Phipps Conservatory's Center for Sustainable Landscapes explores humanity's role in environment

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Picture a living building. Is it covered with moss? Do its walls bulge on the inhale?

Not at the Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens, they don't. But something equally improbable is happening. The people who work inside the Oakland conservatory's Center for Sustainable Landscapes say they feel closer to nature when they're inside the structure.

That's not just a fortunate perk; it's actually good for all sorts of business metrics like productivity, work attendance, retention, creativity and health care costs.

The Phipps' center opened in December and is aiming for certification under the Living Building Challenge, a rigorous rating system of sustainability. The building is a super energy-efficient structure with rooftop rain gardens; large, sun-drenched spaces; and a lagoon outside. The difference between walking into the building and standing outside of it isn't great, which is the point.

The idea that feeling connected to nature from inside a building would give people a better work environment was intuitive to Phipps' CEO, Richard Piacentini -- and to some extent it passes everyone's gut check. But it's only within the past year or so that he's been able to give it a name: biophilia.

"We spend about 80 percent of our lives in buildings," he said. "If we're lucky enough to have a window, we can't open it. We have no idea what's going on with temperature, seasons. The idea of a living building is to make some of those connections."

Biophilia, a term coined in the 1980s, suggests that people need these links to the natural world in order to maintain mental and physical well-being.

Biophilic design, a relatively new field, is making the case that building occupants will be better workers (or students or hospital patients) if they have access to nature. For example, researchers have shown better outcomes for patients given a natural view from their hospital room than for those staring at a garage or a wall. Even people who look at pictures of nature show a benefit over those that don't.

The concept really spoke to Mr. Piacentini, and it is now the focus of the first major research program at Phipps.

Traditionally, conservatories that are large enough to do their own research focus their efforts on plant and environmental science -- naturally. But Phipps wanted to do something different. It wanted to look at humanity's role in the environment. Humans, after all, initiate conservation efforts. It makes sense to study their behavior in order to better the environment.

A quarter of a million people visit Phipps each year. They will be the guinea pigs for this research effort.

For example, Phipps is working with students at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Public Health who will start recommending to conservatory visitors which plants they should grow to clean the air in their homes and offices. Such plants -- pothos, spider plants, orchids -- are ubiquitous in the offices of the CSL. If there were any harmful chemicals in the paint or furniture, which there aren't as part of the building's design, the plants would help neutralize them.

The students will follow up and report back to Phipps which strategies worked to convince them to try these plants and which didn't.

The research won't be about establishing the benefits of biophilia. It will be, at least in part, about how to sell people on those benefits.

Molly Steinwald -- who heads Phipps' science, education and research work -- quotes environmental psychologist Peter Kahn to explain how the conservatory found its research purpose: "In fostering the human relationship with nature, we need to pay attention not only to nature, but to human nature."

In October, Phipps is launching a biophilia networking group, where people interested in the subject can get together, listen to a presentation and mingle. Mr. Piacentini is hoping to attract biophiliacs from many different disciplines: architects, designers, educators, social workers, museum staff, health professionals.

Major biophilia programs are likely to begin next year, Ms. Steinwald said.

Dollars and sense

Biophilic design is already evident in both new and old buildings, wherever attention is given to natural materials, and how building occupants interact with what's outside the walls. Think Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, or the window wall of REI's SouthSide Works store.

In a 2012 analysis called "The Economics of Biophilia," New York-based consultants Terrapin Bright Green calculated that businesses spend 112 times the amount of money on people as on energy costs, which means investments in making those people happier, healthier, more productive are likely to have even more of an impact on the bottom line than what's usually associated with energy conservation.

"The cost per square foot of a given corporate office space is overwhelmingly devoted to salary," the report states. "This is precisely where the argument for biophilic design begins to pique the interest of business owners, superintendents, CEOs, policymakers and builders."

Sonja Bochart, an interior designer with SmithGroupJJR in Phoenix, says she's able to convince almost anyone she gets in front of about the value of biophilic design.

"How it works into our buildings is that -- there's obviously the intuitive piece of it -- daylight is good, views are good. But it goes a little bit deeper."

Using local materials and knowing where they come from helps building occupants fill in the supply chain from nature to the office. It reinforces the premise that "everything we come in contact with affects our being," she said.

"With all these studies that are linking it to productivity, wellness -- it's just smart design," Ms. Bochart said.

In a recent project for a rehabilitation hospital in Denver, Ms. Bochart used colors and shapes to evoke different natural environments with distinct healing benefits expected for each one.

Blues and greens and repeating geometric patterns create the "canopy of Aspen trees" area, a serene and quiet place.

A much brighter spot, filled with warm hues and circular shapes, is meant to invite conversation and nurture a feeling of community, "because socialization is important in healing," Ms. Bochart said.

According to Terrapin's analysis, reducing the average length of a hospital stay by less than half a day can yield $93 million in reduced hospital costs each year.

On some level, Phipps already knew that. In 2012, it formed what is now called Studio Phipps, a landscape design consultancy which helped Magee Womens Hospital plant gardens for employees and patients.

At the time, no one at Phipps was using the word biophilia.

"It just made sense to us," Mr. Piacentini said. "We didn't realize it had a name."

It also made sense to have fresh air and natural light at the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, not just because lighting comprises more than 30 percent of the energy load for buildings, but because it makes occupants feel better.

Researchers at the Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics at Carnegie Mellon University actually calculated the return on investment for using Venetian blinds to enhance day-lighting and manage temperature. They estimated that by training employees how to position the blinds to maximize sunlight but avoid the glare and heat, a company will experience a 3 percent increase in productivity.

Even in retail, biophilia has its place. Studies show consumers are likely to spend more time, buy more and come back more often to shopping environments with trees and lush greenery. They'll even be content to pay more shopping at such places, according to Terrapin.

Biophilic art

As ground zero for biophilia in Western Pennsylvania, Phipps is making sure every corner of its Center for Sustainable Landscapes screams the virtues of such practices.

In the coming months, Ms. Bochart will be helping Phipps choose biophilic art for its walls.

Already, the conservatory has commissioned a sound art installation that will play the sounds of Pittsburgh -- mostly nature, but also some human activity -- along the halls of the CSL.

Artist Abby Aresty is wandering around the region, recording the ambiance over a year of seasons.

Mr. Piacentini wants the space to be as beautiful and engaging as possible, because if he's going to change minds, he needs to have a compelling sales pitch for people who come to Phipps on their days off mostly to look at pretty flowers.

"This is still a relatively new idea," he said. "People are really just starting to think about this in their buildings. We really want to push the limits on this. We really want to discover the spirit of the building."

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Anya Litvak: or 412-263-1455.


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