If you watch a mainstream television show about design, the whole process seems to take half an hour. Having all this information at our fingertips is exciting, but it’s not always accurate. People might be missing out on what good architecture has the power to do — it is much more than four walls and a ceiling. We, as architects, can communicate through the built world that the needs of people and the needs of the environment go hand in hand. Holistic architecture restores the environment and human health.
I look at how the land is graded, the location of the trees, streams, brooks, or perhaps if it’s a more urban environment, where the infrastructure is built up. The design needs to speak to the needs of the occupant as well, so we investigate the purpose of the space and present a variety of solutions to make it a reality. If we don’t take all of these steps with intention, the environment suffers and we suffer as well.
Too often, we see trees chopped down for no reason, streams or brooks contaminated, or too much storm water runoff. When developers bring in unnecessary infrastructure, it can have a detrimental effect on the environment, which in turn can diminish the occupant’s enjoyment of the space — and if their needs are not met, then the building is just a box taking up space. Poorly planned neighborhoods are often the ones where exact replicas are built, one after another, on sites that are deemed undesirable. Many of these houses, like some that we see in the South Bronx and Detroit, fall apart. Morale falls by the wayside, people’s spirits are low, and it no longer feels like a good place to live. Bad design can cause chaos.
In contrast, holistic architecture uplifts the environment and the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the occupants. Planning a neighborhood mindfully inspires the community to come together, too. People take more pride in the neighborhood and want to protect it because the architectural design creates value on so many levels.
For example, I’m working on a townhouse in Brooklyn in the middle of a block in the center of a historic district. This neighborhood, all in quaint brownstone from the turn of the century, has been designated a Landmark; yet my client’s home doesn’t quite fit in. You just see a dilapidated house sandwiched between two very well-appointed buildings that follow architectural tradition. Yet this dilapidated house has had an impact on how that stretch of street is perceived.
So the clients are happy to have their building restored. We use architecture as a tool to help them understand their emotional and practical needs. They feel the difference when they visit a neighbor on the same block and admire the original windows and architectural features. We’re replacing the windows and adding cornices around them, repairing the facade, and doing much more to meet the standards of the Landmark Preservation Commission. All this will help the client’s conserve energy, in the form of heating and cooling, but also holistically — they will feel confident and comfortable. In turn, we are mending the historic fabric of the neighborhood.
Holistic architecture restores the environment and human health when Feng Shui is incorporated, too. We can optimize each space to invoke a certain atmosphere — for a family, it may be harmony; for a business, prosperity. My analysis of the landscape and environment determines how to welcome certain energies. Currently, I’m helping a friend who is opening a business in Arizona. Through a Compass Study, we discover the best, most visible, locations for the door and for parking. Through the additional lens of biophilic design, we can also welcome the natural world into our space; framing views and bringing in natural light are other ways to bring good fortune. Yet feng shui and biophilic design are also just plain common sense. For example, feng shui says leaky windows are not good because good energy gets out, just as heat escapes.
Still, these approaches are not gaining traction because they take time and thought — something that too often is left out of television shows. Even the Eastern Metaphysics has succumbed to the lure of ‘just getting things done’ and feng shui and good design are still not being publicized enough for people to understand how design philosophy can enhance their well-being. The questions we need to be asking more often are: How can we interact with the environment? What does the environment do for us? Science cannot be limited to those who understand the effect of it. We’ve come pretty close to having those considerations become criteria, especially biophilic design regarding showing views of the natural environment. Daylighting is getting on the mainstream radar.
The needs of the environment and of occupants are the same. Holistic architecture restores the environment and human health — allowing us to take our appropriate place in the whole universe.