Interview: Bill Browning on health and wellbeing

Terrapin Bright Green founder Bill Browning wonders why architects don't make greater use of data about how buildings make people feel

April 2018

Words by Tony Whitehead

Bill Browning is a renowned sustainability thinker and writer. In 1991, he founded the Green Development Services consultancy at the influential Rocky Mountain Institute energy think tank. He’s also a founding member of the US Green Building Council and, in 2006, co-founded the consultancy Terrapin Bright Green. Increasingly, Terrapin has led the field in drawing attention to the effects of buildings on the health and wellbeing of occupants.

“My interest was sparked in the 1990s when we found interesting productivity data coming out of new, green-certified buildings,” says Bill Browning. “At a factory in Michigan, for example, we found productivity increased at the new building, but only during the day. When there was no view to the outside, productivity remained unchanged.”

Browning set about collecting research on the beneficial effects of nature. One of his discoveries was that patients with a view from their hospital window recovered far quicker from surgery than those without, from an often-quoted study carried out in Texas in 1984.

“Retail, advertising and car design all make use of this technology, but architects hardly ever do”

Since then, numerous others have reached similar conclusions. Patients with access to natural light and good views feel less pain and are released from hospital sooner than those without. Children in classrooms with a good supply of natural light both behave better and perform better academically.

 In 2015, a researcher at the University of Oregon studying absenteeism in an office building found that employees with views of trees and landscape took an average of 57 hours of sick leave per year, whereas those with no view took 68. Closer analysis revealed that the better the view, the less sick leave was taken. Not only was the view a primary predictor of absence, the study also found that those with the best views of natural features also spent more time at their desks.

But what is it exactly about natural light and views that causes these results? “The effect of daylight on our circadian rhythm is obviously important,” says Browning, “but what you see also matters. Research using eye-movement trackers has found that a natural scene holds the eye’s attention for longer than, say, a street scene. We don’t get tired of it. It’s strange that people in retail, advertising and car design all make use of this technology, but architects hardly ever do.”

Further research is explaining how the benefits are achieved, he adds: “For example, if you walk in a wood, your levels of the stress hormone cortisol will decrease, and the benefits will last several hours. Does a view of nature have a similar affect? Yes it does.”

Terrapin’s thinking on biophilia has been published in a report, 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, which analyzes features of naturalness including variability (of temperature or airflow) and the use of materials such as timber or rock within a building. “We find different patterns support different outcomes,” says Browning. “So the presence of water seems to help with memory, while a visual connection with nature can improve attentiveness.”

“A natural scene holds the eye’s attention for longer than, say, a street scene. We don't get tired of it”

Browning says his clients represent a wide range of industries and interests, but tech companies, keen to recruit and retain quality personnel, are to the fore. Terrapin has even helped Google to tailor its own set of biophilic design metrics.

For those without Google’s financial leverage, however, Browning says certain aspects of biophilia are worth prioritizing: “One easy strategy is a visual connection to nature — even if it’s just bringing a plant or living thing into the office. And if you can arrange it, a view of nature outside is very valuable.”

From The Possible, issue 03

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While such a view will necessarily vary from region to region, the effect of a savannah-type landscape appears to be beneficial wherever you are. “Note that parks and golf courses, places where we traditionally relax, are analogues of savannah. Given humans’ early evolution on the plains of Africa, it makes sense. A prospect gives us early warning of a threat (such as a storm or dangerous animal) and so is relaxing.”

For best effect, it must also be combined with potential refuge: “If you think of an open-plan office as an interior prospect, then a booth or even a wing-backed chair could provide that sense of protection.”

This article appeared in The Possible issue 03, as part of a longer feature on designing buildings for wellbeing

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