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Renaturing architecture: Biophilic Design for a healthier and more productive life

The more urban our lives become, the more we lose contact with nature. CORPUS met Designer and architect Oliver Heath, who explains, how Biophilic Design can improve health and well-being.

How design and architecture can contribute to well-being and health is impressively demonstrated by the approach of British designer Oliver Heath. He shows how the idea of ‘Biophilic Design’ can be successfully implemented in architecture and interior design. So how can buildings, architecture and infrastructure help to improve cognitive performance and, more importantly, mental and physical health? 

 The more urban our lives become, the more we lose contact with nature. With obvious consequences: working without daylight, lack of exercise, loss of concentration, and a departure from the natural rhythms of life. The principles of Biophilic Design attempt to counteract this trend by bringing people in their urban environment dominated by buildings back into contact with nature. But how do we bring nature into architecture and integrate it in interior design? Corpus talked to Oliver Heath about this challenge. His office Oliver Heath Design pursues explicitly sustainable architecture and design with the goal of promoting the individual’s health and well-being in the built-up environment and designing productive, healthy and ultimately happy habitable spaces.

Biography in brief
Oliver Heath is an industry recognized expert in the field of sustainable architecture and interior design. With strong media and presentation skills, he has presented TV programs since 1998 working for numerous channels including BBC, ITV and Channel 4. As a qualified Domestic Energy and Green Deal assessor he regularly acts as a spokesperson for the UK’s Department for Energy and Climate Change, the Energy Saving Trust and the Waste Resources Action Programme. He has published 3 books – his last selling over 30,000 copies in 8 languages and is a frequent contributor for British magazines and papers.

Biophilic Design – Architecture of life

The term Biophilia was first used by the German-American philosopher Erich Fromm and was popularized by the biologist Edward O. Wilson in the late 80s. It describes a psychological orientation of being attracted to all that is alive and vital. According to the theory humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with the natural world, and subconsciously long to be in its calming presence. In architecture, biophilia is a sustainable design idea that seeks to reconnect people with the natural environment. Furthermore, it shows strong sociological and psychological components and can even help in speeding up recovering processes of patients in hospitals or create a workplace that helps people feel physically and emotionally healthier going about their tasks.

 

The workshops and talks at Frame Lab in Amsterdam are devoted to the interplay between people, interiors and the environment. Enhancing human well-being with the aid of room design – an exciting approach – was the subject of Oliver Heath’s workshop. Together with Interface carpet designers, he showed how Biophilic Design is capable of revitalizing interiors – with anything from natural materials to a stone-colored carpet with a special surface structure.

The hotel project “Into the Woods and Faraway” aims to offer the guest a brief escape from the stresses of everyday life. The idea is one of combining direct and indirect natural elements. Biophilic Design thus aids recuperation and relaxation.

CORPUS: How did you arrive at the idea of Biophilic Design?
 

OLIVER HEATH: I grew up in Brighton, which is by the sea, in England. My earliest memories are of buildings that were very much connected with nature. Later, when I studied architecture, the idea that we would surround ourselves with nature was fundamental to the spaces that I found myself creating. In reality, however, because of the drive for sustainability, building design has become increasingly an engineering subject. But there’s a human-centered side that’s very much in the realm of architecture and design and one that we can influence. It is really important that that we bring health and well-being back into buildings. Biophilic Design for me is one of the keys to improving health and well-being.

CORPUS: How is the principle of Biophilic Design put into practice?

OLIVER HEATH: There are lots of ways. The first one is obvious and involves integrating plants in the design, improving the connection with sunlight and fresh air in buildings. But we can also introduce an indirect connection to nature by using colors, materials, textures, patterns, and technologies. We have to design buildings that are exciting and stimulating, as well as interiors that are calming, restorative, and recuperative. Biophilic Design is based on knowledge accumulated over 35 years and is evidence-based. So we can clearly say today that the design of offices and workplaces is capable of improving productivity and creativity while reducing absenteeism and presenteeism.

The Biophilic Designer’s toolkit is varied. He or she upgrades rooms, adapts the air, heating and acoustic quality, makes use of natural materials, patterns and colors, permits access to natural and artificial light, and directs the gaze toward nature – outdoors and indoors. Despite all the design features, the emphasis is always on the individual’s psychological and physiological well-being.

CORPUS: Can design be implemented globally or is it more an approach for wealthy industrialized nations that are willing to spend more money on modern architecture?

OLIVER HEATH: Biophilic Design is something that can be brought in at all different cost levels. And the only limitation is our creativity. In every building that we create we have decisions to make on flooring, on walls, on windows, on surfaces, the use of natural light to balance the circadian rhythm – every decision is capable of positively influencing the effect of nature in a building. So creating a stronger connection with nature is all about creativity and not about money.

Studies show that the proximity to nature creates a stimulating atmosphere for learning. For the Garden School in Hackney where mainly autistic children are taught, Heath has developed a biophilic room strategy – without resorting, for example, to delicate, care-intensive plants. He has converted the former gym into a refuge with plenty of seating and play areas where children can feel safe and recuperate.

CORPUS: How is Biophilic Design set to develop? What’s your vision for the next ten years?
 

OLIVER HEATH: For me one of the most exciting areas of Biophilic Design is how we are going to mimic nature. I’ve recently been working alongside Interface, a flooring company. With their colors, textures, and patterns they take a biomimetic approach to the design of their flooring surfaces. By mimicking a sense of nature, they are allowing us to start to zone spaces for different needs. Spaces where we can walk. Spaces where we can meet and have conversations, because different pile heights create different acoustics and a different sense of luxury within that space. A greater level of biodiversity is a potential that will enable people to carry out more functions more efficiently, live more creatively and improve connectivity and communication, which will ultimately stimulate new ideas.

CORPUS: Mr. Heath, thank you for the interview.

In the eco home refurbishment of the detached house in Brighton dating back to the 1960s, the focus was on reducing the carbon footprint by 77 percent, from 10.9 to 2.5 metric tons per year. The sustainability strategy is supplemented with action to reduce water consumption and to make greater use of natural light with intelligent window solutions. The refurbishment has created a warm and nurturing home.
For the production “Tid for Hjem” (Time for Home) of the TV2 television channel, Oliver Heath Design created the Urban-nature Cabin in Bergen, Norway. The kitchen and lounge have now been united by a central fireplace. Previously dingy and with poor air circulation, the room is now flooded with light – separate zones still provide sufficient space for individual activities and relaxation.

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