The concept of ‘home’ has changed dramatically in the last few months as it has shifted from a place of sanctuary to a place of confinement.
The pandemic has altered the dynamics for everyone, but the situation is amplified for anyone living in high-density, high-rise accommodation. So, what can be done post-Coronavirus to make our homes healthier and more comfortable spaces to live and work? Even if that is several floors up in a tower block.
Having a garden area or outdoor space where social distancing is possible is harder to come by in built up areas. Therefore, occupants of high-density homes with no external access need design measures that will enhance their indoor environment.
As our living environment has been increasingly urbanised, we have become less connected with the natural world. This is where biophilic design can make a dramatic difference. Biophilia is the link between humans and nature and is about bringing natural elements indoors.
According to environmental consultants Terrapin Bright Green, biophilic design ‘can reduce stress, enhance creativity and clarity of thought, improve our wellbeing and expedite healing.’
To help translate this into principles for design, it has established 14 patterns of biophilic design including: visual and non-visual connections with nature and natural systems, sensory stimuli, thermal and airflow variability, water, light, biomorphic forms and patterns, complexity and order and our material connection with nature.
For each of the 14 patterns, Terrapin Bright Green has referenced whether it has an impact on stress reduction, cognitive performance or emotion, mood and preference. For some patterns they cover all three functions.
Within the built environment, humans are less likely to have access to nature in its most natural state, instead simulated or constructed alternatives can be brought into the home. One example of these alternatives is water. This is an element of biophilic design that comes under many of the patterns. Water can have a relaxing effect on humans, both visually and auditorily. However, water walls are a great concept but impractical for most homes, so aquariums and smaller indoor water features are recommended.
Images depicting nature can help reduce blood pressure and the heart rate, particularly if they feature an aquatic theme. Natural and especially green colours can have a positive effect on cognitive performance and oil diffusers releasing plant oils can, depending on the desired effect, be calming or energising. By using plants, wallpaper and textured materials, there are numerous ways that a home can feel more in touch with nature.
One of the identified patterns of biophilic design is our material connection with nature. Several studies have linked the positive effect of natural materials such as wood on humans and their health and wellbeing.
Wood has many attributes such as helping to improve air quality and thermal comfort and it can also be an acoustic buffer. These are important points to consider for any home, but even more so for homes with no outdoor access.
For apartments relying solely on windows for air flow, it is vital that air quality is improved where possible. Wood products and air purifying plants not only improve air quality but can also improve mood, are aesthetically pleasing and appear to reduce stress levels.
Being able to hear neighbours from within the home can be disturbing and stressful and is more commonplace in flats. Being subjected to noise from neighbours above, to the side and below can have a negative impact on a person’s wellbeing.
Acoustics are recognised as one of the environmental criteria within biophilic design and paying attention to acoustic design can help create a more comfortable living space. Wood acts as an insulator and so not only muffles sound but can also improve the thermal comfort of the property. Some plants also absorb noise so can help reduce unwanted sounds inside the property. It may be another reason for bringing in a water feature too.
Most homes were not equipped to deal with one, two or potentially more people in the household suddenly needing to perform their job from home. Makeshift offices across the country may have seemed a novelty in the beginning but as the pandemic stretches on and the return to the office is pushed back, the future of home working may be more permanent than first thought.
Reports show that not only will the return to ‘regular’ working be slow, but it may not return to normal at all. Global companies such as Twitter have introduced new work-from-home policies so employees can choose never to return to the office. This likely trend means our homes will need to be more adaptable spaces as the kitchen table/office will not suffice for long.
Engineered timber such as cross-laminated timber (CLT) has enabled the building of some highly flexible spaces, such as the Freebooter apartments in Amsterdam. Built to biophilic design principles and with a hybrid of materials, wood features heavily. The architect, GG-Loop, has set a standard in how homes of the future should look and perform for our ever-changing global population.
Though it is costly and at times impossible to change the structure of a building, it is possible to create interiors that will be healthier and more practical for the occupant. Biophilic design can be implemented at low cost and often these changes can be made through standard products such as doors, floors, window frames, staircases and kitchens. Natural materials should be chosen to create a healthier indoor environment.
In addition, designers and developers of new housing schemes have a responsibility to create the spaces needed for a changing workplace, enabling people to live in a home that meets all their needs, for both work and play.