Environmental Building News has an article up on integrating biophilia into green building practices.

Biophilia is a notion popularized by biologist E. O. Wilson. It describes humans’ innate affiliation for the natural world. Biophilia attempts to define “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.”

The thrust of the article is that biophilia is an underdeveloped element of green building practices, but one that has significant potential benefits.

… it is becoming increasingly well demonstrated that biophilic elements have real, measurable benefits relative to such human performance metrics as productivity, emotional well-being, stress reduction, learning, and healing. And second, from an environmental standpoint, biophilic features foster an appreciation of nature, which, in turn, should lead to greater protection of natural areas, eliminate pollution, and maintain a clean environment.

It’s great to see a well-known green building publication drawing attention to these issues. EBN describes the major threads of this work and provide a good cross section of examples of research that’s been done on nature’s impact on human well-being, from increased patient recovery to reduced ADHD symptoms to increased school performance. Something to keep in mind: not all research on nature contact subscribes to the biophilia hypothesis. While the article cites Ulrich’s work on stress and others’ work on attention, some of those researchers argue for mechanisms other than biophilia behind their discoveries (disclaimer — some of those researchers are my advisors).

Another important issue the article raises is that much of this research has been pretty small scale so far.

The evidence collected to date is compelling, though integrating biophilic design strategies into buildings on a more widespread basis will require significantly more scientific data showing tangible benefits of these features. Federal and state agencies should take the lead in funding this research, but health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and insurance companies should get involved as well.

What’s needed before we plunge forward giving out LEED credits for potted plants in buildings is more comprehensive research. It would be easy to take some of these ideas and run with them, but more research and careful application are needed; otherwise, we might see some pretty silly applications that don’t yield the benefits we’re looking for.

The authors also address a concern I have with biophilia in green building, something I raised earlier — balancing biophilia with other green design priorities.

The SkyCeiling system described in the sidebar above is a popular strategy for easing stress, particularly in healthcare facilities–but it comes with a penalty of increased energy consumption. Incorporating this biophilic feature may make it more difficult to achieve energy conservation goals. Other strategies, such as large glazing areas of high-visible-transmittance glass, operable windows, and indoor-outdoor spaces that connect people with nature, may carry even more significant energy penalties.

On a different level, providing large open areas around buildings–to serve the evolutionarily based desire to look out on savannah-like vistas that many biophilia proponents suggest we have–may conflict with the strategy of high-density development, or may encourage sprawl and development of the most beautiful greenfield sites.

These conflicts are real, but they are surmountable. By understanding these potential conflicts and working with integrated design teams to address them, all of these goals can be achieved.

It’s critical to keep this in mind as our palette of green building options grows. Obviously it’s a tradeoff any time you’re considering options with a green building, and many biophilia concepts could be valuable. But with biophilia as a green design principle the emphasis does shift somewhat from the environment at large to the occupants within. That’s not what green builders want, what E.O. Wilson is after, or what producers of skyceilings have in mind, but in this capitalist society, with the “client” driving the selection of options, it could be tempting to focus on personal environmental benefits at the cost of the larger environmental benefits.