Ken’s View: A Tree Grows In The Parking Lot

The term “biophilic design” has gained currency in recent years, but I hope it doesn’t simply come to mean being able to see a scraggly tree in the parking lot.

Design concepts, or concepts in general, tend to get dumbed down—although I think “letting the outdoors in” was a bit simple to begin with. It led to such unintended consequences as heat gain (and loss) and uncontrolled glare. Not that it’s an entirely bad idea. It’s just not an appropriate solution in every situation; consequences must be anticipated; and not everyone is enthralled by it. Windowless rooms, of course, are not the antidotes.

Biophilic design is much more complex and intriguing. Terrapin Bright Green, a New York-based environmental consulting and strategic planning firm, enumerates 14 patterns of biophilic design ( My interest was particularly piqued by the three patterns that relate to the “nature of the space.”

“Prospect” is one of the patterns under the space heading, and it has to do with being able to survey one’s surroundings for “opportunity and hazard.” Think of ancient man on the African savannas, on the lookout for his next meal, yet wary of being eaten. Not unlike a modern office.

“Refuge” is another of the space-related patterns and may evoke even a stronger response than “prospect.” According to Terrapin Bright Green, the convergence of prospect and refuge is especially beneficial—imagine being at edge of a wood, hidden from predators, yet able to surveil the territory beyond in the hope of snagging an incautious double cheeseburger or some other edible. In case you’re wondering, the Terrapin paper also provides plenty of examples of how to achieve feelings such as refuge in a more advanced, built environment. For example, lowered ceilings can provide a sense of refuge. And here’s one I really like: lighting levels in refuge spaces should be different than those in surrounding spaces.

Yet another space consideration is “mystery.” This is based on the theory that people have two basic needs in environments: to understand and to explore. There are places in the built environment where individuals feel compelled to discover what’s around the next corner or down a corridor. Often the mystery is partially revealed, creating anticipation but not fear of the unknown. Some elements of mystery are curves and shade and shadows. Lighting levels again.

These are only three of 14 biophilic patterns, and my explanation of them is woefully simplistic and incomplete. However, it does pose the question of whether biophilia, properly understood as more than just daylight, might make the spaces in which we spend much of our time more comfortable and even a bit more fun.

It’s worth noting that successful biophilic design doesn’t demand that all 14 patterns be satisfied. “A really effective intervention focuses on just one or two elements really well implemented,” Bill Browning, founding partner of Terrapin Bright Green, noted in a recent blog.

My thought that open planning without considering primal human instincts might be ill advised was reinforced by an entertaining article, “The Curse of an Open Floor Plan,” in The Atlantic. At first I thought it was yet another critique of the open office, but surprise, it was about residential design.

Now, kitchens are generally the center of any open-plan home, and kitchens can be untidy. When they’re in full view of the rest of the house, this can be a drawback when unexpected guests arrive, or if you, as homeowner, don’t want to be reminded of unfinished chores and slovenly family members. So, according to The Atlantic article, one builder is offering a solution: a house with an open plan and all that flowing floorplan stuff but with a second, “messy” kitchen hidden from sight. In other words, the kitchen that looks so immaculate from the family room is only for show, a “public” kitchen like the for-guests-only parlor of days past. I’ve often thought the same about the elaborate, stainless-steel, professional ranges I’ve seen at trade shows. Do people really cook on these things or just throw a frozen burrito into the microwave most days?

The Atlantic article points out that while homes today tend to be larger, they boast fewer distinct types of spaces. Boundaries between kitchen, living room, and dining room are impossible to distinguish, for example. Considering the biophilic-design principles mentioned earlier, there may be prospect and perhaps a glimpse of a tree, but is there refuge or mystery in your open-plan home? Or office? Shouldn’t there be? —Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

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