Documentary highlights environmentally aware design

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Environmentally conscious interior design could influence the way human beings connect to nature while seated at a desk, according to design experts Bill Finnegan and Stephen Kellert. 

With their 2011 documentary film, “Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life,” directors Finnegan and Kellert have tried to show how biophilically designed buildings and living spaces can bring people closer to nature. The film will screen at The Contemporary Austin’s Spring 2014 Rooftop Architecture Film Festival this Wednesday.

Biophilic design is an architectural concept based on the biophilia hypothesis. Biophilia means “love of living systems or life,” and was coined by biologist and naturalist Edward Wilson to describe human beings’ affinity for nature.

“Biophilic design is about how nature affects us,” Finnegan said. “It’s all about people. Buildings using biophilic elements, like natural lighting or nature landscapes, can either connect us or disconnect us from nature.”

Key features of a biophilic design include natural lighting, shapes and forms that are analogous to natural processes or features and natural ventilation, Kellert said. Incorporating landscape features, such as ponds, fountains and bonsai plants, as well as design elements like potted plants, recreate the feeling of being outdoors while inside buildings.

Finnegan and Kellert’s 60-minute documentary covers select buildings from Europe and the United States that implement biophilic design principles in their construction, including the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Oberlin College, the Oxford Museum of Natural History and the Bank of America Tower in New York City.

Another building featured is Austin’s Dell Children’s Hospital, which opened in July 2007. The environmentally friendly complex features courtyards, gardens and interactive wall art.

Kellert, a senior research scholar and professor emeritus at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has also published research on biophilic design in numerous works, such as “The Biophilia Hypothesis,” “Building for Life” and “Biophilic Design.”

“Architects and designers are often not as oriented toward the word as toward the visual,” Kellert said. “What we had written before about biophilic design weren’t getting as much exposure to designers and architects as I would have liked. Whenever I showed people a slideshow, that would elicit more reactions than the writings, so we decided to do a film.”

Timothy Beatley, one of the people featured in the film, is a professor at the University of Virginia who has been working in the area of sustainable communities for more than 25 years.

“Much of the film has to do with biophilic design at an architectural level — building level,” Beatley said. “My focus and interest level has been of community and city. How do we create biophilic cities? How do we create conditions for biophilic urbanism and living beyond the design of a single building?”

Finnegan said, because the film has screened at festivals such as the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C., and the Architecture and Design Film Festival in New York, he and Kellert have accomplished what they set out
to do.

“It’s an educational film with a strong, professional audience that is interested in the relationship between people and nature,” Finnegan said. “People gravitate towards the window office. They respond better to natural light than artificial light. Biophilic design understands we are programmed to have this affinity for nature just based on our long evolved relationship with it.”