Design with nature to improve well-being
It’s obvious to many of us: walking in a park, sitting on a jetty by the water, hiking in the forest or decorating our homes with plants makes us happy. But is there any concrete evidence to support our belief in the positive impact nature has on us? The book “Biophilic Design” (Stephen R. Kellert, Judith H. Heerwagen, Martin L. Mador) examines various studies that provide scientific support for the assumption that contact with nature is crucial for human function, health and well-being. Among other things, these studies show that:
Contact with nature has been linked to improved cognitive function in tasks that require concentration and memory.
Contact with nature improves healing and recovery from illnesses and major surgeries, through, for example, natural light and vegetation, as well as symbolic elements of nature (for example, in the form of pictures).
Office environments with natural light, natural ventilation and elements linked to nature result in improved work performance, lower stress and greater motivation.
The human brain reacts functionally to sensory patterns and elements from nature.
People living close to nature report fewer health and social problems, regardless of whether they live in rural or urban areas, their level of education or income. Even limited amounts of vegetation, such as grass and a few trees, show a positive effect.
“Biophilia” means “love of nature”. Biophilic design recognises the affinity humans feel for nature, and their desire to spend time in and around nature. The concept was created by German-American social psychologist Eric Fromm in his 1964 book “The Heart of Man”, but was popularised by American biologist Edward O. Wilson, who defined the term in his book “Biophilia” from 1984. Wilson’s studies have significantly influenced design with natural elements over time. After writing “Biophilia”, Wilson collaborated with Professor Stephen R. Kellert, another biophilic design icon, in “The Biophilia Hypothesis” in 1993.
Biophilic Design consists of two main parts:
• The first part is about shapes in the built environment that directly (e.g. plants, daylight and water), indirectly or symbolically (e.g. shapes, patterns, colours, images and films) reflect nature.
• The second part is about the experience of the space and its location. Biophilic design is more than just the things that surround us – it’s about our holistic experience of and outlook over the environment we find ourselves in.
“The knowledge about how nature affects humans is an important part when we developing new products. GROW is one direct example. A flower box in several different designs that makes it easy to decorate with plants in an office, at school or in a healthcare environment. Plants also affect the acoustics in a space, as foliage has a diffusing effect and reflects the sound waves in different directions. This creates a pleasant acoustic environment.”
Reduced stress and improved well-being with elements of nature
Research confirms that elements of nature in indoor environments promote happiness, well-being, creativity and productivity, reduce stress and improve recovery. The report "Human Spaces - The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace" shows, for example, that we humans can increase our productivity by 6% through natural elements, such as sunlight and greenery, in the indoor environment. At the same time, both creativity and perceived well-being increase by 15%, according to the same study.
Another study shows that daylight and pleasant views have a huge impact on cognitive development and educational outcomes. Among 2,593 primary school students in Barcelona, children in schools with more greenery were shown to have significantly better cognitive development during the year. The survey showed improvements in working memory and fewer problems with lack of attention. This is supported by research at Karolinska Institutet medical university in Sweden which shows that spending time in spaces with elements of nature reduces negative feelings and stress, and increases positive feelings, mental recovery and performance. The study also shows that people perform better in attention and memory tests. People living in urban environments with a lot of vegetation are healthier than those living in areas with less greenery. They are less stressed, live longer and have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and mental illness.
Research from 1984 by Roger S. Ulrich, Ph.D. Chalmers (View through a window may influence recovery from surgery) showed that 23 surgical patients who were assigned rooms with windows and views of trees and bushes were able to go home faster after the operation, required less pain medication and had a more positive attitude (according to the nurses) than 23 other patients in similar rooms, but with a view of a brick wall.
Examples of biophilic design elements:
Earthy colours close to nature's own colour scale, such as green and earthy hues, have a special effect on people’s ability to recover. Tone-on-tone muted colours make a harmonious impression and enhance well-being.
Access to daylight instead of artificial light. Daylight promotes vitality, health and positive feelings, and improves sleep quality. Ideally, you should never be more than 3 metres from a window.
People have a special preference for views, especially if they contain natural elements and greenery.
Natural shapes and patterns
Shapes and patterns associated with nature, such as trees, leaves, shells, spirals, tubes, ovals, domes and vaults, have a positive impact on humans. Organic shapes that resist straight lines and right angles are examples of typical biophilic design elements.
Human survival has always required the processing of all five senses, such as reacting to light, sound, touch and smell. Thus sensory variation in the indoor environment enhances well-being. This could involve tactile fabrics with texture or genuine, warm materials such as wood or veneer.
Plants and greenery
Plants and greenery are fundamental to human existence as a source of food, fibres, animal feed, and other aspects of nutrition and safety. Adding plants and greenery to the built environment promotes happiness, satisfaction, well-being and performance.
“Bringing nature indoors is also about the materials you use in the interior design. Veneer, for example, is a natural and tactile material that feels warm and soft to the touch. We simply like to touch it and feel good doing it.”
5 ways to bring plants and greenery into the workplace!
Bringing greenery into the workplace is about more than putting plants on windowsills. Space is a precious resource that needs to be used effectively, and clever solutions are required to make the interior design sustainable from an economic perspective. Interior design that integrates plants and natural elements into other functions, such as walls, dividers and storage units, are just a few examples of how biophilic design is used in modern working environments.
• Think beyond pot plants on a windowsill or shelf. Plants can be used in larger room dividers, suspended from the ceiling or as plant walls.
• Use plant storage units to divide an open space, mark a zone or create a nice room-in-room.
• Create green oases or atriums for relaxation or creative collaborations by grouping plants at different heights to mimic a natural landscape.
• Place plants where better acoustics are needed. The foliage diffuses the sound waves and reflects them in different directions, which reduces the noise.
• Don't forget the meeting rooms! Plants in meeting rooms encourage good acoustics, and also help to make the room more inviting.
Create a healthy working environment
Planning and furnishing a workplace is fundamentally about working with people. In many ways, we still function in the same way as we did thousands of years ago, when we lived by hunting and farming, and spent much more of our lives outdoors, with natural elements as constant companions. These days, most of us spend the majority of our time indoors with no connectivity to natural elements – something for which we’re neither physically nor mentally suited. Our biological heritage makes us feel and perform better where nature has moved in.
Let Kinnarps help you create a healthy working environment!
D. Browning, William and O. Ryan, Catherine. 2020. Nature Inside: A Biophilic Design Guide. London: RIBA Publishing.
Heerwagen, Judith; Madror, Martin and R. Kellert, Stephen. 2013. Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. Hoboken: Wiley.
Human Spaces. 2015. The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace. Link
Karolinska Institutet. 2022. De ser nyttan med naturen. Link
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2015. Green spaces and cognitive development in primary schoolchildren. Link
H. Matsuoka, Rodney. 2010. Student performance and high school landscapes: Examining the links. Landscape and Urban Planning 97(4): 273-282. Link
S. Ulrich, Roger. 1984. View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery. Science 224(4647): 420-421. Link