House Design and Wellbeing

By John Burns

DISTRICT DIRECTOR: Brendan O’Sullivan / EDITOR: willie warren

The recent lockdown required to protect us all from the Covid-19 virus gave us a renewed appreciation of the importance of nature in our lives. In lockdown, many gained a new awareness of the simple pleasures that nature offers; the slower pace and the almost total absence of cars meant we could again hear the sweet song of the birds, gather afresh to hear the dawn chorus and seek out the soothing sounds of flowing water.

We have truly learned, as never before, that we are children of nature.  We are also becoming increasingly aware of species extinction and the degradation of our natural environment; the once familiar call of the corncrake possibly never to be heard again. 

View of Nature shows a pathway enclosed by tall narrow trees
“through this long evolutionary journey, we humans have developed a close affinity with nature.”

Over the past 40,000 years, the human body and brain have been conditioned and shaped in an outdoor environment. We have evolved from a nomadic existence to becoming cultivators of the soil and, through this long evolutionary journey, we humans have developed a close affinity with nature.

Such adaptation to our environment, resulting from our close association with nature and with natural patterns, has become biologically encoded in our bodies and brains.

However, in the past 100 years or so lifestyles have really changed – mainly through urbanisation. Nowadays, in the developed world the majority of us spend over 90% of our lives indoors, often staring at a computer screen for up to eight hours a day.

Our inherent tendency to react and respond to nature is called biophilia, from bio, meaning “life,” and philia, meaning “love of”.  Biophilic research, often undertaken by psychologists, takes a systematic and deliberate approach to measuring and quantifying the effects that contact with nature has on our physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Brick Wall with shadow of person framed in the center
Roger Ulrichs Brick wall experiment

Many researchers are now investigating how nature impacts our daily lives, and learning from this research has influenced how best to design our homes to enhance our health and wellbeing.  In an experiment by the American psychologist, Roger Ulrich, in 1984, he undertook a study of patients recovering from gallbladder surgery. Some patients were assigned hospital rooms that had a view of a brick wall, while others were assigned rooms that overlooked a grove of trees. The patients who were assigned rooms with a view of the brick wall had slower recovery times, required stronger painkillers and expressed greater dissatisfaction with their care. By contrast, patients with a view of nature had shorter hospital stays, fewer post-operation complications and required less potent painkillers.

An owl sat in a tree
The Owl in its home

Many architects and designers now seek to design buildings that are not only robust and warm, but that also enhance our health and wellbeing. The work of two Irish architects, Louise Sliney and Lester Naughton is used here to highlight some of the design insights gained from biophilic research.

These characteristics include:

  • Prospect and Refuge
  • Dynamic & Diffuse Light

Prospect and Refuge

Refuge
Refuge

Prospect focuses on the perception of long distances to the front or views from a building, while Refuge refers to enclosed spaces that provide protection and security.  When we lived in caves, we sought out secure locations for shelter and sleep, while also being able to keep a watch out for possible predators. This information is encoded in our genes and we intuitively seek the same in our homes.We refer to certain rooms as being cosy and secure, while at the same time seeking other rooms with a view to the outdoors. A space with good Prospect facilitates close contact with and views of nature and feels open and freeing. Many houses and extensions are now designed to bring the outside inside.  This is often achieved by extending windows and doors to floor level to afford the occupants immediate contact with the natural world. Closeness to nature has been shown to significantly improve our mental health and wellbeing.

In Louise Sliney’s refurbishment of a traditional cottage, full advantage is taken of the beauty of the surroundings. The careful positioning of windows and glazed doors allows the occupants expansive views -Prospect – of nature as shown.  The sliding doors facilitate direct contact with nature. The existing stone walling has also been maintained, thus enhancing the feeling of proximity to the natural world in all its splendour.

Dynamic & Diffuse Light

Studies in biophilia show that we are naturally drawn to sunlight. The experience of natural light affects how people respond psychologically, and how we relate to changing patterns of day and night and to shifts in the seasons.

Bringing the outside in
Bringing the outside in

Access to daylight affects our circadian system – our natural day and night cycles. Sunlight changes colour from yellow in the morning to blue at midday and to red in the afternoon/evening; the human body responds to this daylight colour transition, from dynamic activity in the morning to restful activities in the late evening. The response is apparent in body temperature, heart rate, and circadian functioning.  Being more aware of the importance of daylight for our health and wellbeing, many designers position the main living areas to capture daylight and sunlight. The work of Lester Naughton shows how daylight can be brought into the centre of the house through, for example, the use of roof-light windows and bright colours, bathing the occupants in natural light and thus enhancing their health and wellbeing.

Natural light in the Kitchen
Natural light in the Kitchen

Biophilic design is, therefore, an invitation to befriend nature and the natural world and in doing so to befriend and mend our own minds and hearts. Biophilic design also has the potential to transform our ethical relationship with nature and to encourage us to tend and respect our natural environment.

Acknowledgements:

Permission to use photographs granted by Louise Sliney Architects, and by Lester Naughton Architects, with photography by Gerard Conneely.

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