From gazing out the window when we should really be writing that email, to gravitating toward cosy corners and flickering fires, most of us inhabit our home – and work – spaces in ways we can’t always explain.
Biophilia, humankind’s innate biological connection with nature, compels us to seek particular types of habitats, refuges and vantage points. And much as we might build and arrange our homes around seemingly logical and practical considerations, our biological instincts often beg to differ.
Catie Ryan Balagtas, director of projects for New York City sustainability consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green, spends much of her time helping clients – from school board leaders to resort developers – find ways to bridge that divide and create spaces that boost health and wellbeing by reconnecting their occupants with the natural world through biophilic design.
“A lot of our recent work has focused on figuring out what the advantages are of using this approach,” she says. “The most widely known benefit is stress reduction, but we’ve found that there’s actually a much larger range of benefits that extends from everything from people’s capacity for creativity and problem-solving to improved sleep patterns, immune system resilience and reduced dependence on prescriptive medication. It’s also been shown to impact people’s mood, levels of happiness, and pro-social behaviors such as generosity.”
While these health outcomes and advantages can be used to justify ecologically-sensitive design decisions, such as green roofs and planted spaces, you don’t have to be an architect or planner to make use of the concept. “I think everyone’s home has potential for being more biophilic than it already is,” says Ryan Balagtas. “Some of the easiest interventions are things that you already have but that you haven’t yet thought of in that particular way. When you’re aware of them, you’re more inclined to actually make use of them when you need them.”
What does that mean in actuality? Here are five simple ways to redesign your personal landscape with biophilia in mind.
Many homes and offices have decent window views, but we often don’t orient ourselves toward them. “Especially in architectural magazines, you’ll often see furniture right in front of the window, but it’s facing inward,” says Ryan Balagtas. “So using furniture that can be oriented towards a view – or at least doesn’t obscure the view – is a big opportunity that people often under-utilize.”
Even if the view is not stellar, just being able to see elements of nature, living systems and natural processes – such as rain coming or the sun changing its angle in the sky – benefits our nervous systems. Many contemporary living and work environments encourage us to focus our attention directly and intensively on particular things (such as screens), and this can lead to overstimulation, stress and fatigue; those ever-changing and interconnected natural elements can help to restore balance by drawing us to pay attention in a broader, more diffuse and relaxed way. Rather intuitively, gazing into the distance can help with big-picture thinking and long-term planning – according to biophylic design principles, those clear, long-distance lines of sight help us to feel safe and comfortable on a biophysical level, so we can more easily access the relaxed, expansive and creative mindset that’s required for these tasks.
It’s also good for our eyes to regularly adjust to different depths of field, particularly if we’re focusing on screens for long periods. “If you give yourself that view out the window, it only takes about 40 seconds for your eyes to adjust and reconnect with nature,” says Ryan Balagtas, “allowing your eyes and brain to reset.”
There are also a number of ways we can subtly tweak our spaces to emulate the sensory experience of being in nature. Moving patterns of light and shadow can be encouraged by opening windows instead of using air conditioning, and hanging curtains that move with the breeze. “And also just having that natural, variable airflow, there’s a connection that you might not be conscious of, but your body will respond to it; physiologically, you’re going to be more responsive,” says Ryan Balagtas. That means you’ll be employing more of the diffuse, relaxed attention mentioned earlier; you’ll be more aware of where your body is in space; and you’re likely to feel more refreshed, active, alive and invigorated than in a room where airflow is static and temperatures sit within a narrow range.
Providing yourself with a few options for where and how you do an activity dependent on the changing outdoor conditions also helps to build connection with nature. “If you work from home, you might set up your desk in such a way that you can get some sunshine when you want sunshine, or you might even be able to go and do your work outside sometimes,” she says.
There are many simple ways to entice elements of the natural world into our fields of vision. Placing bird feeders near windows, rather than in a place that can’t be seen from inside, is a simple one – not only because we get to see the birds, but also because following their quick, unpredictable movements is great for our eyes and brain, as it improves our reflexes and levels of mental alertness.
Planting pollinator species in window boxes or in a garden to attract insects is also a useful step, “because they create activity in the space and that sense of habitat,” says Ryan Balagtas. Indoors, she recommends putting fish tanks “in a place where you actually see them – not in the entry or the hallway, but somewhere where you might sit for an extended period of time.”
In smaller or more minimalist spaces, many people don’t want or have room for a lot of “stuff.” Here, textured surfaces, nature-inspired hardware, and small patterned items like decorative pillows can be a good option. “Again, these things can seem subtle,” says Ryan Balagtas, “but they add a layer of complexity that stimulates the senses – especially your sense of touch – without really skewing the design aesthetic.”
That “cosy corner” feeling is important, after all – we’re often instinctively drawn to spaces that offer protection from above and behind, in which we can withdraw from environmental conditions or the main flow of activity. Inside, that might look like a reading nook, mezzanine or window seat.
Creating this kind of refuge space outdoors can be more challenging, but it can really transform the way we use these spaces and the amount of time we spend in them, says Ryan Balagtas. We might set up outdoor seating against a fence or building, or arrange plantings in a protective semicircle to help create that “feeling of somewhere to go,” she says.
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