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Moving Forward with Nature at Living Future

For the past several years, SERA has undertaken a firm-wide initiative exploring what it means to create places that connect people with nature, known in our field as Biophilic Design. This year I had the opportunity to head up to Seattle for the Biophilic Design Summit, held by the International Living Future Institute. It was the perfect opportunity to meet like-minded professionals, and tour two internationally-recognized pioneering projects in sustainability and biophilia.

FIRST STOP: Amazon Spheres

I had met Fabian Sanin, Amazon’s Community Landscape Manager, at an ILFI workshop to test out their upcoming Biophilic Design toolkit (more on that in a bit). He brought a valuable owner and operator perspective to the design discussions – something we need more of during our process. “Does Biophilic Design have to be local?” I asked our discussion group. Fabian changed my perspective when he described the purpose of the Amazon Spheres was to bring employees (and plants) together from around the world to share common experiences and discover new things. He offered to show me first hand next time I was in town, and I couldn’t refuse.

My morning began with a cup of coffee on a brisk day outside of the newly constructed Spheres, a flexible workspace for Seattle’s Amazon campus. Its circular glass forms strikingly contrast the rest of the surrounding rectilinear buildings. Even from the sidewalk, I noticed that the facility was teaming with life – from both the jungle-like inside as well as the lush plantings, plazas, and dog park around the exterior.  As I walked in with Fabian, the change in air quality and humidity immediately absorbed me into the space. He explained the construction of one of the largest continuous living walls in the country, took me around meandering paths, and highlighted the current rotating exhibit. Full immersion in nature was a key goal in this facility in the heart of downtown Seattle. Cultural practices such as hand watering and having guides to educate staff on the vegetation (instead of their phones) are just a few examples of the ways that Amazon is pushing the envelope towards a future with nature.

NEXT UP: Bullitt Center

Out of the forest and into asphalt jungle, I headed toward the Bullitt Center – one of the first and largest certified Living Buildings in the world. My tour group gathered outside in McGilvra Place, a park that was connected to the Bullitt Center parcel as part of the project to provide a better pedestrian experience around the facility. Our facilitator, Deborah Sigler from the Center of Integrated Design, guided us through the approval processes and the inner workings of the complex project. We learned about the closed-loop systems for managing and experiencing the natural systems around the site via rain water, gray and black water, energy, and thermal and visual comfort. We got an up-close and personal look (though surprisingly little smell) at the composting toilet system and waste water treatment. I was even able to take home a sample bag of Loop Biosolids – a biproduct of the building’s “waste” to use in my home garden.

As a group, we discussed questions around performance metrics and potential policies that could support more buildings like this in the future: Do we need to instill a system of rights to natural resources that reach each property. If a project uses PVs on the roof to achieve net zero energy, should it not maintain those solar rights to continue to contribute back to the energy grid? Can we truly have a living future for everyone without equal access to fresh water, air, and the sun’s energy?

FINALLY: The Biophilic Design Summit

After two enlightening field trips, it was time for the Biophilic Design Summit – hosted by Tim McGee, ILFI’s Biophilic Design Manager. To start, Judi Heerwagen introduced a new white paper exploring the important ties of our connection to nature and a changing climate, developed by the ILFI Advisory Group. We also heard from Ozadi’s Rolando Balli, who shared his experiences and the critical nature of changing one’s behavior in order to fully experience our world, leading to broader cultural change through the built environment.

The rest of the summit was spent testing and refining the upcoming Biophilic Design toolkit. This will be a collection of resources and processes design champions can use to motivate their teams, educate their clients, develop design strategies, and ensure that connecting people to nature is valued throughout the design process. Here are some of my takeaways:

♦  It was important to recognize the need to translate the language to apply to the intended audience. A lot of times the concepts can be lost in trying to use the right lingo, and loses focus on the intended experience and value to the project. Can we rebrand or translate climate change and sustainability to better align with the values of our partners and community members?

♦  Another major theme to come out of those discussions was the need to expand the design table early to incorporate disciplines that have deep knowledge on how humans and the rest of nature can thrive. Environmental psychologists, ecologists, neuroscientists, and human resources personnel can all play a role to help us better understand our relationship to our environment and enable it to contribute to the health and wellbeing of the natural world (us included!). It’s up to design professionals to share the value this can bring and share the potential with clients and educators alike to better integrate the built environment with scientific knowledge.

♦  How do we consider the future inhabitants of our planet a stakeholder at the design table? Can this conversation tie to future resiliency of the project? What will be the effect of this project and the environment on people 10, 20, or 50 years from certificate of occupancy?

I look forward to the upcoming release of the toolkit and future collaborations with ILFI. It is critical that we create venues to learn and share knowledge with each other as we push towards a future of healthier environments and human sustainability.

To learn more, visit ILFI’s Biophilic Design Initiative.

One Comment

  1. Rebecca Dobosh says |

    Great job highlighting some of the ways in which a Biophilic building enriches the surrounding environment/community. I would LOVE to tour both building and will wrap that into my next Seattle trip!

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