The history of 'Building Biology'

Sloane Residence By Paula Baker Laporte, EcoNest Architecture

Sloane Residence By Paula Baker Laporte, EcoNest Architecture


How did building biology come about?

What is sick building syndrome?

What is the unique perspective of building biology?


Bio: life, living organism

Biology: derived from the greek words /bios/ meaning /life/ and /logos/ meaning /study/; defined as the science of life and living organisms

The biology of building began with time. As people built their own shelter in the forms of structures and homes, they adapted their methods based on what made their communities thrive. Thinking of biology (life) made sense because successful shelter enabled life to continue. Building bad shelters could mean lost food, productivity, illnesses, vulnerability to external conditions whether it is a lion or bad weather, or even the loss of the habitat they depend on .

Building: a structure with walls and a roof

Shelter (or home, house): a place giving protection from bad conditions; a shielded place.



How did “building biology” begin?

Germany, along with many European nations, was left in ruins after World War II. In the subsequent years as it rapidly rebuilt its economy and infrastructure, it saw the growth of over industrialised and overpopulated cities and towns.

People also began to notice strange illnesses after the World War. One of these was a doctor named Hubert Palm. He noticed a pattern between the ailments his patients were coming in with and their living in housing built post WWII using the new “chemically enhanced” technologies.

He found factors such as chemical, organic compounds, electromagnetic fields, molds, allergens that cause biological stresses to the body that lead to chronic disease and ill heath that is often difficult to diagnose. He realised that homes could be “toxic”.



Sick homes cause sick people

Dr Hubert Palm observed that many times he could find a a direct connection between the “poisonous houses” that his patients lived in and the diseases they were coming to his clinic with.

He collected many case studies and showed them to architects and building designers, but received ridicule in return. His supporters led to him to writing Das gesunde Haus (The Healthy House) and to form the basis of modern building biology.

In “Biologisches bauen” (Biological Building), published in 1955, provided the foundation for his subsequent chief work, Biologische Bauordnungslehre (Biological Building Regulation Theory), in which he made a distinction between the “life affirming” and “life negating” effect of the home environment on people.

In the foreword to the third edition of Das gesunde Haus – unser naher Umweltschutz (The Healthy Home) Palm wrote, “No one should be allowed to build a sick house. That is contrary to human rights and the law! That is against the natural order of life!” The movement towards ecological building is inconceivable without his preliminary work, in which he described the house as the “third skin of human beings”.

The emergence of sick building syndrome

Indoor environments the way we know it today is a result of modern times. Buildings meet needs such as function, comfort, and design, but rarely consider how they fit with the natural environment.

In 1984, the WHO reported that certain symptoms occur with “increased frequency in buildings with indoor climate problems”. In 1986, they coined the term “sick building syndrome (SBS)” to describe clinically recognisable symptoms and ailments with multiple causal factors reported by occupants of a building.

SBS recognises the problem of chemical buildup in indoor air: first, the construction of the building and its decorating materials—including adhesives, paints, and other materials such as vinyl floor tile, carpets, and drapes. Second are activities in the building such as cleaning with solvents, applying waxes, cigarette smoking, air fresheners, photocopying, photographic processing, food services, refrigeration*, and personal adornment and odorants. A most serious toxic exposure is from pesticides sprayed indoors in the erroneous belief that insects can be eradicated.^^^

Homes as our "third skin"

In Bau-biologie, the building envelope is viewed more broadly as a third skin—as a relationship with our natural environment and with nature herself. The house is seen an organism interacting with the surrounding natural world and facilitating a balanced exchange of air and humidity. (Clothes are viewed as the second skin.)

Other German pioneers in this field include Professor Anton Schneider, wood technologist and Wolfgang Maes, a journalist who has become an expert in electrobiology.

Prof. Anton Schneider developed the the principles of building biology to give specific guidance for planning a construction or remodelling to ensure an ecologically sound and healthy home or workplace. He established the Institut für Baubiologie + Oekologei (IBN) in neubeuern, Germany.

In 1987, Helmut Ziehe founded the International Institute for Building Biology and Ecology in Florida, US. He recounts a memorable experience in his work as a resident architect and engineer in North Africa for a city of 90,000 inhabitants: a majority of the people had abandoned the government-built homes to live in tents.

Principles of Building Biology as principles for living biologically and ecologically

Building Biology aims for regenerative and restorative buildings. The 25 principles of Building Biology consider this mediated relationship with nature in terms of:

  • The building site

  • The building materials

  • The indoor climate

  • Environment, water, energy

  • Spatial design