St. Patrick's Island has been developed to offer a 31-acre green oasis in Calgary's downtown core. Photo: Calgary Municipal Land Corporation

Biophilic design takes root in Alberta

In our overwrought, digitally plugged-in lives, many of us feel disconnected from nature. When we do unplug, leave our electronic devices behind and take a walk through a park and hear the breeze through the trees and feel sun on our skin, we feel reinvigorated.

Credited with coining the term, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm writes about biophilia in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, and evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson later popularized the concept. In his book, Biophilia, Wilson argues that human beings have an innate love of nature—a genetic hardwiring to seek interaction with nature. A famous Wilson quote succinctly captures his view: “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.”

But both the industrial and electronic revolutions have helped to cut humans off from nature. There may be a sustainability revolution now underway, but the built world has been in collision with nature for decades, and the results have been devastating. There are many studies that suggest interacting with nature has a positive impact on health, such as a pair of studies out of Stanford University last year that linked time spent in nature to a lower risk of depression and improved working memory. Nature boosts our immune systems as well as our cognition.

The need to design and build more sustainably has allowed the biophilic design movement to gain momentum. American environmental leader Stephen R. Kellert, who co-edited The Biophilia Hypothesis with Edward O. Wilson, champions biophilic design as a way to create more healthy and productive habitats for people. It is more than just sustainable design; it is a way of connecting people with the environment and allowing their innate love for nature to flourish. In biophilic design, there is a mental shift from humancentric to ecocentric.

“Nature is the best designer,” says Vedran Skopac, an architect at Manasc Isaac Architects. “We can learn from nature.”

He believes elegance is everywhere in nature and is closely related to survival. “Nature makes birds travel through the air easier. It makes fish swim together in a school so that a predator will not catch all but just a few, ensuring the survival of the species. After we are herded, we know that collectively we are stronger than anyone force,” he says.IMG 5561 newDrawing on biophilic design principles, Edmonton's Mosaic Centre for Conscious Community features exposed wooden structures and extensive natural lighting. Photo: Josh Kjenner

Skopac was a part of the team who worked on Edmonton’s Mosaic Centre for Conscious Community, where the owners and designers pursued the use of biophilic design elements.

From natural shapes and forms to natural light and spacial variability, the Mosaic Centre has turned to nature for not a blueprint, but rather a “greenprint.” Environmental features found throughout the building include natural colours, earth tones and exposed wood structures. There is a large planted green wall in the central interior atrium and potted plants throughout the centre. The design draws on natural light and minimizes the need for artificial light.

A key element of biophilic design is the sense that the inhabitants are living alongside nature. While paying homage to the natural world, the design of the Mosaic Centre is meant to evoke the feeling that people inside are protected from threatening forces without. Composed of solid wood elements, the structure appears strong and supportive in both the public and private spaces.

Designed to strike a balance between order and complexity, the Mosaic Centre stimulates the desire for variety but remains approach- able. For instance, inhabitants can intuitively grasp the basic layout of both the public and private spaces because most of these areas are large and open, allowing people to see from one space to many others. The irregular rotated dual-grid system that encourages the use of non-right angles offers some stimulating complexity in the building layout.

Even though the centre is located in a northern climate and winter may be observed through the windows, the high-performance triple-pane glazing and warm-to-the-touch, non-conductive framing ensures inhabitants feel protected from climate extremes without isolating them from the natural environment outside.

The Mosaic Centre also offers the feeling of mastery and control to people inside by allowing them to adjust the thermal and lighting settings of their local space with operable windows, multi-zoned HVAC and task lighting that is not overwhelmed by general lighting levels.

St. Patrick’s Island, the 31-acre recreational park in Calgary located near the East Village, offers another example of biophilic design principles in action.

After conducting an extensive year- long study and engaging more than 6,000 Calgarians in a dialogue about their hopes for the future of the island, the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) embarked on a major redevelopment of the space. (The project would go on to win an Alberta Construction Magazine 2015 Top Project Award.) CMLC selected New York–based W Architecture and Landscape Architecture and Denver-based Civitas because of their waterfront design experience and biophilic approach to design.

“Biophilia is the notion of getting back to nature—being in touch and reconnecting with natural systems,” says Kate Thompson, vice-president of projects for CMLC. “You can’t find a better example of a biophilic project. St. Patrick’s Island’s master plan is based on principles of biophilia.”

As with Skopac, she believes that society has missed the mark when it comes to designing spaces for people in urban settings. “You build with concrete, steel and brick and you eliminate the green, the trees and the birds that make us reconnect to nature,” Thompson says. “The island is an example of a space where you can reconnect to what is important.”

One of the ways the team wanted visitors to connect with nature is by having the option of dipping their toes in water on the western tip of the island, but executing this idea did not come without challenges.

To create the Seasonal Breach, the team had to restore a channel that had been closed off in the 1950s. It required extensive engineering, and crews had to move contaminated soil during the construction process. After being safely encased, the contaminated soil became part of a nine-metre-high feature hill called The Rise, which is used for community gatherings and movies, as well as sledding in the winter.

Marmot Concrete, the project’s construction management firm, also painstakingly catalogued all the existing trees on the island to make sure the trees were protected and still viable.

Having clear objectives helped the team successfully execute the project and stay true to biophilic principles. The U.S.-based consultants made frequent site visits and worked closely with Marmot. Even when high waters flooded Calgary in June 2013, the project stayed on track and re-opened to the public on July 31, 2015.

“There’s a sense of pride from all groups,” Thompson says. “It is rare to get the opportunity to build a 31-acre oasis in the middle of a mountain river adjacent to a bustling urban centre.”


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