Peter Aaron

In early May 2012, New York–based Terrapin Bright Green released "The Economics of Biophilia," a white paper that asserts that biophilic design could save millions of dollars. (ECO-STRUCTURE's original news report is here.) Below, Namita Kallianpurkar of Terrapin Bright Green looks a bit deeper into the background of the paper and its findings. When describing biophilia, or our innate emotional affiliation to other living organisms, biologist Edward O. Wilson said that “life around us exceeds in complexity and beauty anything else humanity is ever likely to encounter.” Connecting to this complexity and wonder is at the heart of biophilic design. The driving hypothesis behind it is simple—that incorporating human access to nature into our built environment can greatly improve our health and happiness at a large scale. These improvements may seem small individually, but are numerous, span across various physiological functions, and aggregate to yield a large overall improvement in our physical and mental health. Although the research quantifying nature’s effect on our health exists, it is not centralized as a discipline, nor is it widely linked to monetary savings. Terrapin Bright Green strongly believes that biophilic design is profitable. It is simply a matter of figuring out how profitable.

As a result, Terrapin recently released "The Economics of Biophilia," a white paper that translates the health and productivity benefits of biophilic design into cost savings for a variety of public and private industries. The logic that drives the financial benefits of biophilic design is as follows: People experience positive physiological reactions when they come into contact with living things. For example, our bodies respond in a healthier way to an interior full of plants than to one that is devoid of them. This applies to all types of environments, such as city blocks, hospitals, schools, and our own homes. And while we have always intrinsically felt this, a burgeoning body of scientific evidence now supports this conclusion.

Over the past few years, Terrapin Bright Green has compiled a body of research from a range of scientific fields—studies that have measured (among other things) reduced stress levels in adults, faster post-surgery recovery times in hospitals post-surgery, and better productivity in schools and offices. The white paper takes these physiological improvements and assigns to them what we estimate to be their dollar value.

For example, a faster post-surgery recovery time translates to reduced pain medication and inpatient care. We then factor in the cost of medication and inpatient care, and estimate how much money a hospital could save as a result of providing their recovering patients access to nature. To apply this figure nationwide, our paper then draws from survey figures of comparable surgeries across the U.S., and estimates that if all hospitals in the U.S. were designed to give patients a view to nature, they could save $93 million dollars annually.

In fact, the most surprising thing about the process of devising these calculations was their sheer scale. Our calculations were fairly conservative, but the magnitude of the estimates was still enormous. For example, we calculated that if all schools in New York City were designed with effective daylighting strategies, the resulting reduction in student absenteeism could save $297 million in taxpayer dollars and $247.5 million in lost parental wages. And, again, considering that these examples were calculated conservatively, we think it likely that these savings would be larger in reality.

Estimating these cost savings could not have happened at a better time, as in recent years, the building industry has begun to recognize the power and profitability of this design strategy. In 2005, Terrapin Bright Green consulted on biophilic design at the New York headquarters of a large bank (which is now the subject of a follow-up productivity study), and is currently consulting on a large commercial space in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City with the same goal. Another project that Terrapin has worked on involved compiling a database of scientific research on the health impacts of biophilia for real estate developer Delos Living. And biophilic master planning projects are far more commonplace now than they were—think of the High Line in New York and Seattle’s Green Streets project.

But what can designers and companies do with this information? Having laid out a financial argument for biophilic design, we hope that this white paper will open the door for companies, institutions and ordinary people to think critically about how much biophilic design could save them. Our goal is for people to seek out biophilic buildings, and for design professionals to respond to this increase in demand with a similar increase in supply, causing a shift away from bunkerlike buildings and denuded streets. We hope that design professionals will use this paper as a wake-up call to shift their focus toward an improvement on the status quo, one that fundamentally changes the way we interact both physiologically and mentally with our built environment.

A full copy of "The Economics of Biophilia" is available here.