The onset of the pandemic compelled us to have a hard look at the role of the built environment in our lives, with lockdowns highlighting the stark limitations of contemporary residential design. These circumstances - that the majority of Western and developed countries haven’t perhaps explored or considered in too much depth before - have further compounded focus on biophilic design and sustainability, and the paramount role these concepts have for the future of our planet.

“The restrictions on movement and going outside have really accelerated this awareness that we are really far away from where we need to be,” says Stephen Choi, the Living Building Challenge Manager at Frasers Property Australia. “Being locked into a home has made us far more attuned to the environments that we've set up.”

A UK-qualified Project Architect and Australian-qualified Project Manager, Stephen co-founded not-for-profit environmental building consultancy, Architecture for Change and has been a long-time ambassador for the Living Future Institute in Australia. “I have found lots of projects that have benefited from thinking about biophilic design and having incorporated it - spaces that are inside that actually have a feeling like you're outside,” Stephen says. “We have this desire to be outdoors, to feel something, even if it is the rain that we may never have wanted to walk out into.”

The ability to maintain the connection to the wilderness that can be achieved through biophilic design has incredible, and very current, wellness benefits. But it has also got the potent ability to define our future. “When you think about the trajectory that we're on right now - changing climate, air pollution, water quality problems, ecosystems being degraded -  I'm sure that we don't want to sustain that kind of trend. We have to be in a place where we are regenerating,” the winner of the Australian Institute of Architects’ 2020 Leadership in Sustainability Prize explains. “Biophilic design is a perfect gateway into that,” Stephen adds. There's a lot of research demonstrating that whatever we are exposed to as children, we care more about as adults. “If you grow up in an external environment, where you have a lot of connection to the natural world, you're far more likely to have a strong environmental bias when you are an adult.” Because of that biophilic design has a really key role to play. “We have to get people to care about the natural world of which we're part of - even though they might not be directly experiencing that wild nature on a daily or even monthly or even annual basis.”

And while some flippantly suggest the only way forward would be to go back to the caves, Stephen respectfully disagrees. “I understand the sentiment but I feel that it's not helpful. We need to be pragmatic and hopeful about what we're doing. There are many things about our society that are systemically difficult to address - that we live in a very car centric place, for example -  but there are so many things that are changing,” he says decidedly. He goes on to mention a transformative initiative that saw biophilic design principles breathe a new life into a public housing neighborhood in Malmö, Sweden, and the biophilic wonder that is the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore as real-life examples. “Khoo Teck Puat Hospital was the only hospital in the world where as a result of arriving I felt better,” he shares.

Stephen thinks there is a lot of opportunity for a positive change here, in Australia. “If you go up high in Sydney and you look down, and all you're seeing is air conditioning systems - not even solar power in a lot of cases - that’s quite depressing. There's so much potential there - it just takes some care, and some levers that will make changes in economics. In and around the Melbourne area, there's a lot of councils that have declared a climate emergency, and yet they are approving buildings every day that are actually degrading the very climate they say is in an emergency situation. It's very dangerous to use terms, and then not follow through on them because they become weaker over time. And the word emergency is a very strong term.”

There is no doubt that legislative levers are at least a part of the answer. “It is an absolute requirement. We can rely on some private developers to do innovative things but until we go from the bottom up approach, we're talking about such a radical change needed in the shortest amount of time possible. That's not all going to happen through a handful of innovative developments.”

Listen to this episode here.

This podcast was bought to you in association with Interface, proud sponsors of the Sustainability Series of podcasts. Find out more from Interface.