Striking the Perfect Balance: Technology in Biophilic Hotel Design
By Amanda Hertzler Executive Managing Director & Director of Design, MKDA | November 10, 2019
Imagine a place where you feel calm, content and free from worries. Chances are, if you are like more than 90% of us according scientists, you imagined yourself in nature.
Despite the many technological distractions, or perhaps because of them, humans continue to be drawn to the natural elements. Earthly features like oceans and mountains allow us to rest in the present away from modern-day demands, and to connect to our true human nature.
Amercian psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in 1973 coined the term Biophilia as "the passionate love of life and of all that is alive." Biologist Edward O. Wilson later offered the Biophilia Hypothesis in his 1984 book Biophilia. His theory was that early humans needed to attune to the natural environment to survive, and that this formed the biological basis for our desire to connect with nature and life forms today.
Having a strong biological craving for nature, it's no wonder the impact that it has on us. We are deeply affected at the emotional and physical level by the sensorial experience of being near nature. In fact, studies have shown that moods and physical well-being are improved by proximity to nature whether real, virtual or manufactured.
What is Biophilic Design?
Biophilic Design is not the same as eco-design, an approach that seeks to use eco-friendly, sustainable materials and building systems. It is a design approach that seeks to mimic the natural world and the effect that the natural world has on humans.
"We are a part of nature and integrated into a functional circle with nature," noted Clemens Arvay, author of The Biophilia Effect: A Scientific and Spiritual Exploration of the Healing Bond Between Humans and Nature, in Psychology Today.
And, that's the promise of good biophilic design. A few disconnected and unrelated design elements is not biophilic design. Instead, it is a thoughtful, integrated approach that creates seamless, functional and palpable relationships between the building and the surrounding landscape, between the outdoors and interior, between humans and nature.
How Can Technology Help?
Post industrial technology has disconnected us from the natural world. However, in recent times, technological overload has also sparked an emotional demand calling us back, and in some cases it is helping us simulate the natural elements we long for.
According to Encyclopædia Britannica's Kara Rogers, Wilson noted the juxtaposition of "the notion that biophilia competes with the human technological drive and the notion that technology is in itself an extension of human evolution and biophilia."
In 2013, English author and researcher Sue Thomas coined the term technobiophilia to address the connections between the digital and natural landscapes and their effects on human well-being. To Thomas, technobiophilia is the coming together of elements that balance technology and nature in a way that contributes to human well-being.
Whether technology has created the need for biophilic design, or it is an element that enhances it (or both), all-encompassing technology is our reality. With that in mind, let's explore the touchstones of biophilic design and the technology that enhances it.
Natural and Artificial Light
The American Medical Association (AMA) Council on Science and Public Health in a recent report confirmed that both natural and artificial light that is in line with natural circadian rhythms promotes improved bodily systems and feelings of well-being.
Light in a hotel environment can have a powerful effect on guest experience. New technologies have given us a deep well of innovative products that can help us harness natural light and also mimic natural light.
Architectural louvers that move with the sun can be used on window exteriors to control the passage of natural light and air, while maintaining thermal conditions and biophilic views. Likewise, dynamic glass that protects against direct sunlight can be used instead of shades or curtains to maintain that connection to natural light and biophilic views.
Biomimicry, an attempt to emulate nature's patterns and solutions, is also being used in lighting design to produce light systems that mimic our natural circadian rhythms, the 24-hour cycle of inner physiological processes impacted by sunlight and temperature.
Designers are using tunable white light LEDs that offer the full range of natural daylight color temperatures, including bright daylight, to work with rather than against humans' natural circadian rhythms.
Living Walls and Vertical Gardens
Literally translated, biophilia means an affinity for life. For many of us, one of the most beloved manifestations of life is plant life. Humans have long been drawn towards gardens, majestic forests and colorful meadows.
Over the recent years, we have seen an increase in the low-tech application of landscaped rooftops, terraces and courtyards in the hospitality industry to improve passive cooling, shading and to bring about beautiful biophilic views.
Living walls are also on the rise, but these vertical gardens rely heavily on high-tech hydroponics and irrigation systems to succeed. The benefits of living walls are so great that installations are happening in built environments of all types.
Exterior living walls that bring swaths of green space to dense urban areas have substantial environmental and psychological impact. The vertical gardens create a visual respite from the hard lines and grit of an urban landscape, provide shade and cooling, and absorb noise and carbon oxides.
Indoors, living walls create an undeniable connection to nature that is felt at the emotional level. The improvement to indoor air quality is without debate. Interior gardens remove harmful toxins and emit pure oxygenated air that can even reduce ambient temperatures through the transpiration process.
Acoustical Comfort & Nature Sounds
Humans' omnidirectional hearing ensures that we hear the totality of our surroundings. When noise levels reach a toxic level, however, we endure increased blood pressure, stress and can go into fight-or-flight, a vestige of our early human ancestors.
While living walls help absorb sounds and improve acoustics, nature sounds help us to feel calm and relaxed. According to scientists, water sounds are the most calming to humans. Gentle babbling brook sounds can promote positive systemic changes, helping us feel at ease, grounded and connected to nature.
New research published in Scientific Reports proves that "playing 'natural sounds' affects the bodily systems that control the flight-or-fright and rest-digest autonomic nervous systems, with associated effects in the resting activity of the brain."
"Habitat Soundscaping" by Plantronics offers nature soundscapes that match sounds and visuals to create a logical and holistic natural environment that is affirming and calming to humans. Acoustic engineering monitors the environmental soundscape and changes speaker volume based on increases in acoustic levels.
The influence of scent is powerful. It lingers in the memory longer than any other sense experience and has a powerful effect on our well-being. To create a memorable biophilic experience, hotels would be wise to incorporate nature-inspired aromatherapy into their environments.
There are a number of hotels with signature scents borrowed from the natural world: the W Hotel's branded scent features mood-enhancing lemon blossoms, green tea and laurel leaves, while the The Ritz-Carlton's Central Park location diffuses a blend of elderflower, mountain mint, and ripe strawberries.
Celebrating Nature's Diversity
In designing built environments, the unpredictable, chaotic and variable nature of the natural world should be embraced and celebrated.
Architects and designers may want to consider an approach to space planning that relates back to nature's topographical variations. Layouts can embrace surfaces and spaces that resemble meandering paths, elevated hills and plateaus, wide open meadows, and secluded, recuperative nooks and crannies.
Ventilation systems can control thermal conditions and variable air flow to give guests the tactile experience of an outdoor breeze.
There are a wide array of nature-inspired materials, furniture and fixtures available in the contract market today. In addition to natural, reclaimed and sustainably-sourced wood, stone, and other natural materials, we have never before had more options for colors, textures and patterns that mimic nature's impressive and beautiful array of diversity.
Options for nature-inspired art is likewise in abundance. Interactive art using technology, however, is on the rise. These "digital paintings" are transforming the art landscape. One application in biophilic design is a "digital painting" that moves to affect humans' respiration on a subconscious level. When looking at the art, breathing slows, leaving humans in a restful, calm state.
What are the Benefits of Biophilic Design?
Humans who spend time outdoors don't need research to know that spending time in nature provides physiological and psychological advantages, such as reduced stress and improved moods. Interestingly, researchers claim that the same benefits can be evoked with environments that mimic the natural world through the use of technology.
It's no wonder that biophilic hospitality design is becoming more mainstream. Hotel rooms with ocean or other biophilic views are priced 18-23% higher on average than non-biophilic view rooms. In addition to premium rates, these hotels enjoy improved guest experience and reviews.
Hospitality architects and designers, whose role is to create an environment that provides memorable guest experiences, and a profitable operation for hotel owners, should consider biophilic design in their plans going forward.
There is much to consider in the complex world of biophilic design. When I think about the future of hospitality design and the future of our cities, I'm encouraged by Virginia School of Architecture Professor Timothy Beatley, who said:
"We can look forward to the promise and potential of technobiophilic cities, that at once commit to restoring and enjoying actual nature, but acknowledge the realities of life in cities (much of it inside, and behind a screen), and the powerful ways in which our digital technologies could underpin and help to reinforce our nature-full commitments and experiences and our biophilic tendencies."
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