Imagine you were told to picture your dream home. The size, design and decorative features would depend on your tastes and ideal lifestyle: you might go for a sprawling Beverly Hills mansion, a cute country cottage or an elegant urban penthouse. But, no matter what your style, chances are your dream home would contain one or more elements of nature – such as a view of palm trees, a flower garden or a roof terrace with hanging baskets and climbing plants.
We all know that greenery livens up indoor and outdoor spaces and makes them more pleasant to spend time in. But why is this, and how can we really make the most of this effect?
This summer I attended the biophilic design conference ‘Designing with Nature’, organised by Engage Liverpool as part of the city’s International Festival of Business fringe programme. The keynote speaker, Oliver Heath of Oliver Heath Design, gave a fascinating talk on biophilic design – which he called ‘the new frontier in sustainable design’. He explained that as humans we’re innately attracted to nature and natural processes – and taking this into account when designing sustainable homes and workplaces can help increase our wellbeing and have positive knock-on effects.
As you might have guessed, it’s more complex than buying a cactus for the windowsill in your office. Some of the main elements of biophilic design include:
– actual contact with nature: this includes plants, but also natural daylight, natural sounds and smells, air quality and air flow across the skin, plus non-rhythmic elements (for example, a bubbling spring or ripples on water)
– features that remind us of nature, including natural colours, textures and shapes (such as a green rug that looks like grass)
– human-centred design: features that are energising and restorative, spaces that offer refuge (such as a cosy seating area) and vantage points (elevated and enticing views through space)
The idea of elevated vantage points is based on prospect-range theory, or savannah theory: in simple terms, this suggests that people are hardwired to recognise landscapes that are good for them. That means safe – with a good overview of their surroundings and possible dangers – and containing resources they need, such as food and shelter. One place where you’ve probably seen this concept in action is modern-day shopping malls: they often incorporate tree-like structures and multi-level vantage points into their design, which can make us feel calmer and happier (and probably more likely to stay and spend money).
Oliver Heath stressed that biophilic design is more than just a trend: decades of research back it up. According to the studies he cited, using elements of biophilic design in architecture can help schoolchildren to learn faster, increase office workers’ productivity and even reduce hospital patients’ need for pain medication. One study in particular suggested that people working in offices are 15 % more productive if they have a view of plants.
So while it’s not all about the greenery, it looks as though plants could be a good place to start – for offices that are better for productivity, but also for people and the planet.
What else could you do to add a touch of biophilic design to your working day?