Biophilia and Natural Materials Enhance Education Settings and Protect the Environment

Over recent years, there has been a significant rise in societal interest in, and commitment to, finding sustainable ways to live. More recently, in these pandemic-addled times, there has been a growing awareness of the positive impact of simply being outside and connected with nature. Using natural, ecologically-sound building materials and creating connections with the natural world outdoors are the two cornerstones of biophilic architectural design. These principles can be applied to create learning spaces that enhance the physical and mental wellbeing of today’s occupants while preserving the environment for future generations.

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Mark Brown

Consultant at TG Escapes

Biophilic design

Before we discuss how a biophilic classroom can elevate the learning experience and enhance educational outcomes, it is probably worth outlining the key elements of biophilic architectural design. Essentially, the basic principle is to incorporate natural elements into any building (whether it be for living, recreation, working or learning) at every available opportunity, offering its occupants an opportunity to connect with nature.

With specific reference to classroom design, a biophilic educational environment should seamlessly blend the work and pleasure of teaching and learning with the life-enhancing effects of the natural world. The classrooms should use predominantly natural materials, provide easy access to the outdoors, maximise penetration of and exposure to natural light, provide a healthy level of interior air quality and afford expansive views of the natural world outside. Incorporating deck areas, wide canopies and large external doors allows easy access to the outside, for both learning and play, and can be a helpful tool in managing social distancing.

Natural light

One of the best-known benefits of exposure to natural light is its proven role in stimulating serotonin production. Serotonin is vital for several physiological functions including appetite, digestion and sleep regulation, whilst its psychological benefits are also significant. It plays a vital role in maintaining mood balance and promoting a sense of happiness: low levels are closely linked with depression. Direct exposure to sunlight tops up vitamin D levels (essential for healthy bones, circulation and the nervous system) and boosts melatonin production. In turn, this will regulate circadian rhythms and metabolism, which further aids weight management and sleep patterns. It is also believed to provide a degree of resistance to the COVID virus.

Views of nature

Views of nature are increasingly being shown to be a positive antidote to chronic, low-grade stress which has been identified by the WHO as one of the two leading contributors to premature death in developed nations. The second factor is low physical activity, an inevitable by-product of modern, sedentary, often screen-based, internal classroom environments or, indeed, online homeschooling.

Being outdoors

A classroom design that encourages pupils to get outside into the natural environment, whether it be for play or learning opportunities, will have a positive impact on not only physical health but also mental wellbeing and socio-economic development. Several academic studies have shown that time spent outdoors and exposed to nature improves discipline and concentration; promotes risk-taking and creativity; generates a sense of freedom and adventure, and encourages positive social interaction. Similarly, it has been found to have a positive impact upon academic achievement in the core curricular subjects of reading, writing, maths and science (Sigman, A. Agricultural Literacy: Giving concrete children food for thought). Perhaps just as important during the current crisis; allowing children to try new things outside enhances their awareness of their physical ability and their capacity to assess and manage risk. This, in turn, bolsters self-confidence and self-reliance when confronted with change and challenging situations.

Sustainable, natural timber

An ideal biophilic eco-classroom should combine the use of natural materials with floor-to-ceiling windows and glazed doors and covered decking areas to maximise exposure to nature. In addition, they should be designed to have inherently high insulation values, to be net-zero when in use and to have a light construction carbon footprint. Timber-framed classrooms have also been shown to relieve stress levels in students.

Mental health

Weitzer Parkett ProHolz Austria and partners undertook a research study named ‘School Without Stress’. The aim of the project was to scientifically prove the long-term benefits to students being taught within timber classrooms and found that, on average, these children had 8600 fewer heartbeats per day than their peers taught in traditional bricks and mortar buildings.

Environmental health

When our distant ancestors first ventured out of their cave dwellings and began building their own shelters, it is widely believed that they created simple structures from sticks, hides and the occasional mammoth bone. Of course, these early constructions have left no trace though, based on the shelters built by the few remaining indigenous hunter-gatherer tribes, timber is likely one of the oldest building materials known to man. Ethically sourced, it remains the most sustainable construction material, particularly when compared to steel and concrete.

According to the Athena calculator, timber uses far less energy to harvest and manufacture than its modern counterparts. It outperforms concrete and steel on many environmental measures including water pollution, fossil fuel consumption and smog potential. Furthermore, it is a carbon sink that actually releases oxygen and improves air quality during its 60-year lifespan. In addition, combined with a whole host of other energy-saving efficiencies, a well-constructed modular timber frame system can result in a classroom that is net-zero carbon in use.

In summary, a timber-framed classroom that has specific biophilic design features can have a significant impact on a student’s learning experience, both in the space and indeed outside of it. Healthier, happier and more engaged children (and their teachers too) are far more likely to make the most of the educational opportunities open to them. They can also take pride in their school choosing a building that is sustainable and ecologically robust and taking part in the effort to protect the environment for the next generation of school children.

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