Biophilic design and animal products

Recently, someone asked me whether I thought leather had a place in biophilic designs. It’s an interesting question, which I answered with a few off the cuff ideas, with the promise to think about it in more detail.

My initial response to the question is “it depends”. As someone that eats animals, and has no religious belief, I have no ethical problem with using animal skins and animal fibres, as long as it is not gratuitous or involves endangered wild species. I wear leather shoes, and have, in the past had leather sofas and leather upholstery in a car.

Everyone’s ethics have their boundaries, though, and there may be no logical reason for those limits. For example, I’m not a fan of fur farming (but what is the real moral difference between eating and wearing an animal?), and I am certainly very interested in seeing how lab-grown meat develops.

As mentioned above, I have no religious beliefs, but many do. The ethics of the religious are guided by the teachings of their religion, and there may be taboos about which animals may, or may not, be exploited for food, fibre or hides.

It could be argued that leather is a good use of a waste product. If we, as a society, are content with farming animals, then surely it is right that we use as much of that animal as possible. That might make leather a useful (and arguably a more sustainable) product, but not necessarily biophilic.

Moving back to the main question: does leather have a place in biophilic designs, assuming no ethical objection? From my own, possibly narrow, perspective, I’m not sure that leather is, per se, a biophilic material, even if it is a natural(ish) product. It is highly processed – rarely resembling an animal skin by the time it is tanned, coloured, stretched and made into a product.

For me, biophilic design is first and foremost about comfort – physical and psychological. We are most comfortable when we are in environments that stimulate our senses in a way that reflects our evolutionary history as plains-dwelling animals, using well-adapted and highly evolved senses to find food, fuel, water and shelter. This is something I have covered in previous posts, so won’t go into great depth here.

This might be a biophilic space, but does the sofa have to be leather to make it so?
Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

In artificial environments, like cities, we can recreate concordant sensory stimuli through design, and that might (and often does) mean the use of artificial materials. In fact, in urban environments, it is only possible to create biophilic environments by using a wide range of synthetic materials and manufactured products.

Floor coverings are an excellent example of where synthetic products can be used in a biophilic design (good examples from Interface, who are pioneers in biophilic design and sustainability), and wall coverings too. Consider also lighting and acoustics. Modern biodynamic lighting and AI-generated soundscapes that recreate natural stimuli are only possible with advanced technology.

One final point. Good designers make sure that they are aware of the users of the environments they design. In commercial spaces, it is likely that vegans, or followers of some religions, will find the use of some animal skins or animal fibres offensive or taboo. In that case, why risk unnecessary hurt when there are alternative materials available.

So, in conclusion – I think that it is possible to create fantastic biophilic spaces without using leather or other animal products. On the other hand, if a designer (and all the users of the space that designer is creating) have no ethical issues with using animal products in design, then they can be used as part of a biophilic design.

Why biophilic design is NOT about bringing nature indoors

It might be a tempting shorthand, but too many interior designers and interior landscapers talk about biophilic design in terms of bringing nature indoors. This is simply not true. The last thing you should be doing is to bring nature indoors – at the moment it is wet, windy, cold, muddy and the trees are shedding leaves by the ton. I don’t want foxes and crows gallivanting on my desk or slugs climbing my walls. If I want to be surrounded by nature – which I often do – I go for a walk in the fields or woods nearby.

Biophilic design is about improving wellbeing by using some of the cues of nature. As animals, we are as prone to being stressed in unnatural environments as any other species, which is why enclosures in zoos are designed to be as close to the animal’s natural surroundings as possible (and safe).

As a species, we have spent less than a 1% of our history as a domesticated animal (Professor Alice Roberts’ book, ‘Tamed, explains rather brilliantly why humans are the ultimate domesticated species – we domesticated ourselves). With that in mind, we need to create our enclosures to be as stimulating and stress free as possible.

We can do that by recreating natural stimuli in buildings – physical and mental – and that does include bringing some natural, or naturalistic elements into our buildings, but it doesn’t mean bringing nature indoors, because that is a bit messy.

For any advice on biophilic design, or if you are working on a project where biophilic design is an important element (and perhaps you are thinking only of plants), please get in touch.

Stimulating the senses

Thoughts on biophilia and biophilic design (part 1) – it’s as much to do with human physiology as it is an emotional response

I’ve been thinking a lot about why Biophilia and biophilic design has much more to do with evolution and the way our senses work, rather than the emotional response to nature that is so-often suggested. 

Let’s look at one definition of biophilia. The most famous, and most important is that given by EO Wilson – the man who catalysed the development of the concept. In 1984, he defined Biophilia as “…the innate affiliation people seek with other organisms and especially the natural world.”

This is a strong statement.  Wilson also speaks of the human bond with other species, which is beautifully explained in his book. This all suggests that biophilia is essentially an emotional need to connect with nature and natural surroundings. 

Stephen Kellert, the grandfather of biophilic design, spoke of “our physical, emotional and intellectual inclinations for nature and life”. By expressing our need to connect with nature on an emotional level, we instinctively understand the concept.  We remember that being in natural places makes us feel good and that the countryside or woodlands are instantly relaxing.

Bringing nature into our built environment – our offices and cities – is a great response to that feeling of calm we get when in nature. However, let’s examine why being in nature really makes us feel comfortable.

I contend that it isn’t wholly a psychological or emotional need, but much more of a physiological need, based on humanity’s evolutionary history and our origins in the plains of Africa.

If you were to take a mole away from its burrow and place it in an open, sunny garden, such as where we might want to spend some time, it would be stressed, frightened and try to dig a new hole. Its senses are not able to cope with the bright light, the lack of close skin contact and the shrill noises of birdsong.  Millions of years of evolution have produced a creature that thrives in dark, damp, tight tunnels.  This is where it finds food, shelter and other moles with which to mate.  If we were to create an environment for a captive mole, it too would be dark, damp and tight, because that would be the humane thing to do.

A mole would rather be underneath this garden than in it!

When we create environments for humans – offices, for example – we tend to make them very space efficient, very energy efficient and completely unlike the environment where our species has spent over 99% of its evolutionary history. 

Not our natural habitat

Humanity evolved on the plains of Africa.  Wide open spaces with undulating landscapes.  The vegetation was scattered and grew in clusters; water was plentiful and skies were bright. 

Humans use their eyes to look for food and threats – sight is our most developed sense.  Colour perception for us – the part of the spectrum that we can see – enables us to spot shapes (food or danger) against the background of vegetation, and recognise when fruits are ripe. 

Our hearing is fine tuned to the noises of prey animals and the sound of running water.  Our sense of touch helps us to determine the quality of materials that we can use for shelter, and our sense of smell tells us what is safe to eat. Our senses are highly adapted to that environment. Those senses evolved to enable our species to survive.  If we stress our senses, we react as if there is a threat to our survival.  Stress hormones prepare us to fight or flee. Our senses become overwhelmed or under used. 

Biophilic design is the trend of the moment and is associated with wellbeing. However, many designers think mainly, or only, in terms of the emotional, almost spiritual, need to connect with nature. This can be an effective approach, is easily understood and has a lot of merit. 

However, I think we can create more effective spaces if we unpick what we mean by an emotional response and use a sensory approach to design.  Let’s stimulate our senses the way nature intended.

Footnote: some books worth having a look at. Nature by Design, by Stephen Kellert, Biophilia by Edward O Wilson and Biophilic Design be Kellert, Heerwagen, et al