Wood and Biophilic Design: A Natural Balance

Wellbeing risks becoming another buzzword if we don’t take a step back and seriously consider what it means and how it can be applied in the built environment to truly benefit building occupants.

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The statistic that we spend 90% of our time indoors is well documented and this has been compounded by the extra time spent at home since the onset of the pandemic. So, how can we make our indoor spaces healthier so that they positively contribute to our wellbeing?

Bring nature in

Biophilia, or biophilic design, is the phenomenon that advocates for the connection between nature and bringing the benefits of the outdoors in. This can be as simple as introducing more plants into an indoor space or as extensive as indoor living walls and water features.

Wellbeing studies evidence how our emotional and physical wellbeing increases when our indoor environments contain natural materials and natural scenery. According to environmental consultant 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 impacts stress reduction, cognitive performance or emotion, mood and preference. For some patterns, they cover all three functions.

Wood is good

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. Choosing timber for a building’s construction and interior can help to create a healthier environment.

This was part of the decision process for a project in Hull for BBC TV series, DIY SOS. Oliver Heath Design, champion of biophilic design, applied its know-how to create a more accessible space for a family of four who had dramatically changing needs and lifestyles. Among other biophilic principles such as a water feature, timber featured heavily both indoors and outdoors. In the dining area, reclaimed timber pallets were used to create a striking design where they were used to clad the walls. A timber table and bench were installed alongside a wood-burning stove. The theme continued into the kitchen with a warm timber worktop.

Meanwhile, the garden was crafted with timber planters, seating and a pergola. This was softened with careful planting to offer a relaxing and uplifting space for the whole family.

Learn with nature

Biophilic design and the use of timber goes beyond our homes, extending to education buildings too. An Austrian study conducted by Human Research compared the health of children in two different classrooms: one constructed with timber and the other with standard materials. The results of the study were substantial and showed children in the timber classroom were less stressed, had significantly lower heart rates and were generally happier. Other studies have highlighted the positive response people have had in buildings made from or containing wood because of the warm and calming effect it has.

Oliver Heath Design was also responsible for the Hackney Garden School, a school for children with special educational needs. The practice cites research that education spaces built with biophilic design principles increase the rate of learning by 20 to 25% and can improve test results, concentration levels and attendance. They can also reduce the impacts of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The hexagonal seating at Hackney Garden school constructed of natural wood is not just aesthetically pleasing but provides a space for children to relax and recharge their batteries.

Education spaces should inspire students from nursery through to higher education. Designing buildings and interiors that improve health, air quality and productivity should be top of the brief to ensure that future generations get the best from their educational experiences.

Wellbeing in the workplace

Similar principles behind the advocacy for using timber in educational spaces is also applied to workplaces. Though the return to the office is unlikely to replicate what had gone before, there is a need to have offices, but with a greater emphasis on wellbeing.

Everyone has gone through some degree of emotional and mental turmoil in the past 18 months, and so our workplaces need to work better to help to keep workers relaxed and to feel safe.

In addition to creating a welcoming space for workers to return to, hygiene and air quality will be of the utmost importance too. Beyond the standard practices of sanitising stations, more regular cleaning, temperature checks and opening windows, improvements can be made through biophilic principles such as introducing more plants and better material selection.

One exemplar of focusing on office worker wellbeing is 6 Orsman Road, a flexible and recyclable workspace in the heart of Hackney, designed by engineered timber building pioneer, Waugh Thistleton.

Every element of the building, from the exposed timber to the waterside setting, has been designed to enhance occupant wellbeing and to increase nature and biodiversity at this urban site.

Natural materials, natural daylight and air-purifying plants create an environment that works with nature to actively boost productivity and create a sense of calm.

The exposed cross-laminated timber structure helps to lower the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation. SNS is what causes stress responses, increases blood pressure, raises heart rate and inhibits functions like digesting, recovery and repair. When surrounded by nature and wood, these symptoms reduce.

Specialist acousticians have enhanced the sound absorption qualities of the timber, improving comfort to ensure that productivity isn’t affected by bustle and noise.

Wood = well

Combining biophilic design with natural and renewable building materials like timber can have enormous positive wellbeing benefits for building occupants. Factoring in objectives for wellbeing and communicating these to the client from the very beginning is essential if we are to create healthier and more prosperous indoor environments.

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