Design For Life: The Nature of Nature

Creating healthy buildings is dependent on recognizing our fundamental connection with the natural world.


Creating healthy buildings is dependent on recognizing our fundamental connection with the natural world.

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Where is nature? If you listen to urban or suburban dwellers, nature is “out there,” typically at least an hour away—a place to get away. Country dwellers often say how glad they are to live “in nature.” It’s as if there’s a line on some map, delineating “in nature” from “not in nature.” Really?

Even in the heart of the city, the sun shines, the rain falls, plants grow, birds fly and the sun rises and sets. Wherever we are, our hearts beat, our blood flows, our lungs expand and contract, and a gazillion other bodily functions work without our thinking about it. We are never apart from nature.

What is nature?

For the last few decades I’ve been looking up “nature” in dictionaries. Until recently, the definitions have included “how things work,” “the essential character of a person or thing,” and “the physical world.” Only lately has “countryside” appeared. And nowhere have I found nature defined as “rocks, trees, streams and birds, unchanged by humans,” which is what most of us mean when we talk about “getting out in nature.”

As a culture, we have a sloppy idea of what nature is and how we fit into it—and that is at the heart of our ecological problems. The fact is, we are nature, but most governments and businesses function as if we’re separate, creating deadly consequences for life on earth. All of our efforts to save forests, clean up air and water and reverse climate change are just flapping our hands at the symptoms; the root cause of these problems is that we don’t understand how nature works.

Come back to life

When I first started looking into the relationship between life and buildings more than 30 years ago, I found that the subject matter divided itself into two categories: ecological impacts of buildings (outdoors) and health impacts of buildings (indoors). It became clear that buildings are one of the most potent ways of pretending that we are separate from the world “out there.”

The more I looked into what conditions humans need to thrive, the clearer it became that this is a false—and destructive—delineation. The healthy building movement is focused on one of the more dramatic areas of human environmental health: air quality. But humans need so much more than just clean air to thrive.

Humans need the rest of the living world. Nowhere else can we get the rich, changing textures of sunlight, sounds, colors, warmth, coolness, moisture and delight that we crave—yet most of us spend more than 90 percent of our time indoors. After decades of building evolution, we can provide ourselves with mechanically created monotony, training our bodies and minds to believe that we are apart from the supposedly messy, unpredictable world outdoors.

What would happen if we designed buildings not to separate ourselves from the nonhuman world, but to meet our needs by interacting with it?

What do we need?

Several basic environmental factors help us know we are nature:
■ sunlight by day
■ darkness at night
■ greenery
■ water
■ meaningful sounds
■ fresh, gently moving air
■ thermal comfort within thermal variation
■ interaction with other humans and other species
■ a sense of safety
■ dynamic synergy among all of the above things

How might standards shift if we used these criteria as a basis for ecological building? We don’t need to “go out into nature” to return to fruitful citizenship in the world. We simply need to come home to our true nature. 

Carol Venolia is an eco-architect and the co-author of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006). Share your experiences with her at .