Biophilic, Design, Interview, Wellbeing in the home | 29 May 2020
Oliver Heath on biophilic design and the importance of nature in our built environment.
Oliver Heath on principles and benefits of biophilic design.
Oliver Heath is an expert in the fields of sustainable architectural, interior design and biophilic design. He regularly writes for publications including the Guardian and The Sunday Times and has presented television programmes both in the UK and Norway, recently receiving a BAFTA nomination.
Oliver is a qualified Domestic Energy and Green Deal assessor and acts as a media spokesperson for the UK’s Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the Energy Saving Trust and the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP). He frequently hosts seminars, events and award ceremonies and is a regular speaker at key building conferences.
Biophilia translates from Ancient Greek as “the love of living things.” The term biophilic design is one of more recent origin having developed over the last 35 years. During this time, it has come to mean an innovative way of designing our built environment in ways that deepen our connection to nature and support our wellbeing.
The results can be impressive: In office environments workers experience a 13% uplift in levels of wellbeing and an 8% increase in levels of productivity when biophilic design has been used. In education spaces there is a 20-25% increased learning rate with improved test results, concentration levels, attendance and reduced impacts of ADHD. In healthcare, when biophilic design is used, there is an 8.5% decrease in post-recovery times and a 22% drop in the use of pain medication. Imagine what it can do for your home!
We were delighted to talk to Oliver to explore biophilic design and its benefits.
I began by asking Oliver how he would describe biophilic design to someone with no prior knowledge.
Biophilia means a love of nature. It focuses on humans’ innate attraction to nature and natural processes. It suggests that we all have a genetic connection to the natural world built up through hundreds of thousands of years of living in agrarian settings. The term was popularised in the 1980’s by Edward O Wilson, the American biologist. It was used in the context of explaining and understanding the stresses and strains that were beginning to result as populations moved en masse from rural to urban settlements.
“The basic concept of a desire to be in and around nature and closer to it in terms of how we build has become known as biophilic design.”
The basic concept of a desire to be in and around nature and closer to it in terms of how we build has become known as biophilic design. An inspirational figure called Stephen Kellert developed the idea into 73 different attributes of biophilic design which have been refined over time, for example into 3 key concepts:
1) Direct connection to nature — how we connect with trees, plants water, fresh air, plus the movement and slow changing patterns we see in nature. These are if you like, the sensory forms of the natural experience.
2) Indirect connection to nature — how we mimic or evoke feeling of nature in spaces by using natural materials (timber); colours (yellows, greens, blues); textures; and even technologies.
3) Human spatial response — how we create spaces that satisfy the body’s physical, psychological and emotional needs. How we create spaces that are energising, exciting and stimulating whilst recognising that in any space that will over stimulate, you will also need a space that is relaxing and recuperative.
The 73 attributes were also refined into 14 patterns of biophilic design by Browning, Ryan and Clancy.
How can biophilic design benefit our everyday lives and living spaces?
Essentially, biophilic design is a set of patterns that allow us to improve the human connection to nature in buildings. That is particularly important when you recognise that a large number of people (for example 90% in the UK) are now urbanised. The rate of urbanisation around the world is set to be 60% by 2050 and as we become more urbanised, we have a reduced connection to nature. Plus, we find ourselves living in ever more cramped spaces with less and less connection to nature, where stresses increase and our opportunity to relax and recuperate lessen.
“In my view, it is about a human centred approach to architecture and design.”
It’s a common misconception that biophilic design is just about adding plants and greenery to spaces. In my view, it is about a human centred approach to architecture and design. How you create spaces that help people deliver on the intended function of that space. How we use the design of the building to improve mental wellbeing and help people to be less stressed, undertake tasks more efficiently and recover from mental / emotional / physical exertion. It focuses on how we can create buildings that support people to come together to mix, mingle and connect with one another.
We love the idea of architecture that supports wellbeing and connection at Kiss House. Do you think this is all too often an after-thought in the design of new build homes?
There are a lot of things, fundamental to biophilic design that good and experienced architects are already doing and have been doing for some time. There can however tend to be an exercise dedicated to the maximisation of ground space. Not enough consideration is given to the delivery and functionality or the ultimate aim of making people feel good and happy and human.
Biophilic design brings to the fore, the familiar idea that nature makes you feel good. When we go on holiday, we tend to choose the beach, mountains or forest, and in those spaces, we become ourselves again. The stress washes away. We have more time for our family and friends, and we become the people we are supposed to be. We’ve all experienced returning to work, only to feel crammed into a box, as the feelings of calm and relaxation disappear. Fortunately, biophilic design is becoming more mainstream and even where it is not being employed consciously, good design will none-the-less instinctively employ some of the same principles.
“Biophilic design is about bringing the amazing goodness that we feel when we spend time in nature into our built environment. ”
Biophilic design is about bringing the amazing goodness that we feel when we spend time in nature into our built environment. It is about finding intelligent, sophisticated, emotional ways to bring that into the architecture that is most important in our lives — our homes, offices, hospitals, schools, the places we stay and shop.
When building your own home what is the optimal time to speak to you and to begin to incorporate biophilic design? In our experience of bespoke housing it's usual for great consideration to be given to the spec but is far less common to have a biophilic designer on the team (though I’ve no doubt that if the benefits to occupant wellbeing were better understood this would change).
We would always want to get involved from the outset and begin by interviewing people. We like to carry out pre and post-occupancy evaluations. The pre-occupancy evaluation is a really thorough briefing document that asks people a number of questions looking at quantitative things like, humidity, temperature, lighting levels. It also looks at qualitative things, such as how does a space make you feel and are you able to connect with other people. It puts an equal value on the qualitative and quantitative factors.
“It’s very much about how space makes you feel and how we can use the tool of design and our connection to nature to deliver that.”
There is a perception in England, particularly, that design is a tool for communicating a rather extrinsic message. Design is the tool to tell the world who you are. It is an opportunity to express power, wealth, intelligence and a perceived sense of style. At Oliver Heath Design, we take a more intrinsic approach to architecture. We ask questions like, “how do you want to feel in this space, how does it make you feel and how can we deliver a space that helps you realise that?” The obvious answer might be the design of a house that incorporates spaces where people can come together but equally separate out and move apart, to have time to recuperate and be on one’s own or even to sleep better. It could be something as simple as adding a lock on the bathroom door, a sheltered space in a garden or a decent space for a dining table. It’s very much about how space makes you feel and how we can use the tool of design and our connection to nature to deliver that.
Have you worked on many Passivhaus projects?
No but I am familiar with the concept. A lot of work we tend to do is more refurbishment and less new build. But a lot of principles within biophilic design would fit. I think, however that a lot of the Passivhaus principles, as with other building certification systems tend to be more about energy efficiency; the carbon centred aspect and less about the human centred aspect. As a designer, I recognise that those carbon centred bits can become quite engineering based. You can achieve the U-values, the lighting levels, the ventilation levels by getting an engineer in to engineer these things. However, when we talk about biophilic design, it’s a little bit more intangible and I think that’s where the role of the architect and the designer comes in and comes to the fore.
“ I recognise the role that I have as a designer, in creating a sense of delight and wonder or relaxation or connection.”
My work over the last 6-8 years has recognised the more quantitative aspects that an engineer might pass over to deliver. I recognise the role that I have as a designer, in creating a sense of delight and wonder or relaxation or connection, and understanding the power that good design can have in delivering that.
You mention a carbon centred approach to sustainable architecture, why should this shift to a more human centred approach?
We need to create balance between the carbon centred approach and the human centred approach. The designers of energy efficient buildings often pay more attention to insulation than the design aspect. Then for example a decision is made to put a door in it to suit the setting, the exterior fabric of the building is pierced, the U-values are ruined but suddenly there is light and there are views. This is not a joined-up approach.
You have to find a balance to create a building that people truly love. They’re not going to love it for impressive U-values alone.
This is precisely why we have a multidisciplinary team at Kiss House, to give equal weight to design and performance. For us the really interesting challenge lies in balancing the two, would you agree?
For me it’s a little bit like riding and owning a bike; improving efficiency and technical specification is all well and good, and of course it has to be considered, but it’s the emotive bit — riding through the hills, the forests and single dirt tracks that’s the really exciting bit.
“What stirs the emotions is always human centred and that is the route to selling sustainability. We have got to make people fall in love with it.”
What stirs the emotions is always human centred and that is the root to selling sustainability. We have got to make people fall in love with it. I believe health, wellbeing and ultimately nature is the root to delivering that.
Yes, but do you agree that we should "design in" great efficiency and technical elements to ensure great performance; so that the ride will be better for much longer — that as designers we should push our designs harder and work to design out compromise in all areas?
Absolutely. My point is that we shouldn’t just measure the success of a building through resource efficiency and environmental impact, as we have in the past with a number of building accreditation systems. It needs to be balanced with inspirational human centred design, to create aspirational spaces that people fall in love with. Spaces that they can imagine living in at first sight, and enjoy living in, being happy and healthy, long after that.
We can absolutely agree on that. How might you bring nature into a home design to aid this?
“It’s an interesting, intellectual exercise to understand what a space that helps you to recuperate looks and feels like. ”
It’s an interesting, intellectual exercise to understand what a space that helps you to recuperate looks and feels like. One of the interesting things about nature is that it’s something we’ve all had a positive experience of. Biophilic design seeks to reconnect people with that memory, that connection to nature in their homes. For example, if someone had a lovely time spent looking out over fields or seas or lakes, we would bring some of the sound of water, some of the freshness that it brings to the atmosphere into their home. We could create some of those reflective, beautiful moments of light as it pools into the ceiling in your home by positioning water features outside windows.
It seeks to bring that sense of wonder back. It’s never going to be exactly the same as standing in a forest, overlooking a lake but it can start to bring those wonderful memories back. There are lots of features within biophilic design that are fascinating, the idea that it is essentially a universal design ethos that we can all connect to. It’s not like Modernism, Minimalism, Post Modernism, or Classicism that don’t appeal to everyone.
“Everybody without fail has had a positive experience with nature. ”
Everybody without fail has had a positive experience with nature. If you ask people to think of a space where they feel most, happy, calm and relaxed and picture a space in their mind, 75% of people will be thinking about a space featuring water. It might be somewhere with a view of a river or a lake or the sea, then they’ll think about trees, greenery, or mountains.
“Everyone has a shared vision of where they can feel happy, calm and relaxed. ”
Everyone has a shared vision of where they can feel happy, calm and relaxed. That is an aspiration. How can we get people in that same mental headspace by using good design? For me that’s where biophilic design comes in and starts to connect with so many different types of people, all around the world perhaps in different ways from one country to another. It is about picking up on a vernacular form of nature and material that people will connect with and associate with a positive experience.
“It is about picking up on a vernacular form of nature and material that people will connect with and associate with a positive experience. ”
When we think of biophilic design we tend to think about “greening” our interior spaces. What is your approach to colour and materials?
Predominantly people think it’s about plants and greenery but when we use colour, we use the Ecological Valence theory. This theory suggests that we react well to colours that we have previously had positive experiences of. For example, we might use shades of blue that remind us of cool, calm pools of water to encourage relaxation. Green is a more creative and energising colour and is a good colour for stimulating conversation. Yellows are warm and welcoming, sociable colours. They remind us of ripe crops in summer and the warmth of summer sunshine. Oranges and reds are quite stimulating, energising colours and should be used in appropriate proportions. They remind us of ripe fruits and berries. When you see an apple in a tree, your eye is drawn to a shot of colour.
Whilst it’s quite possible that there might be a massive green wall, it’s also about materials, textures and patterns and how we use them. One study looked at the use of timber walls in classrooms and found that students who studied in classrooms with timber walls had a reduced heart rate of 8,600 beats per day. By adding timber to walls you have the ability to create colour, texture and pattern. All that’s needed to create a space that is safe, warm and nurturing is to use a timber wall. For it to have a physiological impact in that space as well is amazing.
I imagine there is a growing body of research into biophilic design; how do you keep up to date with it and incorporate it into your work?
Rather unusually, I have two researchers in my design practice. We have spent a lot of time over the last couple of years pulling together hundreds of different research studies across the different biophilic patterns. A lot of it is peer-reviewed research, is quite dense and not that easy to get through.
“We tend to extract the essence of the project or research study to get to the interesting idea. We then consider how to translate it into architectural design. ”
We tend to extract the essence of the project or research study to get to the interesting idea. We then consider how to translate it into architectural design. It would be a real shame and missed opportunity for architectural and interior design education to not look at these studies. All too often as an industry we are influenced by our peers, past masters, other buildings that have done what we wanted to do, and we’ve shunned the research approach. However, the evidence that is out there is amazing.
One study I love to cite is the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a 76 year long research project. Harvard researchers studied a group of men throughout their lives to find the secret to human happiness. Was it their jobs, money, prestige or status? They discovered that the key to human happiness is the formation of strong bonds with family and friends. What is it in architecture and design, that helps us form bonds with people? It’s spending time with each other. How do we do that?
We can sit round a table, we can have an island unit in the kitchen, we can have a seat in the garden or a fire pit. There are lots of ways of bringing people together to encourage direct communication but also for more passive activities that connect us like sitting around the fire pit or in the garden doing more therapeutic things together. Quite often we are interpreting research studies that don’t necessarily offer up direct suggestions.
“It’s not enough to say that a house is beautiful and therefore great. Do a research study to demonstrate how good it is, that’s when I become more interested. ”
As designers, we sit somewhere between environmental psychologists and the design profession. We have created a series of open source design guides that people can download to help them understand what biophilic design is and how they can interpret it. Hopefully we’ve added a creative spin on it to start people thinking in the right direction about how these research studies can and should be used to better inform where architecture is going. Instead of simply mimicking other past masters who are in a way, just people with good PR and an opinion. It’s not enough to say that a house is beautiful and therefore great. Do a research study to demonstrate how good it is, that’s when I become more interested.
Would you say your work is experimental because you’re continually interpreting research?
“To a certain extent, if you are creating progressive architecture, you are always experimenting.”
To a certain extent, if you are creating progressive architecture, you are always experimenting. What I’m hoping for is that we are doing it in a slightly more informed way and not doing something incredibly avant-garde for purely egotistical reasons. Instead we are using a study to suggest that if we take the following action, assuming we have interpreted the research correctly, then this will be the thing that brings people together or helps them to work or study better. Studies can be relatively academic in that they were created at another time, in another country or under some sort of testing condition that will inevitably change the result. Using a peer-reviewed study with a sizeable test group, as opposed to just basing a decision on an opinion has to be a more informed approach.
Can you tell us about a particularly successful project?
There was a small project we worked on The Garden School Project, Hackney where we designed a space for autistic children. It was a little space that sat next to a playground. The children were becoming overwhelmed by the noise and activity in the playground, so we created a space that allowed them to look at the playground without being surrounded by the noise and activity. We filled the room with natural colours, materials and textures. We added window seats and interactive features that created cause and effect. For example, if they touched an interactive feature that had stones and pebbles on a blue light would come on and they would hear the sound of the seashore. Added to that, there were little cubicles the children could nestle into for a sense of retreat.
The project used simple ideas such as being able to look over a space without being surrounded by the noise and chaos and natural materials, colours and textures to mimic nature and give a sense of retreat to great effect. The project was for children with ASD but these basic emotive responses will apply to most people. There’s a lovely film on our website that shows the children in the space.
Do you have any upcoming projects you can share with us?
We are writing an online course on biophilic design for the domestic design industry which is exciting. I’m also involved with a new exhibition called “Planted.” It’s a live event that embodies many of the biophilic principles and looks at sustainability, biophilic design, the botanical market, urban greening plus health and wellbeing.
How have you seen attitudes to and awareness of biophilic design change over time?
Since I’ve been teaching biophilic design, it’s become more well known. We’ve gone from thinking that sustainable architecture is essentially following carbon centred approaches, to regarding it as something deeper. As much as we should be designing buildings that reduce their impact on the environment, I believe the thing that will really benefit our clients is thinking about people. For example, how we can help commercial clients to cut the costs of staff turnover and absenteeism through great design. This approach will improve outcomes in terms of productivity, creativity, communication and innovation.
“Taking this human centred approach has become a lot more well-known and the value of it, much better recognised over the last five years. It has risen in awareness and will continue to do so. ”
Taking this human centred approach has become a lot more well-known and the value of it, much better recognised over the last five years. It has risen in awareness and will continue to do so.
I deliver a lot of talks and present CPDs and seminars to professionals at large architectural practices in the UK and Europe, teaching others to incorporate the principles of biophilic design. It’s been an interesting experience to meet very well-informed professionals and to say to them, “I have an idea that is going to transform the way you think about architecture” — it’s quite a big ask.
Do you get many challenging questions from those you are presenting to?
Over the last five years I have had a lot of challenging questions. On the whole I can answer them now, but in the past, it wasn’t always so easy. This helped me to uncover a lot of new research. I’d consider an interesting question, research that topic and see what studies I could find to cover that particular topic. It’s been a very valuable learning process and a great opportunity to test ideas.
How have you improved your own home using biophilic design and how have you found spending so much time there during lockdown?
As a designer, I’m always wanting to do the next thing. Having completed one project, I want to do the next. Obviously living in Brighton, houses are expensive, children are rooted to schools and friends and you become a little bit glued to where you are. To a certain extent, there’s always more or better; you can always change things. Having said that, I feel I have delivered a lot of the things I have spoken about in my current house.
I have natural light and window views that look out onto greenery and a garden where I can grow vegetables. I have somewhere I can store my bicycle and I can go out and exercise as we have a nice mix of private and public spaces nearby. I’ve used natural materials and have good acoustics. We installed a heat recovery system in the house so that we always have filtered, fresh air coming through.
“As designers, we always see faults in our own work, we can always do better and we try to learn from that and re-interpret it and improve on it when we deliver our next project. ”
Maybe, it could be better? I could always have more space, a bigger garden. As designers, we always see faults in our own work, we can always do better and we try to learn from that and re-interpret it and improve on it when we deliver our next project.
How do you think spending so much time at home during lockdown might influence house design in the future?
“Whether we will learn those lessons and recognise what a good mix of diverse architecture can bring to our lives or not I’m not sure, but I hope we will.”
We have to find ways of dealing with existing architecture through refurbishment. We must recognise the value that good design can add and how we can incorporate some of the ideas of great human centred design. I’m sure that because of the lockdown many people are more conscious of the impact their homes are having on them. Whether they have enough windows, or access to a garden or a good mix of spaces where they can be together and also apart. It is going to become a lot more crystallised as most people are not going to their other spaces; their workplaces, schools or supermarkets and are home so much more. Whether we will learn those lessons and recognise what a good mix of diverse architecture can bring to our lives or not I’m not sure, but I hope we will.
We hope you enjoyed reading about Oliver and biophilic design as much as we enjoyed interviewing him. At the end of our call we had a brief discussion about how we might collaborate in the future, and we will definitely be picking this up.