Nurturing Nature With Architecture

Evan Kaufman for The Wall Street Journal

When Marti and Tom Burbeck were designing their new four-bedroom home in Ann Arbor, Mich., they went to extreme measures, spending five years and what contractors estimate was $3.5 million to achieve as natural and healthy an environment as possible.

To make sure none of the materials they used contained toxic chemicals, they hired a consulting firm to check product contents, down to the glazing on tiles, with more than 900 manufacturers. And because the couple couldn’t find shop-made cabinets and doors using wood from sustainably managed local forests, they had wood sent directly to the building site and hired a full-time carpenter to hand mill it all in their barn—a process that took nearly a year. Rainwater is collected in cisterns for irrigation and a photovoltaic system supplies nearly 20% more electricity than is used over the course of a year.

“We’re kind of pioneers,” says Mr. Burbeck, 67 years old, who is part owner of an Ann Arbor-based publishing-software company. “We wanted to show it could be done.”

Designed by Bend architect Al Tozer, the house meets all the requirements of the Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge, implementing what it calls biophilic design as part of the requirements.

Evan Kaufman for The Wall Street Journal

The Burbecks’ house is one of two private homes in the world—the other is in Bend, Ore.—that meet the International Living Future Institute’s living-building challenge, implementing what it calls biophilic design as part of the requirements. The term comes from the concept of biophilia, coined in 1984 by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, who described it as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” The ultimate goal is to have a building’s architecture achieve the same physical, psychological and emotional benefits as walking through a forest, says Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of the ILFI.

Until recently, the term biophilic design applied almost exclusively to hospitals, which aimed to promote wellness by increasing sunlight and views of trees and putting in gardens. Companies then began to adopt living walls, water features and skylights after studies showed proximity to nature could increase productivity and reduce stress. Hotels followed suit, with brands like Starwood using reclaimed materials, declaring it was “designed by nature.” Now, following the trend of moving wellness into the home, more architects and designers are using biophilic elements in single-family residences.

Homeowner Barbara Scott standing in front of a piece of a 200-year-old Ponderosa pine on the property that was considered a hazard and needed to come down.

Evan Kaufman for The Wall Street Journal

It is more complicated than just using a lot of plants. One element incorporates shapes and forms found in nature, such as rounded walls and curved furniture. Architects create floor plans that lead from open spaces to sheltered areas, the way a person would feel walking through nature and finding clearings and places with shadows. There are circulation techniques, such as cutting slats in walls to make it feel like there are natural breezes. Colors, materials and patterns, such as botanical and animal motifs, are chosen for how well they mimic nature.

Anyone who has stayed in a hotel room where the windows didn’t open, the carpet was synthetic and dressers were made of imitation wood can understand the appeal of biophilic design. Matt Aspiotis Morley, who owns a London-based design firm called Biofilico, describes it as “an ancestral response to modern problems.” He retrofitted his own apartment in Barcelona for $22,000 by adding botanical wall décor (illustrations, artworks and photos of plants and landscapes), air filters with aromatherapy diffusers and nature sounds on his playlists, along with more than 30 house plants.

“It’s not done for random effect. It’s done for physiological and psychological reasons,” says architect Helena van Vliet. She describes the biophilic principles she uses in the homes she designs as restorative. She says research supports that major health issues—anxiety, violence, isolation and loneliness, as well as sleep disorders, fertility issues, elevated cortisol levels, allergies and asthma—may be related to the design and structure of where and how people live.

The living wall in an apartment Gennaro Brooks-Church rents in Brooklyn.

Kelly Marshall for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Brooks-Church bought a Brooklyn brownstone in 2008 for $1.4 million.

Kelly Marshall for The Wall Street Journal

Barbara Scott’s first glimpse of her new house in Bend, Ore., was a curved line drawn on a piece of tracing paper by her architect, Al Tozer of Bend firm Tozer Design.

“It was very intriguing,” says Ms. Scott, 60, a former teacher and spec-home builder. Mr. Tozer says that line became an indoor-outdoor wall and the “spine” of the house, mimicking the Deschutes River in front of the property. He used the biophilic elements of “prospect” and “refuge”—the feeling of going from out in the open to cover—when he designed the floor plan, delineating bright, open, airy spaces from more sheltered, contemplative rooms. Salmon-color exterior walls, inspired by the bark of a local shrub, and interior walls of reclaimed wood and natural clay plaster, chosen for their earthy hues and natural breathability, are intended to create a warm, fresh-smelling space.

The entire house is built to mimic a shade tree, with a long, narrow base under an expansive wood canopy of a roof. The overhangs are placed so the sun can get through the windows in the winter but not when it is higher in the summer, as if leaves are blocking it. Ms. Scott also chose to meet the Living Future Institute’s living-building challenge, which meant eliminating toxic building materials such as PVC and necessitating the excavation of solid basalt—at the cost of $1,200 a day for more than a month—to place an underground rainwater cistern.

She almost halted the project several times due to the growing costs. With a total of three dwellings (a main house and two smaller homes) on site, the 4,810-square-foot project eventually took six years and cost about $3 million. “Psychologically, I am so much happier here. It has a calm and peacefulness,” says Ms. Scott.

With a total of three dwellings (a main house and two smaller homes) on site, the 4,810-square-foot project took six years and cost about $3 million. ‘Psychologically, I am so much happier here. It has a calm and peacefulness,’ says Ms. Scott.

Evan Kaufman for The Wall Street Journal

It is harder to create a sense of nature in the middle of a city, but that’s what Gennaro Brooks-Church did after he bought a four-story brownstone in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn for $1.4 million in 2008. An artist and carpenter, he initially aimed to stop rainwater from leaving his property, building a pond ringed with rocks in his yard. Mr. Brooks-Church then spent about $700,000 enlarging windows and creating green walls on the interior and exterior. He put in a waterfall on his living roof and a two-story treehouse built from wood salvaged from an old water tower.

“I wanted to increase exposure to plants, sunshine and air in this place of artificial substances and concrete,” says Mr. Brooks-Church, who also rents an apartment nearby, where he spent another $30,000 on biophilic designs. When neighbors asked him about his living wall, which has 1,400 plants and covers the entire facade of his house, he started a business called Eco Brooklyn and has since designed about 50 living walls throughout the city, including three in his own neighborhood. People started giving him turtles for his pond that they’d rescued from elsewhere (one came from a Chinese restaurant). There are now 12, along with fish, snakes and salamanders, creating a mini-ecosystem.

Kam Patel, a 49-year-old oral and maxillofacial surgeon in Chicago, had never heard the term biophilia, but he now credits it with reducing his stress. He says he hated going home to his previous house, which felt like living in a box. When he bought a 5,000-square-foot penthouse in the River North neighborhood, he hired a Chicago-based living-wall company called Sagegreenlife to custom design a wall in his living room, something that cost about $190 a square foot. Now he sits and looks at it every day. “I am much happier,” he says.

Marti and Tom Burbeck built this new four-bedroom farmhouse, with a 40-foot tall cooling tower, outside Ann Arbor, Mich., to achieve as sustainable and healthy an environment as possible.

Jason Keen for The Wall Street Journal

In Ann Arbor, architect Michael Klement, of Architectural Resource, who designed Marti and Tom Burbecks’ house, says he feels like the house represents as much a philosophy as it does a building. He says that although the project was expensive, many people spend as much on homes that aren’t regenerative or connected to nature.

The Burbecks say they have designed their home to last at least 200 years, enduring climate change, new technology and evolving design trends. “We want this house to make a difference,” says Mr. Burbeck.

Contractors estimate that the Burbecks’ home cost $3.5 million to build.

Jason Keen for The Wall Street Journal

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