In order to maintain healthy connections in a complex and evolving world, we sometimes have to seek places with characteristics that resemble those of our ancestors from millennia ago. At SERA, we’re currently exploring what those conditions are, and how to integrate the natural and built environments to the benefit of human health and well-being.

Sustainable Experiences

While maintaining our resources is crucial for the persistence of future generations, sustainable design goes beyond the responsible management of energy, water, soil, and materials. Here at SERA, where we focus on sustainable design for the built environment, we are beginning to learn and explore how the experience of your environment contributes to health and well-being. As designers and planners, we cannot eliminate people’s deadlines, cure illnesses, or ensure that students prepare for their next exam, but we can look for ways to create environments that minimize stressors and enable positive and healthy experiences.

Q: What experiences sustain you?

We all experience a wide variety of environmental stressors in our daily lives – some are physical (lighting, acoustics, thermal comfort, air quality) and some are mental (complex information, safety, crowding, social interaction). Sensitivities to each vary from person to person. I think of it as a personal psychrometric chart for each type of stimulus. In order to do my best for the longest period of time (or optimize my performance), I find it helps to stay within my unique tolerance range for each. This is often aided by multi-sensory access to the natural elements, such as glareless daylight, natural ventilation, and views to natural ecosystems and the weather. Watching the Oregon rain for a few seconds not only provides a much needed mental break, but it also helps reduce eye strain caused by working at a computer all day.

Q: Which kinds of stressors exist in the built environment? Which kinds of stressors exist in the natural environment? How do they differ?

Productive Disconnections

Due to the range and variation of sensory, mental, and emotional experiences that each person has on a regular basis, it’s very difficult to imagine a stress-free built environment for everyone at all times. While prevention is the best cure, design strategies will differ from space type to space type and user group to user group, and may not be able to accommodate everyone’s range without a fine level of personal control (which has its own set of complications). This leads to the importance of creating places for people to disconnect from their current tasks in order to reduce stress and support information processing (especially for introverts like me).

We often have certain typologies in mind when we think about productive places – large cities, dense buildings, and office work stations that focus on collaboration or heads down work – but it is sometimes the places in between that allow for the important processing of information and casual social encounters that lead to creative solutions and stress reduction. Common and neutral grounds, such as lounges, public squares and plazas, gardens, parks and natural reserves, enable us to expand our boundaries and create opportunities for making more and deeper connections to others and their ideas.

Letting your mind and body wander in natural environments (or those with similar qualities) can allow you to see things at different distances, scales, and levels of detail (what I like to call thinking fractally). It also has the potential to restore your capacity for cognitive thought and focus, otherwise known as Attention Restoration Theory as described by Stephen Kaplan in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 1995. This restoration occurs by allowing your active (or voluntary) mind to rest, while engaging your involuntary mind. “Soft fascination” or “effortless attention” allows our brains to process complex information, helping to mitigate the information overload that we commonly experience in our modern lives. I often refer to this as mental defragging.  The natural environment is ripe with opportunities for this. Some common examples are watching clouds pass overhead or a bird outside your window – familiar movements in unpredictable patterns.


“Since nature is not only fascinating in this soft and gentle way but is also pleasurable, that means you can more effectively think about things that are not comfortable.” – Stephen Kaplan

The Lan Su Chinese Garden provides an easily accessible place for SERA employees to defrag in a multisensory environment. As you wander past the waterfall and sit under one of their pavilions to watch the fish flitter about, you almost forget that you’re in downtown Portland. Credit: flickr/Jeff Hart

The Lan Su Chinese Garden provides an easily accessible place for SERA employees to defrag in a multisensory environment. As you wander past the waterfall and sit under one of their pavilions to watch the fish flitter about, you almost forget that you’re in downtown Portland. Credit: flickr/ipeguy


We should change our experience of place from “What am I looking at?” to “What am I connected to or a part of?” – Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, Living Future unConference 2015

In the new Information Age, data and connections rule. We are constantly striving to take in new data as it becomes available to us, convert it to useful information, and combine or connect information into applicable knowledge. Some of the most successful tech companies are rooted in connecting people or information  (think Google or Facebook). These connections have the potential to help break down barriers – social or mental – by finding common ground with others. They can also lead to new ideas and innovation by making thoughts uniquely less incomplete than they were before. Socially, popular cultural references help people connect with others with common interests (I think we call these ‘memes’ now). Many of these stay relevant within a generation, while there are some that span several. There is at least one connection, however, that spans all human generations:

As humans, we are all living on the same planet, and are the same animal that evolved over millennia to survive in the natural environment.

Per the Savanna Hypothesis, landscape characteristics that we typically prefer - especially those relating to safety and prospect - have origins in our common ancestors surviving in eastern Africa . Credit: Matt Piccone

Per the Savanna Hypothesis, landscape characteristics that we typically prefer – especially those relating to safety and prospect – have origins in our common ancestors surviving in eastern Africa. Credit: Matt Piccone

The natural environment is a universal connection, and because of this, there are certain characteristics of our environment to which we have similar reactions. Even though our culture and technology allow or even encourage us to be isolated from the natural world, our physical evolution lags behind, and still strongly benefits from regular engagement with those same characteristics that have made us feel comfortable, engaged, and safe for millennia. Still, everyone will show variations based on their unique experiences. We all have our own story of how we’ve interacted with the natural environment (or haven’t) from early childhood to present day, and how it adds stress or delight to our experiences.

Q: What is your personal natural history?

There is a continuously growing mass of research that supports our positive reactions to the natural environment. Terrapin Bright Green, a sustainability research and consulting firm out of NYC, has produced several papers, compiling a plethora of research on common patterns found in natural environments and their positive effects on human wellbeing and performance. Stephen Kellert, an Emeritus Professor at Yale for Forestry and Environmental Studies and Architect Elizabeth Calabrese, have also recently released a paper on the human relationship to the natural world and how design can embody the principles and characteristics commonly found there.


These publications, and many more, are valuable resources to help designers understand how the spaces we create can align with the environmental conditions we evolved in as a species, in order to produce positive human health and wellbeing outcomes. However, you don’t need to pore over dozens of white papers in order to experience the results. They are easy to test yourself; just take a break and go outside!

Q: Be mindful of your experiences. What is your reaction to the natural environment? Are there experiences or qualities from natural settings worth replicating in the built environment where we as Americans spend about 90% of our time?

I’m a synthesist – I learn and create by making connections. The more I learn about a place, idea, or person, the greater appreciation I have. I think about this as I begin to plan for another gardening season. The more time I spend learning about the functions and benefits of each new organism I introduce to my community, the more I want to take care of the system as a whole, because I feel am I becoming an integral part of it. This stewardship leads to both greater and more detailed observations, which, with an open mind, generates more connections. Integrating the natural environment and its common characteristics into our projects creates environments that allow us to disconnect from our daily stresses to free ourselves to reconnect to those things and places that we care most about. To me, that’s a sustainable experience.

Connection Cycle

Connection Cycle

Header image: James Rand Photography


  1. Richard H. Wilson says |

    Lan Su Chinese Garden is a great way to connect with nature and architecture at the same time, in the city. The way the water droplets fall from roof shingles is almost poetic. The meandering paths can help calm thinking. I cannot wait till it opens back up! Thanks Matt, for writing this awesome article.

    • Matt Piccone says |

      Thanks, Rick. It’s great that SERA is a member and offers up to 8 employees free entry. Maybe we should start holding more meetings there when it reopens.

  2. Jeff Frost says |

    Very well written Matt.

    Our relationship to nature has been systematically removed from much of our culture. Our ability to reconnect with these natural systems and cycles is critical to not just our health and well-being but is central to how we adapt to climate change. If we can remove commonly held barriers often cited as political and redefine them as ways to re-align ourselves with natural systems, we will make good progress together as stewards, as global community members with shared interests and outcomes.

    • Matt Piccone says |

      That’s an important point, Jeff. For the most part, it has been removed at a scale and pace that goes unseen to most people. Stephen Kellert referred to this as “generational amnesia,” where a majority of people only notice small changes over their lifetime, comparing the new conditions with the ones from their childhood. Our technology and greater interconnectedness is helping us now see a much larger picture, at a time scale that goes back centuries. This, coupled with the environmental change happening quicker and a growing body of research tying the health of the natural world to our own, creates a much greater sense of urgency to bring back what has been lost, or at least holding onto what we still have.

  3. Great article…However I think architects – the ones that embrace a systems approach to sustainability as SERA does – can have a very big impact on human wellbeing and chronic disease. Quoting from your first paragraph “As designers and planners, we cannot eliminate people’s deadlines, cure illnesses, ….” True, but the interplays between human habitat and health are growing ever clearer thanks to mounting bodies of clinical research into the drivers of chronic diseases.

    Last year the US spent over $2.5 Trillion on treating chronic diseases, which include conditions like asthma, diabetes, obesity, depression and so on. Many of these conditions are aggravated by the places we inhabit; un-walkable neighborhoods where neighbors hardly know each other and heat, light and noise polluted sleeping conditions that lead to disturbed sleep patterns. These drive up waking appetites for carbs and sugars by as much as 40%. Its a deadly embrace for people living in houses where utility bills are very high and the money left over for good food is limited to nonexistent. Changing these dynamics through better, more thoughtful design as well as reshaping our incredibly rigid system of land use zoning can indeed begin to address a range of chronic disease conditions that are costing the nation more than four times what is spent on defense each year.

    Even after the crash of 2007-2008, our banking system continues to treat human habitats as real estate commodities to be built on the cheap and sold a few times over for the highest price before replacing them with equally short-lived developments. This driving force behind real estate financing and investment trusts is at odds with the core purposes of most places we inhabit for living, working, playing and learning. They are supposed to nurture so much of who we are and our potential, and encourage the good health we ought to experience. Building only for real estate profits is literally killing us. We can and must do better and I think architects need to be engaged with and driving more debates about public policy and lending risk than they are.

    • Matt Piccone says |

      I agree with a lot of your points, Phil, and I think much of what we say is in alignment. The design field can learn a lot by better understanding and applying research on health and wellbeing – Biophilic Design being just a part of that. I think that the spaces we create have a role to play in the prevention of illness, and less in the cure, though we can provide places that are more conducive to allowing people to heal.

      Historically, SERA has been very active in Portland – and now in Silicon Valley – in coordinating and advocating with local jurisdictions on sustainability issues. The more we learn, and the more evidence we have to speak to the value of these issues, the stronger the case we can make to act with local governments and potential and current clients (private developers or public organizations). Any resources that you have that you would be willing to share to help with these efforts would be great. Thanks for your feedback and I hope to hear back from you soon.

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