The Calming Effect Of A Building

By Jennifer Preston

The human condition is inextricably linked with and nourished by nature, which forms the foundations of biophilia. A biophilic approach to design results in buildings that have valuable but complex influences and that can be grasped through effects on our own behavior: increased relaxation, a sense of delight, an improved capacity for personal reflection, and collaborative creativity. Because these effects are often distinctly absent from work environments, these are the same outcomes that many covet when visiting a place of respite, such as a local park.

We enter parks to slow down, to pause, and to absorb the buffered quiet spaces away from the speed and noise of the city. These man-made landscapes serve as healing oases embedded within built hardscapes. The garden houses, comfort stations, storage sheds, and other shelters that dot our parks should quietly be celebrated because they amplify the visual and audible whimsy of nature.

While modest, these structures present some of the best opportunities to model sensory biophilic design.

Between Building And Landscape: Bridging The Gap
An enthusiasm for biophilia often inspires a desire to fully replace the man-made with symbols of nature, for example, by implementing green walls or green roofs in a building that is otherwise far removed from the earth. Options like these have the potential to literally bring building users closer to nature, and they can offer powerful benefits when given the space and time to thrive.

Unfortunately, too many projects are forced to reduce quantities of plantings due to budget constraints, resulting in a critical lack of density; or have timelines that cannot endure multiple growing seasons before completion, which may be required in some instances.

When planning a building project within a park setting, immediate access to greenspace is a substantial built-in benefit that is worth promoting. Using techniques that camouflage a building, such as siting it along existing paths for human and animal movement or near existing tree groves, helps ensure that the building can remain inconspicuous. In the case of a new 2,000-square-foot park house in Manhattan’s bustling Washington Square Park, an intentionally curved floor plan further reduces the building’s visual presence, supporting the public’s biophilic experience. Designed by New York-based BKSK Architects, the park house includes public bathrooms as well as administrative offices for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, but its design ensures that these spaces do not intrude upon the park experience.

From the occupants’ perspective, windows offer a subtle but manageable opportunity to embrace biophilia. Operable windows create an ongoing connection with natural temperatures, breezes, and sounds, while large unobstructed windows grant building users visual access to the outdoors. Views of large lawns, dog parks, and other spaces that teem with life can offer many health benefits, including stress reduction, especially important for workplace settings.

As with any new approach, however, it is important to consider other possible effects. For example, large windows may also overexpose the building’s users, especially in densely populated parks; semitransparent glass or adjustable window coverings may be a more advantageous choice. The administrative offices within the Queens Botanical Garden’s Visitor and Administration Center, the first publicly funded LEED Platinum project in New York City and an incredibly popular destination, demonstrates the value of large but mindfully designed windows. By situating the offices above ground level, screening the spaces with brise soleil, and taking advantage of a mature tree’s canopy shade, employees maintain both a strong visual connection to the outdoors and a comfortable work environment.

Materials Over Time: Honoring Nature’s Pace
While sharing best practices and lessons learned with colleagues and industry experts is always helpful, some lessons will only become revealed over time. Patience leads to otherwise unknowable insights and experiences, which many of us come to appreciate through interaction with the natural world. The changing color of a tree’s leaves and the patina that forms on a metal detail both illustrate beautifully that time is passing, without the loss of overall form or structural integrity. Similarly, while their appearance may change as the years go by, natural building materials offer durability, a sense of time, and an innate beauty that speaks to our biophilic tendencies.

At the new park house in Washington Square Park, regionally sourced granite is one of many materials that embody this quality. Notably, a portion of these materials are recycled from past structures, including reclaimed redwood from water towers and pickle barrels, as well as reclaimed tropical hardwood from the Coney Island boardwalk. Because of the history of these materials the park house’s users have an even greater opportunity to grasp a sense of time.

Designing With Earth And Sky: Amplifying Park Landscapes
Much like native plants, natural building materials that are locally sourced are visually compatible with their surroundings, which fully capture the attention of viewers. For the park house, two thirds of the materials were regionally sourced, resulting in a structure that is very much part of the local ecological palette.

Similarly, the selection of building systems can have dramatic visual and aural influences. For the Washington Square Park project, the team invested in a geo-solar exchange system, which uses photovoltaic-powered heat pumps with 300-foot-deep wells to capture the stable temperatures of the earth, in order to pre-heat and pre-cool the building. The system’s underground location makes it effectively invisible and inaudible to park visitors, a distinct advantage when compared to HVAC systems that are typically located on the exterior of a building or on a roof. The constant hum of a conventional mechanical system would have been a distracting and unfortunate addition.

Geothermal exchange systems, an ideal option for many park projects, also offer other benefits, such as energy savings over the long-term and easy maintenance. The park-house project is seeking LEED Platinum certification, in large part because it uses almost 60-percent less energy than in a comparable building with conventional building systems. Other design approaches—including generous access to natural light, views of the park, and the ability to have cross-breezes cool the space in mild weather—also improve the building’s performance as well as the occupants’ daily workplace experience.

Quiet Structures With Big Voices: Advocating For The Environment
Implementing these types of decisions in highly public settings, like heavily trafficked urban parks, also supports environmental initiatives since they raise awareness around responsible design approaches. Public buildings, even the smallest of structures, have meaningful opportunities to educate and inspire.

While some of the park house’s teaching moments are subtle, integrating its lessons with those of the natural environment, others speak more loudly. For example, the roof of the park house hosts a photovoltaic array that can be easily seen by many of the surrounding residences, office buildings, and academic facilities. It also offsets 33 percent of the building’s electrical load, providing significant and multifaceted value. Solar panels are a highly recognizable indication that a building is using renewable energy; they can also be a tool for communicating an organization’s commitment to the environment. The Washington Square Park project team explored a variety of photovoltaic products for the park house, including a colored polycrystalline glass canopy with overlapping ranges of green tones, mimicking the dappled effect of the trees above. However, the canopy was ultimately not selected due to a decrease in generation efficiency.

Through thoughtful facilities-planning, design, and maintenance, we can reestablish everyday access to the simple pleasures of nature: a natural breeze, a view of open sky, the cyclical metamorphosis of native plantings. In urban and suburban contexts, where the majority of human-made environments are far removed from the beneficial wilds of nature, a biophilic approach becomes a restorative one, for parks employees and the public alike.

Jennifer Preston, LEED AP BD+C, is an associate at BKSK Architects, where she serves as Sustainable Design Director and guides projects through the LEED certification process. She is currently a Research Coordinator at Columbia University and co-founder of the NYC Living Building Challenge Collaborative. Reach her at