A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 1, 2018

Why More Buildings Are Going Green. Literally

The aesthetics are stunning. But so are the financial and operational productivity benefits. JL

Ken Wells reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Biophilic design can result in significant energy savings, and research indicates that employees in buildings designed with biophilic elements not only feel better about their workplace but perform better. A landmark 2003 study of employees in a call center showed that workers who sat with views of nature handled up to 12% more calls per hour. (Hospital) patients who had views of green space from their rooms had shorter recovery times than those who didn’t.
Most people, when they think of “green” buildings, take that to mean structures built with energy conservation in mind. But, increasingly, buildings are becoming literally green, as cities and companies around the world embrace biophilic design—the concept of surrounding buildings with nature, even on their upper floors, and bringing the outdoors indoors by including natural elements in their interior design.
Planted terraces that wrap around buildings, indoor man-made water features such as ponds and waterfalls, plantings that can cover entire interior walls, cascades of windows to maximize natural light—all are key elements of biophilic design, as are expanded views of nature itself.
Aesthetics are clearly a driver of the biophilic movement, but it is also motivated by the bottom line. Biophilic design can result in significant energy savings, and research indicates that employees in buildings designed with biophilic elements not only feel better about their workplace but perform better, too. For example, a landmark 2003 study of 100 employees in a call center of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District showed that workers who sat with views of nature handled up to 12% more calls per hour than those who had no view.
Clif Bar & Co.’s state-of-the-art bakery in Twin Falls, Idaho, is in the vanguard of the movement. Its profusion of windows, skylights and tubes designed to bring sunlight deep into building interiors bathe the facility in gentle natural light. Wall-size projections of nature bring images of mountains, rivers and forests into the bakery’s core. An imposing stone interior corridor is designed to mimic the Snake River Canyon, one of the most stunning geographic features of the West.
And there are plants everywhere: Low-maintenance plants decorate the light-filled common areas where workers gather, giving these indoor spaces an outdoor feel. Outdoors, a number of patios used by employees for breaks and dining are planted with or surrounded by drought-tolerant native plants, including more than 570 trees and 5,700 shrubs and grasses. The bakery also was sited to offer unimpeded vistas of the nearby mountains of the Sawtooth National Forest.
The idea behind the design of the $90 million, 300,000-square-foot bakery, completed in 2016, was to make it “the kind of place all of us would like to work,” says Rich Berger, vice president of engineering and food supply for the maker of organic energy bars and snacks based in Emeryville, Calif.
Bill Browning, a founding partner of Terrapin Bright Green, a New York-based consulting firm focused on sustainable development, is among America’s leading biophilic experts. He has been consulting with companies including Walmart WMT 0.39% and Marriott International ’s MAR 1.53% Westin Hotels & Resorts to bring biophilic design into their building plans.
Walmart teamed up with Mr. Browning as he first began to explore how bringing elements like abundant natural light into retail workspaces could improve not only productivity but also sales. From experiences with a prototype green store that featured abundant natural light, the company began to find that sales per square foot were significantly higher for departments located in the daylit sections of stores than in those with artificial light, according to a joint report by Mr. Browning and the company.
At Westin, “we believe people have an innate need to interact with nature,” and so the company gears all of its design with biophilic principles in mind, says George Fleck, the chain’s vice president of global brand marketing and management. He points to one of Westin’s newest properties, the five-story, 116-room Westin Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y. The hotel incorporates planted walls, soaring banks of windows and exposed wooden beams into its common areas and decorates its guest rooms with carpets, walls and art suffused with earthy tones and replicating patterns of nature.
A pivotal piece of research backing up the premise of biophilic design is a 1984 study published in the journal Science that found that a suburban Pennsylvania hospital’s gallbladder-surgery patients who had views of green space from their rooms had shorter recovery times than those who didn’t. Many other studies have since confirmed such health benefits.
Today, the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore, completed in 2010, features vast indoor courtyards of tropical plants surrounding patient areas. Fins along the building’s exterior channel prevailing northeast winds into the building, enhancing airflow by 20% to 30% and reducing the need for air conditioning.
Singapore is also home to one of the pioneers of biophilic design, the architectural firm WOHA, founded by Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell in 1994. The WOHA-designed ParkRoyal on Pickering hotel in Singapore, part of the Pan Pacific Hotels Group, features almost 4 acres of lushly planted, self-sustaining terraces interlaced with waterfalls, ponds and other naturalistic features.
The 367-room hotel has been largely sold out since it opened in 2013, and suites go for more than $500 a night. “It’s a project that shows that an investment in green design can translate into real profit,” says Mr. Hassell.
WOHA is working on 14 biophilic projects in seven countries, according to Mr. Hassell. One of them is a park and classroom cluster as part of a new campus for the Singapore Institute of Technology that will cocoon campus buildings in an urban forest.
Biophilic design has earned some prestigious recognition. The dual towers of the Bosco Verticale apartment complex in Milan are clothed in staggered terraces featuring about 800 trees—enough to cover a 3-acre forest. The project won Europe’s International Highrise Award in 2014 for the continent’s most innovative building.
While designing buildings with huge green spaces, green walls and terraced gardens can be challenging—using trees requires building in load capacity—some projects get around that by the choice of plants they use. At One Central Park in Sydney, hydroponic plants require no soil and minimal water to thrive, alleviating the issue of structural overloading. The mixed residential and commercial building features a series of hanging gardens that clad the exteriors of its two residential towers with more than 85,000 plants, and includes 22 interior green walls.
Green walls add only modest costs to new construction, since bringing in water and drainage is no more complicated than installing the necessary plumbing. As for maintenance, “our focus has been on building walls where there is minimal plant loss and therefore a lower cost of operation over time,” says Richard Kincaid, founder of Chicago-based Sagegreenlife, which specializes in green-wall construction.
In the U.S., biophilic projects are popping up across the country. Among the notable ones is a project by CookFox Architects of New York that has transformed a blocky five-story parking garage adjacent to the city’s High Line elevated green space into a light-filled, 10-story office complex that is nearing completion.
With the High Line as inspiration, “the idea was to rethink the site for the biophilic workplace of the future,” says Rick Cook, a CookFox founder. “Every single floor will have access to outdoor spaces and gardens.
“An outdoor garden begins on the second floor, north-face terrace and rises to connect the second-, third- and fourth-floor terraces with a wide stairway that features planting beds and integrated seating,” Mr. Cook says. “Each floor above also features a terrace in varied locations,” he says, and to top it all off, “there are rooftop gardens at the 11th and 12th floors.”


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