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The Outside Comes In: How Biophilic Buildings Bring Mother Nature to the Big City

Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, the rustic Wood Cabin gets us thinking about eco-friendly architecture that brings people back to nature — and nature into places it’s never been before.

Like apple pie and a curious love of suburban lawns, the log cabin is quintessentially American. Perhaps the most universally revered of U.S. presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was even born in one. The historian Warder Stevens once declared that “[t]he story of Americans is written in log cabins,” and considering the available evidence, one would be hard-pressed to argue.1

But maybe we should argue.

Lincoln’s original birthplace was torn down, but this replica log cabin now stands at the Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site; Source: Wikipedia

Despite their contemporary associations with pioneer hardiness and a can-do spirit, log cabins have not always been an American icon — at least, not a positive one. In the earliest days of the country, log cabins were seen as little more than temporary housing solutions settlers could use until they had the resources to build something more respectable. Those who stayed in log cabins for the long term were widely regarded as indolent or unlucky.2 It was founding father Benjamin Franklin himself who wrote in a letter to his grandson that there are two kinds of people in the world: “One sort are those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses, whose conversation is sensible and instructive, and who are respected for their virtue. The other sort are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets on coarse provisions."3

How did the log cabin make the leap from disdained hovel to American trademark? In part, we have William Henry Harrison to thank.

Cady Noland’s “Log Cabin Blank with Screw Eyes and Café Door (Memorial to John Caldwell)”; Source: Stonescape

In 1840, Harrison was up against Martin van Buren for the presidency. A pro-van Buren paper tried to give his campaign a boost with an op-ed that, essentially, called Harrison an ignorant, backwoods bumpkin: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.”4

Much in the same way that Hillary Clinton’s campaign reclaimed the “nasty woman” epithet lobbed by Donald Trump during the election of 2016, Harrison’s campaign flipped the paper’s insults into a badge of honor. Harrison was a wealthy man, but he played up the down-home image the paper had foisted on him, and it worked. Average Americans — many of whom did live in log cabins — saw themselves reflected in Harrison. They turned out in droves for pro-Harrison, log-cabin-themed parades and drank at bars designed to look like log cabins. Harrison scored a win, and the log cabin began its passage into the very fabric of America itself.5

Not Just an American Icon, But an Environmental One

These days, log cabins mainly exist in national lore and as weekend getaways. However, the time might be ripe for reigniting that Harrison-style log cabin mania all over again. As citizens, scientists, and politicians look for opportunities to make society more sustainable in the face of ecological crisis, they should be turning their attention to the quaint cabin. As it turns out, it’s a pretty environmentally friendly way to live.

In conjunction with the tiny home trend, modular cabins are also gaining popularity. These homes are prebuilt to the homeowner’s specifications and shipped to the site virtually complete; Source: Homedit

The wood which makes up the bulk of the cabin’s structure is itself a renewable resource — provided, of course, the lumber is sourced from an operation that follows sustainable forestry practices. Furthermore, conventional construction often requires dozens of contractors consuming untold gallons of fuel as they tote parts and people to and from the building site. In contrast, log cabin construction is relatively simple and the materials are fairly basic. Everything a cabin needs can be fit into a trailer or two, which drastically cuts down the amount of fossil fuel consumed in the process.6

“Logs act like “thermal batteries.” During the day, they absorb heat. At night, they release it. ”

Most important of all is that, unlike conventional materials, the logs of a log cabin serve as both structure and insulation. As the U.S. Department of Energy puts it, logs act like “thermal batteries.” During the day, they absorb heat. At night, they release it. The house steadily regulates its own temperature.7 As a result, log and wood cabin owners often spend much less on energy than the average household.8

Some cabin owners go even further, opting to use only dead timber instead of cutting down live trees. Others forgo fiberglass and foam in favor of sheep’s wool as a natural form of insulation between logs.9 Architect Steve McNeill also recommends a “green roof” — a roof made of vegetation instead of wood. They look gorgeous, and they tend to stay cooler during the summer.10

Houses with a turf roofs in Iceland; Source: Wikipedia

People Love Nature — No, They Really Love It

Green roofs may sound wild, but they’ve been a part of traditional building practices in Nordic countries for centuries.11 One could argue that the builders of these “turf houses” were early practitioners of biophilic design, a movement that seeks to create buildings and indoor spaces that are more akin to the natural environment in which the human race first evolved.12

Biophilic design wasn’t fully codified into a genuine architectural philosophy until the 21st century, but it grew out of the biophilia hypothesis first put forward in 1984 by biologist Edward O. Wilson. According to Wilson, human beings are naturally predisposed toward “biophilia,” which he defined as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” More than a cultural phenomenon or lifestyle choice, biophilia is believed to have its roots in our very genes.13

“People who spend at least two hours a week in natural settings report better physical health overall and better moods.”

As one piece of evidence, proponents of the biophilia hypothesis point to the various nature-centered religious traditions that have grown up around the world and throughout time.14 Those in need of more rigorous scientific proof might want to consider how good simply spending time outdoors is for our mental and physical health. To cite just one recent study, researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School found that people who spend at least two hours a week in natural settings report better physical health overall and better moods. These findings held true across almost all demographics. Moreover, it wasn’t a case of healthier people being more prone to visit nature: Among those with long-standing illnesses, people who got at least two hours a week in nature fared better than those who did not.15

Even our phobias may be proof of our evolutionary need for the natural world. Some argue the seemingly innate fear of creatures like spiders and snakes is a sign of our deep connection to nature, one that has not been severed no matter how far we’ve strayed.16

Primates — including humans — have neurons in their brains that appear to be particularly sensitive to images of snakes. Researchers theorize we may have evolved an “automatic visual system” to identify snakes before our conscious minds are even aware of them; Source: NPR

And stray we have. Supporters of the biophilia hypothesis note that our separation from nature was largely due to architecture. The creation of the enclosed spaces in which we now live — our houses, our offices, our stores, our restaurants, even our cars — has been the sundering force driving an ever-wider wedge between ourselves and the earth.17 Americans spend more than 90 percent of their lives indoors.18 Perhaps it’s no surprise that more of us than ever now report feelings of serious psychological distress.19

“Many of the buildings we walk through on a daily basis are almost hostile to our basic human needs.”

It doesn’t help that many of the buildings we walk through on a daily basis are almost hostile to our basic human needs. The academic Fredric Jameson, describing the disorientingly massive and disconcertingly symmetrical lobby of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in his book Postmodernism, captures the unnatural, dehumanizing experience some built spaces thrust upon us: “[The hotel transcends] the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world.”20

Jameson identifies an “alarming disjunction point between the body and its built environment,” noting that the space is so alienating people find it impossible to even locate the shops that exist inside the hotel: “It has been obvious since the opening of the hotel in 1977 that nobody could ever find any of these stores, and even if you once located the appropriate boutique, you would be most unlikely to be as fortunate a second time.”21

Interior shot of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel; Source: Kevin Case

It’s not just we who suffer from a life lived wholly indoors — nature suffers, too. Wilson argues the further we drift from our biophilic roots, the less we respect nature and the less concerned we are with maintaining healthy ecosystems.22 Certainly this lack of concern has contributed to climate change and the current mass extinction event our planet is undergoing, in which species are going extinct 1,000 times faster than the natural background rate. 23

Building Our Way Back to the World

But Wilson also argues that cultivating the relationship between humanity and nature could be the cornerstone of a more successful conservation effort. One way to reestablish that connection might be through biophilic design.

Stephen Kellert, professor emeritus of Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, worked with Wilson on the book The Biophilia Hypothesis. He is also one of the founders of the biophilic design movement, a movement that seeks to create buildings and spaces that are more akin to our natural environment. The thinking goes that, if we have to spend so much time indoors, we might as well make our buildings as much like the outdoors as possible.24

“The fundamental goal of biophilic design is to create good habitat for people as biological organisms inhabiting modern structures, landscapes, and communities,” Kellert writes.25

Kellert says Yale University’s Kroon Hall, with its organic curvature and natural wood construction, is a prime example of biophilic design; Source: Metropolis Mag

This is not as simple as adding a couple potted plants to a bank lobby. Rather, biophilic design approaches indoor spaces like integrated ecosystems. Biophilic buildings use natural materials like wood and clay, as well as more organic shapes and forms, favoring flowing structures over the cold precision of traditional spaces. They make ample use of natural light and ventilation where possible, and sometimes they even bring plants, water, and animals indoors.26

According to Kellert, biophilic design is categorized by five key criteria:27

  1. — It draws inspiration specifically from the natural environments that had been humanity’s habitat at some point in the past.

  2. — Rather than bringing isolated elements of nature into a space, biophilic design encourages a “repeated and sustained engagement with nature.”

  3. — Biophilic design creates integrated spaces that feel more like ecosystems and less like collections of random natural elements.

  4. — It aims to create indoor spaces to which people can become emotionally attached in the same way they become attached to outdoor spaces.

  5. — It supports the social aspect of humanity. We are a fundamentally social species, and biophilic design emphasizes community-oriented spaces.

Google’s Tel Aviv office takes direct inspiration from nature in the office spaces; Source: Office Snapshot

Advocates of biophilic design stress that individual biophilic buildings are only the beginning. As 68 percent of people around the world are projected to live in urban areas by 2050, we need to think about moving beyond green offices and homes to fully green infrastructure and cities.28

Singapore offers a prime example of how such cities can be built. From the moment of its independence in 1965, Singapore’s leaders have intentionally sought to make the city as biophilic as possible. As a result, Singapore is now what architecture professor Timothy Beatley calls “our best example of a vertical green city.” More than 47 percent of the island’s land area is used for public green space — triple that of New York City’s 14 percent.29

Nature is woven directly into Singapore’s built spaces as well. For example, the Parkroyal on Pickering hotel contains 15,000 square meters of green space — which means it has twice as much green space as Hong Lim Park, which sits directly across the road from the hotel. Similarly, the city has turned concrete drainage channels into naturalized rivers, driving a 30 percent increase in biodiversity.30

Designed by Antoni Gaudí, Barcelona’s Basílica de la Sagrada Família is inspired by light filtering through the branches of trees; Source: 99 Percent Invisible

“The successful application of biophilic design fundamentally depends on adopting a new consciousness toward nature, recognizing how much our physical and mental wellbeing continues to rely on the quality of our connections to the world beyond ourselves of which we still remain a part,” Kellert says.31

This new consciousness wouldn’t just make us happier and healthier, but it could also bring a new sense of urgency and determination to sustainability efforts. Many of us live our lives today wholly disconnected from the very planet on which we depend for life. If we can recover our deep connection to the natural world, we may remember just why it’s worth fighting for.

So perhaps it’s time to reclaim the log cabin as a symbol of not just America, but a greener America — one in which our living spaces are more conducive to, well, living.

— The Keap Team

The Ignite Series

We select a scent of the month to send to our seasonal candle subscribers. We use the opportunity to uncover a facet of that scent through the written word with a monthly article. For our subscribers, this is complemented by a limited edition art label and art card in their monthly package. Learn more about the Keap candle subscription.

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