Over the last several years, certain Architecture & Design trends have risen to prominence and are now widely used. How these trends interconnect is really interesting to me. Sustainability, modular design, minimalism, and biophilic design may seem disparate, but they all have one common thread: intentionality. All of these ideas promote a deliberate, purposeful design approach toward the built environment. To create a desired experience, design must be done with intention in mind.
That ethos is summed up by intentional environment, a holistic way of viewing intentionality in architecture. The idea is to give architects and designers a comprehensive framework that champions health and wellness, and it’s an exciting and innovative step forward in the world of A&D. Here’s why intentional environment is so important.
What Is Intentional Environment?
Intentional environment is the approach taken in the design process so that conditions will be created that will encourage and result in great work. Design and the resulting environment are absolutely connected. The physical environment will affect occupants emotionally and physically; how they feel, act and what they do and how they do it. When the consulting firm, aptly named Intentional Environment, opened its doors in 1997, they properly introduced their namesake term with the goal of creating healthier built environments. The company takes inspiration from myriad design and wellness principles, simultaneously utilizing concepts like sustainability and feng shui to optimize buildings for humans. Founders Damon and Cathy Coyne define intentional environment as building “healthy living and work spaces that support health, well-being and higher consciousness.”
Intentional environment can be more specifically defined by considering its various tenets. It prioritizes occupant wellness, conscious design, energy flow, stress reduction, and enhancement of indoor environmental quality (IEQ). In this way, intentional environment is similar to movements like biophilic design. Human health is a prime consideration during the building and design process, and harmony with nature is highly valued.
In practice, intentional environment integrates these many parts into one unified whole. An intentional environment feels good to be in and promotes mental, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Intentional environment can be broken down into three general constituents: purpose, sustainability, and biophilia.
The Importance of Purposive Design
Obviously intent is a crucial part of intentional environment, but what exactly does that look like? First, a built environment must be designed to increase human health. In other words, occupant wellness should be a thoroughly integrated focus rather than an afterthought. From the outset, everything from building materials to site layout should be viewed through the lens of human well-being. As Terrapin Bright Green’s Bill Browning puts it, “the real point of buildings is people.”
Second, an intentional environment needs to fully facilitate the kinds of activities and elicit the behaviors for which the space is constructed. The emphasis here is on holistic design. For instance, when collaboration is an important business objective, an office building should naturally allow for work and collaboration to happen anywhere within its boundaries. For a hotel, the design should foster rest and relaxation in every room. A retail store may aim to evoke a specific emotion or sensory experience in order to make customers more receptive to their brand. Gone are the days of limiting activities to specific spaces. Instead, designers are considering the purpose of a building and integrating that purpose into every part of the building.
An intentional environment, then, is a built environment that holistically supports human health and activities. Intentional environment architects employ an interwoven web of methodologies and philosophies to accomplish those goals, and sustainability and biophilia are two of the most common.
Sustainability in the Intentional Environment
Intentional environment deals with health and wellness first and foremost, and sustainability plays a large role here. Sustainable design not only benefits the earth but also helps to eliminate building toxins and create a cleaner space. This ultimately results in greater harmony with the earth and improved occupant health. Herein lies the premise behind Building Biology, one of the core concepts of intentional environment design. According to Intentional Environment, Building Biology “strives for methods and materials that create a supportive living environment in balance with nature.” This ensures that buildings nourish their inhabitants and maintain positive energy flow.
From Lammhults Design Group: Sweco Gothenburg’s highly sustainable design nurtures a wellness-first environment for employees
Building Biology is composed of 25 principles that moderate everything from site location to air quality. The principles break down into four categories: site and community design; building materials and design; natural and man-made electromagnetic radiation safety; and environmental protection, social responsibility, and energy efficiency. Each category relies on sustainable practices including net zero/net positive energy, preservation of natural resources, and use of green building materials like reclaimed wood.
In intentional environment architecture, sustainability is also applied to site-specific purpose that depends on location and natural surroundings. Architects and designers might think of ways to immediately benefit or protect the surrounding environment. Two excellent examples are rainwater systems that reduce runoff and buildings that are constructed without disturbing trees and vegetation. Safeguarding nature––when combined with other sustainability initiatives––allows a built environment to be conscious of its location, creating the foundation for Building Biology and intentional environment and fostering spaces that humans love to inhabit.
The Role of Biophilia in Intentional Environment
Biophilic design is the last piece of the puzzle that makes up the major aspects of intentional environment. As I mentioned earlier, the goals of intentional environment and biophilic design are identical: to encourage buildings that maximize human health. Specifically, biophilic design operates within intentional environment, using natural elements to realize the goals at which intentional environment aims.
Many of the issues that intentional environment addresses can be remedied using biophilic design. Air quality, which Building Biology prioritizes, can be enhanced with greenery (like potted plants and living walls) and natural ventilation solutions. Biophilia also has the power to foster positive energy in the space by improving mood and social interactions. Design materials from nature, like reclaimed wood, have been proven to do those very things. In addition, a careful balance of physiological and mental benefits is critical in creating the best possible environment.
Together, biophilic design and sustainable design can also reduce unwanted disturbances such as electropollution and geopathic stress. Intentional environment stresses congruence between a building and its location in order to encourage clarity and comfort, and such disturbances can skew that synthesis. Ideally, the combination of optimizing design for humans and mitigating problems produces InZones™, the name Intentional Environment gives to spaces that support and restore human energy and focus. While forms of this idea have long existed in design––private, isolated spaces for solo office work come to mind––InZones™ go above and beyond, providing areas that replenish and rejuvenate the body and mind.
From Intentional Environment: Intentional environment InZones™ like this conference room provide positive energy that improves focus and clarity
Like biophilia and experiential design, intentional environment reflects the growing emphasis on human-first design within Architecture & Design. It’s a field of study that closely examines the relationship between a building and its occupants, namely insofar as a building’s energy and health affect human wellness. That connection is going to shape the future of A&D as we aim to construct buildings designed specifically to help people feel, work, and live better all day long.