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  • Want to design healthier spaces? Look to nature.

Want to design healthier spaces? Look to nature.

Nature is the key to designing a healthier future.

We spend 90% of our time indoors. The majority of us also work indoors, whether in home-offices or office spaces provided by our businesses. However, as humans, we often seek out nature and natural experiences when we wish to relax, to get away from the stress of our working lives.  

Biophilic interior design takes this principle and embeds it into design of interiors and spaces, with the intention of making healthier, happier, more relaxing spaces that are fit for their intended purpose.

We spoke to Oliver Heath, founder of Oliver Heath Designs, a leading interior architecture design practice that specialises in biophilic design. We wanted to find out more about what biophilic design means, what are the easiest ways to incorporate it into our spaces, and what role wood can play.

image of Oliver and Sarah talking on Teams conversation

What does biophilic design mean, and what it is that you do?

“We are an interior architecture design practice that operates on three key strands: we are researchers and writers, collating knowledge and research, writing white papers and books on biophilic design, and developing the conversation around biophilic design; we implement these ideas in the design we do; and I am also a frequent speaker on the subject of biophilic design… teaching architects, interior designers and building stakeholders all about biophilic design, its principles, and the business case behind it.

“Biophilia essentially means a love of nature, it was a term coined by Erich Fromm back in the 1970s, and it was popularised by Edward O. Wilson in the 1980s, when he recognised society’s departure away from rural dwellings into city centres and the many physiological and psychological problems that resulted through that disconnection with nature.

“The concept of biophilia stems from the fact that we have an innate attraction to nature and natural processes. This explains why when we take a holiday and step away from our usual work day lives, we tend to head to elements of natures or spaces within nature. [We do this] as a means to reduce our stress, to recuperate and to get back to the idea of who we are underneath the veneer of our professional lives. The underlying principles of biophilia recognise that we all have a deep connection to nature and so it becomes an approach that has universal appeal. We all know that when we are in the woods, by the sea, or in mountains we feel better, we feel relaxed, less stressed.

“Biophilic design involves looking at the neuroscience about why and how nature makes you feel better. [To look at] the socio and psychological qualities of what happens when you are put in this better state of mind, how it enhances your connection to spaces, places and people. This improved mental and physical state allows you to better communicate with one another and share ideas, knowledge, skills, resources, and - as a result of that - innovate, come up with different ideas, and form better communities. And there is research that demonstrates all of this.

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“What we do as biophilic designers is use a series of attributes or what we call ‘patterns’ to bring elements of nature into the built environment. A lot of the work we’ve been doing is focused on how we can strengthen that relationship with nature - not for the very sake of bringing nature in - but to create better occupant experiences. Hospitals, workplaces and schools are not designed necessarily to facilitate better help, better learning, better productivity, but are designed around cost, time frame and contractual issues. [We know] that there is far greater value in taking a human centred approach and looking at how we can actually create the best possible environment and put people in the best possible state of mind to undertake whatever intended task there is – whether it is learning, recovering, or working.

“Everyone has had, at some point, a positive experience of nature so what we try to do by bringing biophilic design patterns into buildings is to trigger that memory of a positive experience of nature and illicit a similar emotional response to allow people to undertake the task they are required to do.” 

What inspired you to get involved with biophilic design and architecture?

“These ideas are rooted within all of us at some point, we realise the magnificence of being in and around nature. For me, I grew up in Brighton, swimming in the sea from the age of 1 or 2... I studied architecture and whilst I was doing this I was also a windsurfing instructor. I’d teach people about enjoying or being in the sea, but also looking after themselves and respecting nature. The idea of enjoying and being in and around nature collided with my passion, interest and studies in architecture so I started to think about how nature and buildings interacted with one another.

“I discovered Stephen Kellert, one of the godfathers of biophilic design, about 10 years ago and at that point the penny just dropped! Suddenly, all these things I knew that go in to making a more enjoyable space were actually evidence-based. Never before have we had a design ethos that is backed up by evidence and research to this extent, and for me it, [biophilic design] suddenly becomes that little bit more compelling. I think it also nicely dovetails into our need to create more sustainable and regenerative environments.”

Do you think we will see a mass adoption of biophilic principles in the design sphere?

“I think there is a recognition that design isn’t just an extravagance any longer. Especially in interior design. Often design was used as an expression of outward social mobility and it was used to impress other people. But now what we’re seeing that it can be used as a force for good, that it’s much more intrinsic, our spaces can have a tangible and measurable impact on our wellbeing and the ability to deliver an intended task. If we have a design style that has a business case associated with it, it is far more likely to be adopted. Equally we are becoming much more focused on the impact that buildings have in terms of carbon, both embodied and in use. And when we start to look at buildings in this way we should also look at how 90% of typical business operating costs are on staff.

"So, if we are reflecting on building costs, surely we should also be considering what happens in that building on a day to day basis? How we can get people to use these buildings and have them actually deliver for people, not just on corporate identity but on actual function. How do you create spaces that bring communities together or are more productive? This is why the idea of an evidence based approach to design is so important.”

What advice would you give to other designers who want to start incorporating biophilic design in their projects?

“The first, simplest and most obvious thing to do is to carry out a pre-occupancy evaluation with the end user. So, if you’re doing a refurbishment, speak to the people who are using the building already. They may say that they want to be able to concentrate and focus, or they want to connect with people, or that they want to work in a space that reduces stress that facilitates creativity.

“There is a saying: Without evidence you’re just another person with an opinion. And that’s where most projects come from. We need to be more analytical about what we really want and understand the needs of the occupants. People are very diverse… people have very different reactions to spaces, to environmental conditions. Understanding that is fundamental to delivering better buildings.”

On a smaller scale, what would you recommend to individuals thinking about their own space?

“Introduction of natural light. When we have natural light it connects us to the time of day, the season, the landscape geography, topography, the flora and fauna outside. We are naturally drawn to spaces that are filled with natural dynamic light. So I think that the introduction and maximisation of natural light is essential to overall health and wellbeing for all of those reasons. The other reason is that it is fundamental for our circadian rhythm. It affects our mood, behaviour, and hormone release. If we have a balanced circadian rhythm - and this tends to happen more when we go on holiday and have more exposure to natural light - we are more energised and stimulated in the daytime and we are able to sleep well at night-time. Natural light is one of the biggest drivers to wellbeing and finding ways of bringing it into buildings and for those views out too."

What role can wood and other natural materials play in biophilic design?

“There are 3 key aspects to biophilic design; the introduction of real forms of nature like plants, light, water and natural movement; the second is indirect references to nature which is how we mimic or evoke a feeling of nature using natural materials, patterns, colours or textures. The use of timber falls into this indirect reference to nature. It’s interesting just how powerful the use of timber is, when you start to see some of the research, it’s incredible.

A piece of research by the Joanneum Research Institute in Austria found that the use of timber on classroom walls reduced students heart rates by 8600 beats per day, and similarly, the use of timber in the creation of beds helps people to sleep better and reduces their heart rate 2700 beats per night.

In forest-based nations around the world they are doing more research about the introduction of timber on human wellbeing and showing similarly amazing results.

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“Research shows that using wood in interior finishes can have a stress-reducing affect similar to nature such as reduced blood pressure, heart rate, stress and pain perception and improvement in emotional states. Employees in workplaces with less than 20% wooden work surfaces are far less satisfied with their working life and physical workplace compared to those with a high proportion of wood (more than 60% visibility of wood). In those places with more than 60% timber, physical workplace satisfaction increased from 47% to 81% and optimism about future increased from 44% to 61%. The ability to concentrate also increases from 65% to 83%. And we see this evidence across nearly every sector, evidence that demonstrates this use of timber.”

Is that timber in its natural form - or painted?

“A lot of it is about the colour and the visual texture of [wood]. In biophilic design, we talk about biophilic fractals - a fractal is a pattern that is continuously repeating itself at different scales, a bit like a Romanesque cauliflower. A biophilic fractal is slightly different as it constantly repeats itself but with slight variations. We see this in a tree as it moves from a trunk, to a branch, to a stem, to a leaf. Evidence has shown that these patterns, including ones found in wood grain, are very satisfying to us. Studies have shown that 90% of those asked, prefer fractal to non-fractal patterns in artwork. The use of them can lower our psychological stress levels by up to 60% and physiologically they have a restorative and relaxing affect as revealed by brain scans.

“There’s a really interesting movement happening now with CLT and using exposed timber on walls. I think it’s a nice way of eliciting a positive memory of nature through the use of a vernacular material using of local trees and timber. It becomes a familiar and recognisable form of architecture that reminds you of the local environment, so we often suggest the use of local timbers. It strengthens the emotional connection to the architecture and local landscape."

If you had the power to change one thing about every building space, what would you change?

“Views on to elements of nature that people can connect with. If we can connect with [those views], we give people the opportunity to have a very rich experience with nature, giving them an opportunity to relax, to destress.

“In a way, physically and literally, nature connects us to the environment. And one of the reasons I think biophilic design is so important is because we need to connect to nature. We need to understand that our health and wellbeing, our very existence on the planet is intrinsically linked to the health and wellbeing of nature around us. And if we start to think that we are at the top of nature in some sort of pyramid then we are going to lose sight of that. But if we remember that we are an essential part of it and that we are reliant on nature, then it’ll remind us of how important the preservation of our wider environment really is.

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“The discussion around carbon centred building elements is absolutely critical, but it’s not the sort of thing that engenders a love for the environment. It makes us understand our impact and what we’re doing but biophilic design brings us back to that love for nature and makes us understand that we need to look after it for not just our human wellbeing, but our wider survival. It is an essential steppingstone to connecting us to a need for a more concerned, sustainable activity and a desire to create a regenerative approach to the built environment.”

Oliver Heath Design have a variety of different guides, resources, and books available on their website that cover a lot of the research and ideas mentioned and much more.

They are also part of a design show reconnecting people and spaces with nature taking place in London in late September 2021. Called Planted Cities, the show takes place at King’s Cross from 23-26 September. You can find out more about the event here

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