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Biophilic Design // Ian Cole


Much has been discussed over the past several months over the Johnson County Pavilion but little has been said about the building which the pavilion serves. The Johnson County Sunset Office Building hardly has the look or feel of a typical government building. The building uses natural materials, contains a garden, indoor water features, and large windows that give vast amounts of natural light and views of nature. To most people these features may not stand out but these are very deliberate design decisions that are synonymous with an approach to the built environment called “biophilic design”.

Many people are familiar with the term “green design” which refers to design and building with materials and systems that have a low environmental impact. Closely related to this but slightly different is a design approach called “biophilic design”. Stephen R. Kellert states in his writing, “The fundamental objective of biophilic design is to elicit a positive, valued experience of nature in the human built environment.” While green design emphasizes a building’s impact on the environment, biophilic design emphasizes a building’s impact on the user and attempts to create a connection to nature. Stephen R. Kellert states that successful biophilic design contains but is not limited to the following attributes; environmental features, natural shapes and forms, natural patterns and processes, light and space, place-based relationships, evolved human-nature relationships. The benefit of these features in buildings has been studied and directly relates to the health and wellbeing of a building’s users. Roger S. Ulrich, a researcher on biophilic design writes that healthcare facilities that use the principles of biophilic design record shorter length of stay in patients, lower requested amounts of pain medication, and fewer minor complications after procedures. Although the Sunset Office Building is not a health care facility, it certainly benefits from using these principles.

The first and most obvious biophilic design strategy used in the Sunset Office Building is the large glass façade on the south side of the building.  The south facing façade provides large amounts of natural light while an overhanging roof shades the façade in the summer and allows heat gains in the winter. The windows also offer views to the woods just south of the building and allow the building users to observe the ever changing plant and animal life. The second strategy is the use of moving water features, which appeal to multiple senses and create a natural experience throughout the building.  The third feature is the wood used on the building which changes in patina depending on its location. This reminds users of the changing nature of natural materials. Finally, the most impactful biophilic design feature is the garden on the east side of the building. The garden provides a chance for the building’s users to not only view, but interact with nature in a meaningful way. The garden is maintained by volunteers and displays native flowers and plants while providing seating throughout. In the writings of both Stephen R. Kellert and Roger S. Ulrich, they explain that the most successful biophilic features are those in which users can become an active participant in nature. Users of the Sunset Office Building can enjoy their lunch at the picnic tables in the garden while they see, smell, touch, and hear the natural world around them. They can observe their constantly changing environment and experience a deep and rich connection to nature, rather than the complete separation from nature that many buildings provide. 

The pavilion that will soon be completed will be a continuation of the biophilic design principles already in use throughout the Sunset Office Building. The large recycled glulam structure continues the theme of natural materials being used as a shelter providing element. Building users and visitors can enjoy the fresh air and avoid the hot sun as they view the garden and observe the plants and animals around them. The plants surrounding the pavilion are chosen and arranged to create a natural drainage system which future enhances the experience of the users.


The Sunset Office Building is an exemplary model for what office buildings, and buildings as a whole, can be. Buildings should no longer be viewed as boxes that cut us off from our surroundings, they should be viewed as extensions of our environment that provide shelter while still connecting us to the natural world from which we come. As designers we are taught to be environmentally conscious and responsible, but the writings of Stephen R. Kellert and Roger S. Ulrich show us the first step in doing so is to give the building users a reason to appreciate and protect our environment. The Sunset Office Building in Johnson County uses environmentally responsible design to provide building users and visitors a deep connection to the surroundings through the built environment.  

Written by Ian Cole

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