As the sun beams in through a tall glass window, light fills the room illuminating the verdant plants resting in each corner. You breathe in the crisp air flowing in from outside and look out to a pristine waterfall trickling through the garden. You feel calm, relaxed, rejuvenated, in the safe space of your own home. It’s a connection to nature. This is the feeling biophilia creates.
Peace. According to Perth’s biophilic design expert Dr Jana Soderlund this is the most used word to describe the feeling of being in nature and more and more people are attempting to create this feeling in their own personal spaces. The term ‘biophilia’ was established by American biologist and researcher Edward O Wilson in the 1980s. Research reveals that mental and physical health can be achieved through biophilic design as it has been proven that incorporating nature into personal spaces makes people happier, healthier, boosts well being and increases productivity.
Across Australia, there’s a growing trend towards bringing wellbeing into interiors and experts suspect COVID-19 has played a part in this. Co-owner of North Perth’s Bar Botanik Robert King is confident that being at home and increased use of social media have encouraged people to purchase plants. “While we were closed, our sales were constant but down a bit, when we re-opened it probably doubled for the first four or five weeks, even now it’s more than we were doing for the past two years,” he says.
Mental and physical benefits
According to the owner of Perth’s first interior design agency specialising in biophilic design, Lauren Anderson, “our spaces affect our health and body”. After her sister was heartbreakingly diagnosed with cancer seven years ago, Ms Anderson wanted to expand her business to somehow find health through her work, discovering that biophilic design has countless mental and physical benefits.
“I think it’s so beneficial because we’re humans and we derive from the earth so we’re naturally drawn to nature,” Ms Anderson says.
Research undertaken by Iowa State University has revealed plants help our bodies’ natural chemical processes by relieving stress, reducing anxiety, alleviating depression, lowering blood pressure and cortisol levels. Nature allows our brains to “reset” which also balances the chemicals in our bodies. Further, the study discovered that connecting with nature can decrease the chances of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression and disorders such as ADHD.
With most of us now spending 90 per cent of our time indoors, air quality and light are more important than ever. Plants act as natural air purifiers that can drastically improve the air quality in your home. “Dyson have an air purifier, it’s about $600, or you can just buy a potted plant that does the same thing and it looks better, the air quality of the room goes up a tenfold,” Ms Anderson says.
Iowa State University research shows that light and temperature have a significant impact on our mood, appetite and sleep cycles. Imagine the daily routine of those who work in the city. You park in a dark underground car park, take the airless lift up to your office, then go back down to your car when it’s time to go and drive home. In the words of Ms Anderson, this is a recipe for disaster. Offices are air conditioned spaces, the blinds are usually drawn, the windows are closed and they have fluorescent lighting. “You need ventilation, you need air quality, you need good quality light, it will affect the mood, it will affect your wellbeing,” Ms Anderson explains.
According to Dr Soderlund, nature also increases creativity and productivity, highlighting the importance of utilising biophilia in spaces such as offices and schools. “Being constantly surrounded by concrete and hard edges can actually cause stress,” Dr Soderlund says. Successful companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook have now implemented biophilic design in their offices. “So many switched on companies know to do it because their employees are more productive, there’s less absenteeism, there’s more of what they call ‘presenteeism’, the employees are happier, they have better mental health, they can employ better quality employers and there’s a higher retention rate of their employees, companies that have utilised biophilic design know it pays off in spades,” she says.
After 20 years of working as a mental health nurse in Sydney, Mr King believes mental health patients who own plants have better outcomes. “A lot of times my patients would like to get animals, which is very therapeutic, but I would recommend they get a plant instead and that worked equally well for them,” he says.
Implementing biophilic design
Imagine having more than 500 plants in your home. For plant-lover Jentina Thiangthae from Bunbury, this is a reality.
“Mentally it’s very therapeutic. Everybody has a natural connection to nature so to be able to have that in your comfortable living space really helps,” Ms Thiangthae says.
According to Dr Soderlund, biophilic design is extremely scalable and can be used in homes, apartment blocks, home offices, corporate offices, and even outside precincts. There are many simple things people can do to “walk into a space and feel good,” she says.
Ms Anderson recommends bringing in plants to as many rooms as possible. Further, she believes it is game-changing to use natural products that come from the earth such as lime-based paints and natural timbers. The aim is to make your design reflect nature, she says. This can be achieved through dark floors and light ceilings as “it reflects the earth, as in the environment you have your dark ground then you go up to the light sky.” Dark floors can make a space feel more “grounded” and a white ceiling can make a space feel bigger, bolder and brighter. When deciding on paints Ms Anderson suggests seeking out those made from ochre, clay and earth pigments rather than synthetic colours created in a lab. When it comes to natural-based products, she says “the eye will focus more on them and we will always find them more attractive than an artificial colour because we are naturally more drawn to them.”
Street trees, rain gardens, bird baths, trickling fountains, aromatic plants, fresh air, letting sunshine in and creating your own nature scape inside and outside, even moving your desk to a space where there is an outside view of waving plants. According to Dr Soderlund, that’s what it’s all about. “In your daily living try to take time to do a walk in a park or in some bit of nature,” she says.
Biophilia in the community
Experts say living alone can often bring a sense of loneliness and fear. However, they’re certain biophilic design can combat this and turn a house into a home. Through biophilic interior design, Ms Anderson helped a recently divorced client “feel a sense of belonging in a place she didn’t really feel connected to” which emphasises the emotional connection humans have to space.
“If you don’t feel comfortable where you are that impacts your health, you can’t relax, you can’t physically let go,” Ms Anderson says.
Biophilic design has also been used in prisons as a way to decrease the risk of reoffending and encourage proactive rehabilitation. Research has shown immersing in Nature can have restorative effects. “If you want to rehabilitate, people can’t be stressed to learn new behaviour and our prisons are really stressful in their hard edged architecture,” Dr Soderlund says. Green walls, rooms with windows and “blue rooms” where prisoners are taken to watch videos of nature are some of the ways biophilic design has been incorporated into prisons around the world. In Perth, Dr Soderlund was part of a project where a green wall was built at Hakea Prison in Canning Vale. “Everyone’s mental health, both the guards and inmates improve, they become more compliant, happier and less agitated, so it’s really dramatic the impact you can have,” Dr Soderlund says.
After a mass shooting in 2012 at Sandy Hook School in the US state of Connecticut, the principal wanted to bring a sense of security and safety back into the school grounds using Nature. “That’s the other thing nature does, when you’re being triggered it brings a sense of safety,” Dr Soderlund says. Patterns were used on the floors to evoke walking on a forest floor as well as tree patterns on the walls. Relaxing break out areas were formed, and calming rain gardens were established at the front of the school, not only to implement biophilia but also to act as a barrier to stop ram rains. Schools such as Cecil Andrews College near Armadale is now introducing biophilia to decrease crime and enhance learning practices.
Recently, Dr Soderlund has been working with the City of Bayswater and Victoria Park to implement biophilic design into their strategic plans. “People can really suffer a sense of disconnection in our cities and it’s really important to recognise how nature can provide that sense of connection,” she says.
By 2024, Australia is set to be the home of “the world’s greenest residential building”. A 30-storey apartment block that will be home to more than 1000 trees and 20, 000 native plants is proposed to be built in South Brisbane. Designed by Koichi Takada Architects, the building itself will be made out of recycled and locally sourced materials and will also become the resting place of many insects and birds.
Expensive vs inexpensive
Biophilic experts promote the idea that you can start simple with biophilic design and don’t need to spend outrageous amounts of money. Collecting shells and rocks to use inside your home and creating nature scapes with plants are ways to cheaply make a difference. “It’s one of those things you just work within your budget,” Dr Soderlund says.
Cutting swaps are common in Perth and are an inexpensive way of purchasing plants, as attested by Ms Thiangthae. “You share cuttings and you buy off people who grow and sell them themselves in their house or on marketplace or gumtree, I’ve got a lot of my awesome plants from gumtree,” she says. Ms Thiangthae also encourages purchasing plants from local growers rather than boutique shops as they do cost “quite a fair bit” from her experience of working in a boutique nursery. Collecting rare exotic plants can become expensive as their health requires higher maintenance and they need to be in specific conditions to thrive. However, Ms Thiangthae advises first time buyers to “go for plants that are easy first rather than plants that look the prettiest.”
Biophilic design is a way of creating a peaceful, safe environment that subconsciously benefits humans mentally and physically. It appears to be a trend of the future, especially as social media for plants is currently booming, according to Mr King. As Ms Anderson says, we are drawn to our natural environment and experts are encouraging people to take advantage of that connection to improve their quality of life. Dr Jana Soderlund believes “we haven’t quite realised we’re designing our habitats and that we want to do them in a way that makes us feel good and improves our health.”