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Biophilic Design in Light of Art, Neuroscience, and Technology

AIA Iowa Workshop: Biophilic Illusions of Nature

Sky Factory presented its new AIA CE course in the form of a workshop during Iowa's annual AIA Convention.

Written by: David Navarrete

On September 29th, Sky Factory presented its new AIA CE course in the form of a workshop during Iowa's annual AIA Convention. The new course explores the restorative impact of perceived open space as an innovative, biophilic design technology capable of altering the way occupants experience isolated environments.

The course outlines the latest research from environmental psychology and neurobiology as it relates to how our perception engages with the built environment. The course describes how the careful staging of multisensory cues can give rise to therapeutic illusions of nature that can turn dead-end walls or sterile ceiling planes into architectural features that are comforting to the occupants of enclosed interiors.

While optical illusions have long history in Western Art & Architecture, the neurological underpinnings of this cognitive phenomenon have not been mapped until recently. With this new knowledge, it is possible to engage spatial cognition to connect enclosed interiors with an illusory—perceived—natural exterior, generating key wellness benefits. This cognitive framework expands the designer's toolkit. Architects are no longer be constrained by structural space, but instead can modify the impact of enclosed interiors on occupants.

The course explores the impact of deep plan buildings on occupants and how isolated, interior space tends to compress the spatial footprint of the occupant, significantly impacting his or her productivity, health, and cognitive function. Given that large commercial buildings have an average lifecycle of 80 years, retrofit solutions are the only viable solution to alter the deleterious impact of their design.



The workshop was also designed to raise questions about the way we view and understand light, particularly in relation to tunable artificial lighting, which modulates light intensity (irradiance) and color temperature to mimic daylight, indoors. However, at present, all dynamic lighting systems ignore or fail to account for the spatial attributes of daylight.

"When we transfer daylight-quality light indoors, light collapses into architectural space. It is no longer experienced within its natural, spatial medium—the sky," says Bill Witherspoon, Sky Factory founder and co-author of the white paper on which the new course is based. "Our physiology experiences daylight under the vastness of the sky. Yet, that visceral attribute—spatial relief—is gone, unreplaced, in isolated interiors."

There is growing interest in using tunable lighting systems to stimulate the circadian rhythm of occupants of enclosed interiors. However, there has been little emphasis made on daylight's spatial nature as an equally salutogenic attribute to human wellness.

In fact, among the fascinating studies cited in the course is new finding from a team based in the University of Manchester, in the U.K., who published a paper about circadian photoreceptors. The study is the first one to identify the "spatial distribution of light as being at least as large an influence on the master circadian clock’s firing as irradiance."



And while much remains to be understood about the circadian phase resetting, including the establishment of the Circadian Stimulus threshold and its duration, in view of other neural findings and the range of biological clocks our physiology harbors, it seems reasonable that the spatial attributes of daylight and the synaptic retinal data it transmits to the master circadian clock (in the hypothalamus) must play a valuable role.

Among the key insights included in the new course is the interrelationship between light, space, and memory; all of which comprise the fundamental building blocks involved in giving rise to environmental context. And context, whether structural or environmental, turns out to be essential in affecting the signal strength of visual input.

In other words, our cognitive faculties interpret visual input in relation to the cues our organs of perception detect around that input. This allows the keen designer to alter how the observer experiences the built environment.

Research in neuroscience has uncovered the deep connection between our ability to map space and how we form memories. These cognitive phenomena lead to the understanding that our memory stores our sense of space and environment as spatial reference frames.

How we perceive space and how we retrieve memories is a two-way street that can be used to trigger physiological reactions based on past environmental experiences. In this fashion, when we provide a visual stimulus that mimics a spatial relationship we are familiar with, the brain’s sensory and motor regions react as if the original memory itself was being re-experienced.

This is the stuff of which illusions are made. The new AIA course will be available as a lunch-n-learn presentation by 1Q 2018. Download the white paper on our research page.


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