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Biophilic design takes centre stage

24 June 2021

Originally pioneered in the 1980s, biophilic design is now being adopted by large corporates and architecture firms alike, keen to harness the benefits of man’s connection with nature.


Originally written by Catherine Osborne



In Orlando, Florida, the McDonald’s flagship is 100% solar powered. 
© Kate Joyce Studios



McDonald’s might not be where you expect to find a significant investment in the integration of architecture and the natural world. Yet earlier this year, the iconic fast-food chain opened a net-zero restaurant at Walt Disney World, in Orlando, Florida, that’s rooted in biophilia, a design concept that’s time has finally come.


Stephen R. Kellert, a social ecology professor at Yale university, originally pioneered the term biophilia in the 1980s. He laid out what biophilic design is and by doing this, he distinguished it from greenwashing: making people believe organisations are doing more to protect the environment than they actually are. The principles run deeper than adding plants to a room and go to the heart of humans’ basic connection with nature and the inherent health benefits that brings. Given that most of us are indoors almost all the time, integrating nature into the built environment is not a luxury or aesthetic preference, it is essential to our mental and physical wellbeing.



The fast-food restaurant relies on natural ventilation for most of the year. 
© Kate Joyce Studios



The first Biophilic Design Award, named in Kellert’s honour, was launched by the International Living Future Institute in 2017. Among last year’s winners was Le Phénix, a 1950s-era warehouse in Montreal that is now the head office for Lemay, one of Canada’s leading architecture and planning firms. The retrofitted building is a showpiece for the firm and living proof of its commitments to net-positive design. These range from sourcing eco-friendly materials to investing in its 350 employees’ day-to-day happiness.



Le Phénix, the net-positive head office of architecture firm Lemay in Montreal. 
© Adrien Williams



Upgrades to the three-storey structure align with Kellert’s definition of biophilia. Employees enjoy an abundance of daylight and foliage via a living green wall, while climbing plant modules improve indoor air quality and balance humidity. Staff wellness extends to flexible work hours and offering dedicated exercise and relaxation spaces, along with fresh food in the communal kitchen.


The former warehouse is highly energy-efficient due to triple glazing, improved roof insulation and 379 photovoltaic panels with a total capacity of 134 kW. According to president Louis T. Lemay, “Our projects have greater social acceptability, which generates more ROI and boosts market value.”



Human beings have a biological need to be close to nature.
© Adrien Williams



The presence of natural vegetation, whether indoors or out, reduces stress. 
© Adrien Williams



McDonald’s understands this too. Its 745-square-metre Orlando restaurant, designed by Ross Barney Architects of Chicago is powered by rooftop photovoltaics and solar technology that shades an outdoor dining area. Channeling that famous Florida sunshine is equal to the energy the restaurant uses over in a year.



Even in subtropical Florida, natural ventilation can suffice.
© Kate Joyce Studios



Its design relies on natural ventilation for more than half of the year. When air-conditioning is required, its Jalousie windows, operated by outdoor humidity and temperature sensors, close automatically. McDonald’s is also testing new energy-efficient equipment here, for cooking burgers on grills that revert to standby mode when there are fewer customers. This reduces the energy load and McDonald’s feeds 37 million people a day, the savings potential is enormous.



Every feature improves on adopting a renewed consciousness toward nature.
© Kate Joyce Studios



Both projects are proof of what Kellert has told us all along: “We will never be truly healthy, satisfied, or fulfilled if we live apart and alienated from the environment from which we evolved.”

Biophilic design takes centre stage
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