BHI in Sustainability

Big Heart Intelligence in Healthy Workplaces
and Sustainable Communities



Following recent advances linking green design and a Well Building Standard™ that are reported to enhance cognitive function, the author passionately advocates a bold new concept of “Big Heart Intelligence (BHI). BHI will transform how we design, build, and engage in healthier, more sustainable workplaces and living environments, and catch the wave of the next super-cycle of 21st century innovations.




In the early days of the industrial revolution Charles Dickens captured perhaps better than any author the brutal, uncompromising, and fearful face of the unsustainable workplace:

“It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but, as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of buildings full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.” (1)

He described the drudgery of the despairing souls who lived and worked in such places. The language is poetical and in the dialect of a worker, a family man of that time and place, but its poignant echo reverberates across two centuries to the feelings of those who are burned out today.

‘Sir, I canna, wi’ my little learning an’ my common way, tell the genelman what will better aw this – though some working men o’ this town could, above my powers – but I can tell him what I know will never do ‘t. The strong hand will never do ‘t. Vict’ry and triumph will never do ‘t. Agreeing fur to mak one side unnat’rally awlus and for ever right, and toother side unnat’rally awlus and for ever wrong, will never, never do ‘t. Nor yet lettin alone will never do ‘t. Let thousands upon thousands alone, aw leading the like lives and aw faw’en into the like muddle, and they will be as one, and yo will be as anoother, wi’ a black unpassable world betwixt yo, just as long or short a time as sich-like misery can last. Not drawin nigh to fok, wi’ kindness and patience an’ cheery ways, that so draws nigh to one another in their monny troubles, and so cherishes one another in their distresses wi’ what they need themseln – like, I humbly believe, as no people the genelman ha seen in aw his travels can beat – will never do ‘t till th’ Sun turns t’ ice. Most o’ aw, rating ’em as so much Power, and reg’latin ’em as if they was figures in a soom, or machines: wi’out loves and likens, wi’out memories and inclinations, wi’out souls to weary and souls to hope – when aw goes quiet, draggin on wi’ ’em as if they’d nowt o’ th’ kind, and when aw goes onquiet, reproachin ’em for their want o’ sitch humanly feelins in their dealins wi’ yo – this will never do ‘t, sir, till God’s work is onmade.’ (2)

This is what the workspace looked like then:

How far have we come?

We have, of course, made considerable progress. In the U.S. and many other industrialized countries LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) has become an international standard of environmental consciousness backed with certification by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and its counterparts abroad. A new field of “Buildingonomics” is rapidly extending the boundaries of LEEDS certification. (3) On its web site The Delos Group is advocating a new integrative WELL Building Standard and offers its own employees a generous range of options reflecting the Standard: gym membership reimbursement, complimentary bike share programs, wearable technology devices and company-wide competitions, nutritious snacks, subsidized fitness races, organized volunteer events; guided meditation, curated wellness discounts, and educational programming and materials to increase employee awareness of personal well-being.” Diagram # 1 based on a study conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health documents some of the physical and psychological benefits enhanced health from green buildings. (4)

Infographic – Better Buildings

Complementing the development of an International WELL Building Standard is a powerful movement driven by Google, Facebook, and other social media giants toward “smart” green buildings, focused particularly on renewable energy, energy efficiency technologies, and best design, architectural, and construction practices. (5) We would seem today to be a far cry from the hellholes described by Charles Dickens.

And yet burnout continues as an unresolved problem, costing civil society $ 300 billion and worsening by the year. It is estimated that 90% of burnout derives from the workplace. (6)To what extent can smart green buildings address this problem, and if many such projects currently do not, what might we be missing? Is it possible that by focusing exclusively on cognitive impairment, we may be overlooking something even more fundamental that Dickens’ so eloquently addressed– the Heart? Indeed, the relentless grind toward efficiency (perhaps even green efficiency) that crushes the soul and breaks the heart is precisely the malady Dickens sought in his life to correct. We must be cautious in our enthusiasm in elevating a new form of efficiency in replacing the old but failing to address the deeper human yearnings of the heart. This is the new frontier of “Big Heart Intelligence (BHI)”.

BHI Basics

BHI refers to a state of awareness where the visionary, ethical, spiritual, and other capacities of the Heart flourish in harmony with the power of the brain and mind. In cultivating BHI its explorers report that they experience enhanced vitality, empowerment, relaxation, joy, perception, compassion, balance, and flow. BHI is easily cultivated in a few hours of practice and its beneficial results can be validated, replicated, and measured. A simple and enjoyable introduction is Laughing Heart–A Field Guide to Exuberant Vitality for All Ages—10 Essential Moves (7).

The Laughing Heart Guide can be used to “encode” some of the most salient BHI features in great architectural masterpieces. Here are four examples:

Matisse’s Chapel du Rosarie 

Matisse’s glorious little chapel epitomizes Move # 1 Quieting the Heart and Move # 3 Discovering Beauty, especially the quality of light that is everywhere.(8)

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water shows the “intertidal” relationships of Move # 1 in the Laughing Heart Guide, Quieting the Heart, Move # 3 Discovering Beauty, and Move # 4 Connecting to Nature that seem naturally to “flow” together.(9)

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water

Fallingwater, also known as the Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. Residence, is a house designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1934 in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, and is part of the Pittsburgh Metro Area. The house was built partly over a waterfall in Bear Run at Rural Route 1

Disney Concert Hall. Frank Geary’s visionary design concentrates the energy and power of the great musical works that are performed within it and enables us directly to connect to this power, as contemplated by Move # 2 Finding Your Power and Move # 5 Harvesting Creative Genius in Music. (10)

Disney Concert Hall

The Gorton Monastery is a wonderful example of how a religious institution opens its heart and arms to welcome and to embrace all members of the community.

The Gorton Monastery in Manchester, England

Yet BHI is not simply about glorious design. Small hearts and narrow minds can rule in the most transcendent spaces. BHI seeks to nourish a different kind of continuing transaction among the hearts and minds of everyone who is engaged in these environments. The best green designs, of course, do not simply render spaces healthy by making them free of chemical toxins. They also seek to inspire and to elevate the minds and spirits of their occupants. BHI extends these principles, conceiving spaces as noted below as organic, living, and intelligent environments, and evolving with their users. Just as the IT industry is increasingly aware of the importance of integrating hardware and software, in a similar way BHI encourages an integration of form and flow in architecture and design with the goal of creating spaces that nourish vitality, joy, and happiness for everyone.

Here are two examples of how BHI can be practically introduced at an early stage in the planning of such projects:


Example # 1

BHI in the Design of Hospitals and Health Care Facilities

Most hospitals in the U.S. and other industrialized countries at least from a patient’s perspectives are sterile, cold, and fearful places, where joy, kindness, and cheer appear only seldom and when they do as transitory rays of sunshine. Most hospitals are businesses for profit measured by bed count turnover and other hard metrics. They are designed as venues to treat serious illnesses or injuries, not to accelerate healing and transformation. They mirror accurately the values, economics, and infrastructure of contemporary medicine.

It is not surprising that burnout is rampant among physicians, nurses, caregivers, and supporting staff in most modern hospitals and health care facilities, and that burnout often manifests among caregivers in soaring rates of cardiovascular disease, suicide, and other most serious maladies. (11) Burnout of caregivers necessarily translates into deteriorating quality of care of patients, especially the elderly and the poor, who are also most vulnerable to nosocomial infections. At the same time it is estimated that caregivers confer annually over $ 500 billion in services to civil society, a significant amount of which is uncompensated. Without their contributions it is fair to say modern society would collapse. (12)

In recent years a global movement has developed to transform hospitals and health care facilities into healing and hope. One example is Health Care Without Harm –an international coalition of visionary green hospitals. (13) In such hospitals BHI will find receptive and fertile soil.

Explorers Wheel: Inspiration, Conception, Design

At the earliest stage of a project the Explorers Wheel offers a systematic way to connect wide domains of knowledge and experience. (14) It can help architects and designers solve problems for clients in a new and powerful way we call BHI inspired “intertidal” thinking. Here’s how practically an architect or designer might use the Explorers Wheel.


Seeding the Process/ Beginning Your Journey—To start the Explorers Wheel spinning all you need do is write your Core Discovery Challenge inside the enso at the bulls eye of the Explorers Wheel. In Japanese culture an enso is rendered by masters with a single stroke of the brush. It is considered a passage way that connects the present to alternative (deeper) levels of consciousness and reality. The goal is to express an essential design challenge, defined as manifesting BHI in an optimal way to address a client’s aspirations, requirements, and budget. (15)

Let Laughing Heart Be Your Guide

Now simply let your Laughing Heart guide you to which “moon” seems most relevant. You may feel a slight “tug” or an inner voice inviting you to come to a particular moon. You can easily capture its special resonance for you. You don’t need to bear down or force the process. It is unnecessary to think your way through. The key is to listen to your Laughing Heart and let the process inspire you.

Finding New Connections

The next step is to draw lines connecting other moons to your questions and to each other. In this way you can discover the “intertidal” linkages among the moons.

Collaborative Exploration and Discovery

The Explorers Wheel will gain momentum, the more you “play” with colleagues, clients, family, and friends, and even perfect strangers! Actually, we are all connected in many fascinating ways we scarcely understand. Discovering this shared consciousness can be a source of enormous vitalizing power. The Explorers Wheel and Laughing Heart offer an alternative to our ordinary consensus-based versions of reality.

Oxygen for Caregivers

A great many nurses report that the hospitals they work for require them to leave their hearts at home. As it is increasingly recognized that love and immunity are closely linked (16), it is hardly surprising that nurses are among the first to suffer “compassion fatigue,” “empathetic hyper-arousal” and burnout (17).

Oxygen for Caregivers is one of several innovative programs developed by Adventures in Caring Foundation (AICF) that addresses the specific challenges of burnout among health care professionals and volunteers. It has identified five precipitating factors in the psychology of burnout: 1. no control over circumstances; 2) cannot predict what will happen next; 3) facing it alone; 4) no escape; and 5) no hope of it getting better. ACIF’s remedy is three pronged: 1. enhancing control by reestablishing work/life balance through a program of self-care. 2. developing foresight by training to warning signs 3.establishing connections through narrative and social support.(18)

The BHI state of heightened vitality, empowerment, perception, balance, and flow is a precise antidote to this set of conditions. When you feel truly powerful and alive, you don’t care very much about controlling circumstances because you are happy to surf the wave. Similarly, without struggling with what will happen next, you are focused on what is happening now. Since you have a palpable sense of being deeply connected to the rolling world, you rarely feel alone and even if you do, you know such feelings are impermanent, that every day brings a noble chance. There is a famous koan by the Chinese zen master Yunmen that aptly describes this state of being, “The whole world is medicine.” (19)

How might these principles be further enhanced by designers and architects? One interesting approach, reflective of BHI principles, might be to begin conceiving a building less as a static physical structure, the end of a story (“frozen music” is how Goethe described architecture), but rather as an invitation for new engagement, exploration, and discovery.

BHI Process

If we begin to look at a building or other physical space as a dynamic process, there is a striking parallel with negotiation. Drawing upon the second definition in the Webster’s dictionary, a building becomes the initiation of a continuous process of exploring and meeting of challenges as in “negotiating” a river or a mountain. BHI has a special contribution to make here because the combination of the Heart and Mind is a far more reliable GPS than a system that operates solely on brain and mind. Moreover, a cardinal tenet of BHI is to translate the sense of vitality, empowerment, and gratefulness with continuous acts of “paying forward;” in other words the act of passing on benefits received to others without asking anything in return. From an energetic perspective this prevents the qi or life force from stagnating, and it will generate powerful eddies of generosity that compound the total vitality of the system. This is called realizing “BHI or Laughing Heart Advantage.”( 20)

So conceived the entire life cycle of an architectural enterprise—client engagement, preliminary design, mock up, modeling, prototyping, blueprinting, construction, financing, community outreach, marketing—all become a coherent, seamlessly integrated process, with BHI as its DNA. In such environments people flourish because qi and love are balanced and flow easily.

Example # 2

Retirement Communities Linked to Universities and College Towns

Retirement can be viewed either as the beginning of a downward spiral or an inflection point leading to the next stage life’s exciting adventure. For the great majority of people this is an existential choice.

Big Heart Intelligence was originally designed based on the personal experience of the author to assist other voyagers who have passed the landmark of 55 years of age. Here is an excerpt from the Laughing Heart Guide specifically addressing the challenges of our later years. (21)

  • Declining powers—even as our physical powers weaken, we can harvest new reservoirs of health, energy, strength, and vitality.
  • Vulnerability—when our heart opens, untapped inner resources become available. With the wisdom of our later years, we realize life has many colors and forms. By flowing with life, we are less vulnerable.
  • Relevance—Laughing Heart enables us to find new and useful applications for our special gifts and experience.
  • Meaning—By paying forward and bringing joy into the world, we discover new meaning in ordinary things.
  • Closing pathways—Some paths close with aging but others open. The wide world beckons for exploration and discovery.
  • Listlessness and Passivity— Laughing Heart can hold and sustain us when we feel listless and blocked by life.
  • Disengagement—When we are renewed, we have the energy to re-engage.
  • Loss of loved ones, of being cared for and caring — A Laughing Heart enables us to better bear the grief and sorrows of life and can nourish us in our darkest moments.
  • The End of the Story—Although there may be no definitive answers to our common dilemma, we do have a fierce and courageous option: to leave this world with a great roaring Laughing Heart. It is not surprising that these same sentiments are shared by millions of retirees around the world who constitute one of the fastest growing sectors, The Longevity Economy. (22) It is also logical that retirees in search of new opportunities for lifelong learning would look to join communities of older explorers that are closely linked to universities. (23) The question, again, is what is the unique added value that BHI can bring to the design and implementation of these projects?

The answer is easy. Vitality is the essence of BHI and also the transformative force in retirement. BHI is also about deeply connecting humans to one another and also to Nature. We are only just now exploring how to cleanse and rebalance the qi and to recharge ourselves by reestablishing these profound energetic connections with Nature. (24) Moreover, the Explorers Wheel process is itself likely neuro-enhancing and neuro-regenerative, especially when combined with practices which we reconnect us to Nature. An axiom of neuroscience is neurons that “fire together, wire together.” The process of exploring in this way is therefore likely to help retired persons, especially those who are active in these communities, stave off the natural deterioration of neurological capacities.

But there is an important additional element. Retired persons have a wealth of knowledge, expertise, and life experience that many are happy to share when the opportunity presents itself with others in society. This corpus of insights and practical experience is a treasure waiting for retirement communities to harvest. Empowerment also has a magical dimension: the more you give away, the more powerful you become. We call this “Creating Your Own Luck”***. This “Move” (# 9) lends a playful and entertaining dimension to what is actually a very deep and interesting process. (25)

A natural next frontier is smart technologies and buildings. Might it be possible to endow “smart” buildings with a Heart?

Smart Technologies with a Heart

BHI offers the possibility for a continuously refreshed experience that can be expressed, differentiated, and evolved throughout the lifespan of a building or community initiative.

  • Integrating a Smart Explorers Wheel with Computer Aided Design (CAD). It is relatively easy to integrate an Explorers Wheel with existing CAD systems and advanced search capability. This will create a powerful means to iterate rapidly from initial inspiration, search, rendition, feedback, assessment, and implementation.
  • BHI Platform. The BHI Platform including a suite of apps will become increasingly intelligent, interactive, and personalized. This will enable any project, especially those designed for retirees, to transform into a forum for continuous lifelong learning.
  • Augmented Reality. BHI can be easily integrated with advanced augmented reality technologies such as Microsoft’s Hololens. Unlike conventional virtual reality technologies augmented reality expands the potential of what actually is by continuously providing viewers with a sense of “what if”. As the potential for enhancing BHI exists in every project, augmented reality is a perfect match, because it can provide users with a palpable multi-sensorial experience of what a BHI inspired future workplace or retirement community will look and feel like.
  • BHI Buildings and Sustainable Communities as Continuously Evolving Living Environments. Smart technologies combined with BHI have the capacity today to enable 21st buildings and even older structures to evolve physically along with their occupants. With an array of 21st century technologies just now coming into the market the  design, materials, electronics, and every other aspect of a structure can be organic, flexible, adaptable, modular, reprogrammable, recyclable, and reconfigurable, in ways that optimally reflect the enhanced BHI experience intended by its imagineers–clients, architects, planners, and users.

Evolving Buildings Within an Emerging New Paradigm in Global Health

Individual buildings and communities today, just like people, have a choice whether to evolve in isolation or to affiliate with any number of emerging Global Collaborative Innovation Networks (COINs). BHI provides not only a common language for easy communication of best solutions rapidly across the WHIS network, but also a common goal. Although still a hypothesis, it seems highly plausible that the cascading effects in a BHI embodied COIN will accelerate and multiply, their penetration will be deeper, wider, and richer, and the threshold inflection point will occur earlier, especially in a COIN that itself embodies and nourishes the creative energies of qi and love.

We are still early into the 21st century and the warning signs are everywhere of imminent nuclear, biologic, and economic catastrophes. And yet, at the same time, we are poised for some of the greatest scientific and technological advances the world has ever witnessed (26). Centuries hence as we look backward to these troubled times how happy we will be to recall the marvels we achieved by artfully designing our future, harvesting the prodigious power of our brains but also guided by the timeless wisdom of the Heart.


  1. Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854)
  2. Ibid (1)
  16. See also Bernie Siegel, Love, Medicine, and Miracles
  17. Private communication from Simon Fox, Director of Adventures in Caring
  24. See fascinating interview with Regina and Cecil Esquivel Obregon and accompanying materials.
  26. John Michelson, “Prepare for a New Supercycle of Innovation” WSJ May 10, 2017 A 19

© Julian Gresser and Alliances for Discovery, All rights reserved.

Keywords:  sustainable-communities, workplace, sustainability, big-heart, vitality, collaboration