In 1991, William D. Browning founded the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Green Development Services. It was subsequently awarded the President’s Council for Sustainable Development / Renew America Prize in 1999.
In 2006, Mr. Browning became a principal in Terrapin Bright Green LLC, a research and consulting firm which crafts environmental strategies for corporations, government agencies and large-scale developments. Browning’s clients include Walmart’s Eco-mart, Starwood, Yellowstone National Park, Lucasfilm’s Letterman Digital Arts Center, Disney, New Songdo City, the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park, Google, the White House and the Sydney 2000 Olympic Village.
Browning was named one of five people “Making a Difference” by Buildings magazine, and is an Honorary member of the American Institute of Architects. He was a founding member of US Green Building Council’s Board of Directors, and is the Chair of the Greening America Board of Directors. He served on the DoD Defense Science Board Energy Task Force and the State Department’s Industry Advisory Group.
Mr. Browning received a Bachelor of Environmental Design from the University of Colorado and a Masters of Science in Real Estate Development from MIT.
Planet Experts: Please describe your role with Terrapin Bright Green and how you use “whole systems thinking” to serve your clients.
Bill Browning: I’m one of the co-founders of Terrapin Bright Green. We are a small research and consulting firm and our quest for many of our clients and in our research and consulting is really looking for different ways of thinking about how to solve problems.
We’re strong believers in John Muir’s comment that, ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.’ That sort of systemic asking questions and thinking about how do you deal with issues is central to a lot of our work. Sometimes it’s a process of asking questions, sometimes it’s looking at a source of inspiration. For instance, some of our work in biomimicry is looking at the ecosystem services of a place and using those to develop metrics and solutions for how we deal with buildings. Basically asking, ‘could the building perform as well as what the ecosystem here is capable of doing?’
PE: What is Biomimicry and how do you employ this concept in your work?
BB: Biomimicry is literally innovation inspired by nature, a term coined by our friend and colleague Janine Benyus. We use it both directly in our consulting work and we have a multi-year contract with the New York State Energy Research Development Authority to introduce biomimcry in industries in New York state. We help industries find solutions to design and industrial processes and, working with a team of biologists, when we find what looks to be a viable solution we then partner with the biologists and help them pull together proof of concept funding. We’ve had 11 companies go through that process with us and they’ve garnered around $100,000 each and up to $400,000 in one case.
PE: You co-authored a new paper, entitled “14 Patterns of Biophilic Design: Improve Health & Well-Being in the Built Environment.” What is Biophilia?
BB: Biophilia is a term coined by the social psychologist Erich Fromm and popularized by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson. Biophilia in the simplest terms is innate human connection to nature. It plays out in pretty amazing ways. In the process of people experiencing nature we see reductions in stress, we see improved healing rates, we see enhanced cognitive function, we see better creativity, we see a variety of ways that that plays out.
Think about where you tend to go when you have a vacation. For a lot of folks, it’s some place in nature – a beach, a mountain, a national park. So, if that’s where we go to be restored and feel better, then why don’t we bring those qualities into the built environment. That’s what biophilic design is really about.
A lot of it is surprisingly intuitive. It’s stuff that we have done in architecture and design for millennia, when people started building buildings. In some ways it’s codifying the obvious.
Already in our real-estate pricing we can see how that plays out. Just think about a hotel room. Which room’s more expensive, the one with the view of the parking lot or the one with the view of the lake? The same plays out in house pricing. A study done in Seattle looked at the houses on the island on Lake Union and the houses up on the hillside that didn’t have a view of the lake as a baseline. The houses that had a view to water were 58 percent more expensive by square foot. Houses that were directly on the water were 147 percent more expensive per square foot.
So we sort of already get this, but some of it’s codifying it and really thinking about how do we make connection to nature an everyday experience. How do we weave it through our buildings and our outdoor spaces? We realized there are many different ways that you can experience nature, so we decided to create a toolkit for designers to be able to look at different mechanisms for connecting people within nature.
PE: What kind of tools are in that kit?
BB: We developed fourteen design patterns. Some of those patterns have to do with direct contact with nature. Things like visual contact with nature – actually being able to see nature in your space or out your windows. Another one would be the presence of water. Having water nearby, in the space, visible from the space. There’s a very, very strong response to water.
Another would be dynamic and diffused light. Just having stable, same light all the time isn’t all that great for the eyes, you’ll get bored with it. The eye actually does much better in an environment that has a variety of light conditions through the space. Also, acknowledging that daylight changes color over the course of the day and as that happens, multiple things happen in the body. The serotonin and melatonin balance in the body shifts with that color of light, blood pressure shifts with that, heart rate shifts with that. With LED lighting technologies now we can track that light change over the course of the day in lighting design and buildings.
Another group within biophilic design are natural analogs. These are things like biomorphic forms, using natural materials in the space, and also looking at the level of complexity or simplicity in patterns and materials in the space. That gets into fractals and the use of fractals in architecture and design. There’s some really interesting brain science around that and how we respond to different kinds of fractals and also different fractal iterations.
For example, if you look at a traditional fractal pattern and see the first iteration, the second and then the third, if you go and look at traditional architecture what you’ll typically see are third-order fractals used pretty frequently. Modern architecture, however, at most gets to the first level iteration of a fractal, maybe the second, but almost never to the third order. It’s probably one of the reasons why so many non-architects find modern architecture so boring and bland.
Another category we call ‘nature of the space,’ which is the spatial conditions of the space itself – and this comes from neuroscience and from environmental psychology – is a series of patterns that describe the experience of the space itself.
One is called ‘prospect,’ and that’s where you have an unimpeded view of space. That’s important for navigation and perceptions of safety. The opposite of that would be ‘refuge,’ where you’re in sort of a protected shell – your back is protected, you have a lowered canopy overhead, you’re sitting under the shade tree.
What I always ask folks is, you go into a restaurant and you have your choice of round tables in the center of the space or a booth on a raised plinth all around the perimeter of the space – where are you going to choose? Most folks go, ‘Well, of course I want the booth.’
Sitting in the booth, you’ve got the refuge condition, your back is protected, you’ve got the canopy overhead. And you’ve also got prospect because you can then see out from the booth and across the whole rest of the restaurant. So prospect and refuge together.
There are two other patterns. ‘Mystery’ is a partially occluded view. The classic example would be the curving path in the forest, right? You’ve just got to see what’s around that corner. The final pattern is what we call ‘risk-peril.’ That’s one you probably don’t want to use too much but it is an identifiable threat coupled with a reliable safeguard.
PE: What does that look like?
BB: That would be going to the tall building and looking over the railing down. It’s pretty exhilarating, but you’re not going to fall, but it’s still a little scary. Or it would be like a water garden where you have stepping stones but no rails that go through a pond. You might step off and get wet.
PE: So it’s a sliding scale of danger.
BB: Exactly. In fact there’s actually research on formulas for calculating thrill in the ride design industry. Some of it has to do with anticipation, some of it has to do with the actual experience and some of it has to do with the recovery afterwards.
PE: You have consulted and worked on projects for Wal-Mart, the White House, the National Aquarium, Disney Hong Kong and the Pentagon. What does “green development” really mean for sites like these?
BB: It has to do with improving energy use, improving water use and other resource use, indoor air quality, the whole suite of things that are now part of the standard discussion about great buildings.
The large project for us that helped kick a lot of that conversation off was the Greening of the White House in the early ’90s. It was a project that we were one of the leaders of, when I was with the Rocky Mountain Institute, and it brought together 130 experts working together over the course of three days to develop a strategy. Out of that came an implementation report that formed the basis of what’s been done there over the last 20 years.
PE: Your expertise has been sought out by universities, non-profits, the U.S. military and foreign governments. Are there any particular projects of which you are most proud?
BB: Some of the work post-Katrina with the Holy Cross neighborhood, and just watching this absolutely physically and socially devastated community decide on their own that they wanted to be the community that made the statement about climate change. They felt they were some of the first climate victims in the country and so, as a result of that, a design competition happened that later on led to a – still under construction – half block of net zero energy buildings. Several houses, an apartment building, community center and store, at a time when the conversation about net zero energy wasn’t anywhere near as hot or common as it is today.
The Bank of America tower was a really amazing building and a lot of that has to do with just how beautifully integrated the different systems and thinking was and also just sort of seeing how even with a really fantastic building how the crew that runs that building continues to experiment and push further and produce more and more savings.
PE: Since founding the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Green Development Services in 1991, how much of a shift have you observed in both awareness and the desire to implement sustainable design and architecture?
BB: Well in ’91 we were just struggling to even try to define what a great building was, and we go from that to today where two million square feet a day is being certified under LEED [Editor’s Note: LEED stands for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, a green building certification program]. That’s worldwide. And there are many other rating systems as well.
For me, one of the things I’m most proud about is not necessarily a specific consulting project but just having been involved in the launch of the New York Green Building Council. I was one of the founding board members in April 1993.
PE: A common argument against green building is that it adds significant up-front costs. With all the empirical data out there confirming that such costs can be recouped through resource-efficient designs and materials, are you seeing increased willingness to proceed with green building?
BB: In the early days, when we were doing the first ones, yes, some of them were significantly more expensive. And now we’re seeing LEED Platinum buildings being delivered at no additional first cost over conventional construction, it’s kind of hard to sustain that argument.
The most interesting shift, though, and what’s been for me heartening – because it’s something we started at Rocky Mountain and now through biophilic design – has always been to say, look, the energy savings and the water savings and all that is really important and good things and we absolutely need to be doing that. But the real point of buildings is people.
If you look at the annual operating cost of an office building, what you realize is that energy costs are about one percent of that total cost. The rent is not quite 10 percent of that total cost. And the whole rest of that cost is the salaries of the people in that building. Right? So let’s focus on that, let’s focus on the health and well-being of the people.
And increasingly what we’re seeing, particularly with corporations and others – yeah, they’re interested in the energy savings and all that but – what they’re really interested in is the health and well being of their people. That’s why Google’s been supporting us and we’ve been working with them for the past several years on the patterns of biophilic design.
PE: What sort of projects did you work on with Google?
BB: We developed a set of metrics for them for their buildings worldwide.
PE: Have you faced pushback at all during any design process?
BB: No, that would never happen [laughs].
Yes, frequently, if you have a situation where people are not on it and don’t understand how the pieces interact with each other, you can get into what’s called a value-engineering exercise, which is a great oxymoron, where you start line-iteming out various components, not realizing that there’s a reason why this is in here, because if you have this and this, then it allows you to get rid of that.
And that’s one of the reasons why integrated designs are really important and why when you look at the cost of building you should be concerned about the finished complete cost but don’t get hung up on the individual component cost – as if each component has to have this cost profile. It’s more that what you really care about is the finished cost.
In fact, the federal government is moving more in that direction as a new contract mechanism based on a building done from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that’s the largest net-zero energy office building in the U.S.
The way that project was contracted was they gave them an energy target number and a budget and a list of these kinds of spaces and how many people they want to get into the building, and how you do it is up to you.
They wound up with an extraordinary building. After the team completed the first building they actually did an addition to the building that came in even less expensive and with 14 percent better performance than the original.
Now the General Services Administration is looking to see how to use that as a standard contract mechanism for federal buildings.
PE: President Obama just announced that U.S. government agencies will now be required to factor climate change considerations into their international development work. Does this signal a sea change in government policy or has this type of development already been on the rise?
BB: Well, how the federal agencies were looking at it in prior administrations – for example, the Department of Defense has been considering the terror and conflict implications of climate change for quite a while. Some of them will even tell you that the whole situation in the Sudan was one of the first climate-based conflicts and that we should expect to see more of that. So, in some ways it’s announcing and codifying some of the thinking that’s been going on already within some of the federal entities – just finally saying let’s do this as a broad policy agenda.