporates biophilic design principles and then evaluate the student and faculty experience against unchanged classrooms in the same building. In addition, we will add plants, replace lighting with a full spectrum system and clean the windows for better light and views. We will also increase spatial variability by adding hierarchy to spaces and replace wall clutter with thoughtfully selected abstract graphics of natural patterns that we believe will have measurable positive impacts.”

One of the most interesting ways biophilic design strategies enhance the experience of space is by incorporating statistical fractals. These detailed, repeating patterns are the fundamental foundation of many organic systems, existing in abundance throughout the natural world. Spiral fractals allow nature to condense itself for strength and durability against the elements; examples include pinecones, pineapples, and hurricanes. A Voronoi fractal illuminates nature’s tendency to favor efficiency and relies on linking cell structure through the shortest path between points. Examples include the skin of a giraffe, honeycombs, the cells in a leaf, and foaming bubbles.

Browning was part of a team that conducted a year-long study using simple biophilic interventions in a sixth-grade mathematics classroom in Baltimore. The changes included removing most of the visual clutter of posters from the walls, putting down Interface® carpet tiles with a wavy grass biomorphic pattern, a wallpaper frieze with an abstracted palm-leaf pattern, and automated fabric window blinds with a statistical fractal pattern based on tree branch shadows.

The impact of the interventions was soon evident. Test scores improved dramatically – the average gain in math test scores was more than three times as high in the biophilic classroom than in a control classroom. The study also determined that the space helped the students with stress recovery. In fact, the percentage of students in the biophilic classroom who perceived their stressors as high dropped from 67% in February to 35% in June. In addition, the teacher in the biophilic classroom reported experiencing reduced anxiety and increased effectiveness, which suggests the interventions can benefit both students and staff.

“Dappled light or the experience of daylight streaming through a canopy of trees in a forest has a calming effect on human minds,” shares Browning. “We recently worked on a new guest room prototype for a hospitality client where we added LED lighting and a perforated metal panel to the ceiling plane above the entrance to the room. When the guest turns on the light, it casts a pattern of dappled light on the walls and floors that mimic the experience of stepping into a forest, which produced a calming effect.”

Image by Wade Griffith Photography
Redbud Elementary in Round Rock, TX
Architect/Design: PBK Architects

Browning and Peters agree that the benefits are more than improved cognitive performance when asked about the big-picture necessity for biophilic spaces in learning environments.

“In educational design, there is an ever-increasing pressure on physical spaces to offer more than mere shelter. To be competitive, Spaces need to enhance collaboration, elevate our mood, and make people feel calm and welcome,” says Peters. Unsurprisingly, Browning reveals that the corporate world leads the way on biophilic implementation in many cases.

“Corporations now realize the old model of cubical-fill workspaces don’t favor chance interactions and the sense of spontaneous combustion that compels the eureka moments that can change the trajectory of success,” says Browning. “To maximize the value of the real estate, workspaces and classrooms alike require openness, inclusivity, and the opportunity for cross-pollination among interactions.”

Browning points out that for much of his 30 plus years of experience in the field, energy efficiency has been the focus of sustainable design strategies. In the push for planet-saving sustainability, many have overlooked the fact that the cost of operating a building is only about one percent of a business’s expenses. The real value in sustainability is gained through increased human performance, personal pride of place, and the sense of satiation that comes from having access to fresh air, views of nature, and engaging interactions with others.

“In some ways, the effectiveness and simplicity of these design strategies can be intuitively obvious,” finishes Peters. “Biophilic design aims to be an immersive, multi-sensory experience of nature in space. However, there’s more to it than plants and views or bells and whistles. It’s about using color, light, texture, and nature’s ability to improve human performance. These principles can be transmitted to everything from carpet patterns to the angle of a desk to a window. In every way possible, design makes a difference.”

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