But I don’t think we do it for all the right reasons.
Reason No.1: WE CAN’T HELP IT
Biophilia is the innate affiliation people seek with other organisms, and especially with the living natural world. Studies have shown that given freedom to choose the setting of their homes or offices, people across cultures gravitate toward an environment that combines three features, intuitively understood by landscape architects and real estate entrepreneurs. They want to be on a height looking down, they prefer open savanna-like terrain with scattered trees and copses, and they want to be close to a body of water, such as a river, lake, or ocean. Even if all these elements are purely aesthetic and not functional, home buyers will pay any affordable price to have such a view. People, in other words, prefer to live in those environments in which our species evolved over millions of years in Africa. Instinctively, they gravitate towards savanna forest (parkland) and transitional forest, looking out safely over a distance towards reliable sources of food and water. This is by no means an odd connection if considered as a biological phenomenon. All mobile animal species are guided by instincts that lead them to habitats in which they have a maximum chance for survival and reproduction. It should come as no surprise that during the relatively short span since the beginning of the Neolithic, humanity still feels a residue of that ancient need. [p271-273 Edward O Wilson, “The Social Conquest of Earth”]
This was illustrated with the following image of the Deere Company headquarters at Moline, Illinois (but taken from Modern Landscape Architecture: Redefining the Garden [New York: Abbeville Press, 1991]. Photography by Felice Frankel, text by Jory Johnson).
So there we have it. What we want is to look down on scattered trees and a body of water. It’s what we want. Landscape architects and real estate entrepreneurs know it. Capability Brown knew it, wisely adding animals.
In the mid-18th century, Capability Brown also designed the gardens for Longleat, a grand old house built about three hundred years earlier.
Longleat Safari Park opened in 1966 as the first drive through safari park outside Africa, and is currently home to over five hundred animals, including giraffe, monkeys, rhino, lion, tigers and wolves. Cheetahs are the most recent additions to the safari park with six having arrived in August 2011. Four lion cubs were born in September 2011, making a total of 10 cubs born this year, and Disney named two of them Simba and Nala as part of a co-promotion agreement for the upcoming Lion King 3D film. [W]
This brings us to the next reason why we ♥ plants.
Reason No.2: WE CAN SAVE MORE MONEY TOGETHER
Improving community well-being through biophilia can impact productivity costs and the bottom line. Today productivity costs are 112 times greater than energy costs in the workplace. We believe that incorporating nature into the built environment is not just a luxury, but a sound economic investment in health and productivity, based on well- researched neurological and physiological evidence.
The above quote is from this paper that serves …
… to demonstrate the financial potential for a large-scale deployment of biophilic design. Whether it is hospitals that allow patients to heal more quickly, offices that boost productivity, schools that improve test scores, or retail outlets with higher sales, this paper makes the business case for incorporating biophilia into the places where we live and work.
There are two ways of looking at this – one good and one bad. It’s great of course that students study, workers work, shoppers shop and patients recover. Patients have paid to be made better and parents have paid for the students to learn. Healed patients get to go home early and clear a bed for the next one, and the better students enable the school to raise its fees. Perhaps, just perhaps, the workers will get paid for their increased productivity but shoppers certainly won’t be rewarded for being more loose with their money. I understand the principles involved in the economic exploitation of biophilia, and accept the numbers, but I can’t help feeling that the benefits of biophilia drifting from its “love of life” etymology. In order to be certain our time, health, intelligence and disposable income aren’t being taken advantage of, it may be safer to satisfy our biophilic urges at home. Or on the way home. Or out of town.
Biophilia is defined as a human affinity for the living natural world but other animals have it too. This building is the Kumamoto Grasslands Institute (1993) by Tom Heneghan.
Their design strove to make the cattle as relaxed as possible – their roofs mimicking the form of a tree canopy. Once the dairy cows had settled into their new home it emerged that the herd was producing more milk than cows housed in conventional sheds.
I’ve been hearing this story for years but have only just seen this photograph of the interior. Does the roof mimic the form of a tree canopy? You be the judge. Other factors may be operating to affect milk production. We don’t know what the previous shed was like. Maybe cows like timber beams. Or timber. Or high roofs. Or better ventilation.
Reason No.3: WE ♥ PLANTS BECAUSE THEY’RE EASY ON THE EYE
Here’s an example of a building that’s been kitted out with plants for no other reason than to make the building look better than it would have otherwise. The architects themselves admitted as much.
Because the building was constructed in a park, people living nearby it requested that it would be as green as possible; we completely covered it in vegetation.
It’s a shed. As an approach to cladding it seems defeatist, but the architects weren’t under any illusions. We don’t know how much more water is required to maintain these plants but, if parkland being is used to create a terraced garden then at least there’s no overall worsening of biodiversity, heat island effect, atmospheric moisture or oxygen levels. One question is just how preferable it is to looking at actual landscape. I also wonder about biodiversity. We don’t know if the many types of plants we see actually promote biodiversity or merely look like they might.
Reason No.4: PLANT CANDY
This is when we don’t really like plants that much anyway, but we like to be seen with them, we like people to think we like them, and we like the idea of them. It’s a recent thing.
Reason No.5: THE WAY THEY SMELL
This link describes ‘Persistence of Memory: Scent Gardens for Therapeutic Life Review in Communities for the Elderly.’ In this post, I’m not interested in aromatherapies, herbal healing, or the invaluable pharmaceuticals that can be derived from plants because all of these uses depend upon synthesizing plants or parts of them into something else. Unlike the therapeutic use just mentioned, they are not things that plants do passively.
Reason No.6: WE HAVE OUR OWN PRIVATE WORLD
In this photo and the one below it, plants are used to provide privacy for the living spaces behind. The plants do the usual plant things they do in gardens and, as with gardens, also provide something for neighbours and passers by to look at. Vernacular buildings in many countries have a tradition of window boxes providing the illusion of landscape outside one’s window.
Furthermore, natural ventilation through the facades and two top-lights allow this house to save lots of energy and avoid the harsh climate of the southern Ho Chi Mingh City. “Concerning these ecological approaches, we referred a lot to the bioclimatic principles of a traditional Vietnamese courtyard house,” said Nghia.
I googled “bioclimactic principles of a traditional Vietnamese courtyard house” because I thought there must be more to these bioclimactic principles than facades and a rooflight but am still unsure. Solar chimneys probably aren’t one of them, but the stairwell would function as one, drawing air moistened by transpiration through the house and possibly generating an evaporative cooling effect – or at least it would if the stairwell were internal.
Reason No.7: A DISH ON THE SIDE Plants have proven psychological, physiological and physical benefits. Sure, walking through a forest and breathing in organic compounds called phytoncides can lower your salivery cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate as well as stabilize your hormonal secretion and autonomic nervous functions, but we’re forgetting one important thing about plants – WE CAN EAT THEM! greenscapedbuildings seems to be a pioneer in these newfangled walls you can eat.
The wall wraps around the restaurant and a large window. It is visible to anyone driving on Pacific Coast Highway. It is planted with oregano, mint, chamomile, rosemary, zucchini, lavender, sage, thyme, geranium, Sword fern, Spider plant, Asparagus fern, flax, marjoram and Carex. It comprises 209 square feet of vegetated space.
The first such wall was at Mozza’s other store.
Here’s a site that tells you what plants can remove what toxins from contaminated land. Apparently, sunflowers are great at removing lead, arsenic, zinc, chromium, copper, and manganese and, in case you ever have the need, uranium and strontium-90. Drawing from experiences at Chernobyl, they’re currently being planted in Fukushima. It’s true.
The water hyacinth naturally absorbs pollutants from water, including cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, zinc, cesium, strontium-90, uranium, and pesticides.
These are hardcore plants – and full respect to the water hyacinth if thrives on the heavy metals and the radioactive isotopes. Obviously, we won’t be wanting to be eating water hyacinths – a half-life is still a half-life. What these plants do is gather all the nasty stuff in one place so it can be removed more easily.
Reason No.9: THEY CAN HANDLE OUR SHIT
Human waste disposal is an ever growing problem that leads to pollution and several infectious diseases. This laboratory has developed the bio-tank cum reed bed system, an advanced technology for eco-friendly disposal of human night soil. The technology is applicable for a single to multiple toilet complexes in different climates. The process involves conversion of organic wastes into colourless & odourless gases and water. [Ministry of Defence, Govt. of India]
It’s simple, but it works. Here’s a glossier version of the same thing in a competition proposal called Aétrangère | Urban Hydro-Rizhome
planted filters are placed at buildings first level, conferring them a landscaped and useful facade: 50 to 60% of the water can be considered as already purified of noxious substances even before it reaches the ground.
At last we’re finally getting somewhere! If we’re going to go to all the trouble of putting plants into and onto buildings, then they need to do more than just look good.
- Black water is fed to anerobic digesters and the output grey water mixed with other gray water and input to the two-stage reed beds and purified for re-use.
- Concentrated organic matter from the anaerobic digesters is spread onto the landscaped areas to provide nutrients and increasing the moisture retention capacity of the soil, with benefits for both landscape and stormwater runoff.
- Methane produced by the anaerobic digesters is used as fuel to raise the operating water temperature of the absorption chillers on the roof.
- While all this is going on, the reed beds humidify and cool the air above them.
- Wind blowing across the tops of the vertical shafts creates a Bernoulli Effect that draws this cool air upwards to ventilate the unenclosed access corridors.
* * *
SO, WHAT CAN ONE DO, EH? Well, there are many reasons why we have a thing for plants but we should never be amazed by the fact that plants produce oxygen and water. It’s nothing special. It’s what they do. It’s what makes plants plants. We shouldn’t rush to applaud any building that integrates buildings into a photograph and claims this as a virtue. We may have suddenly become aware we have a biological affinity for plants, but plants are not biologically programmed to have one for us. Apart from giving them our heavy metals, sewage and CO2, we don’t have much else to offer – but that’s what “give and take” is all about, no? It’s probably going to be the case that no single plant can be everything we want it to be, but will we choose the good-looking plants that don’t want to work, or the homely plants that will? Of course it depends upon what we’re looking for in a plant, what our priorities are. And this is the danger. If savanna landscape is what we’re programmed to like, then who’s to say we might not deep down prefer the bountiful grasses to purple foliage, glossy leaves and fancy flowers?
* * *