Back in March, when most office workers were working from home, we wrote about how to set up a biophilic home office. This  explained how the benefits of working in a biophilic environment could improve wellbeing and make working at home as effective and as comfortable as possible.  This new article expands on that by looking at how we can use interior design, along biophilic principles, to enhance wellbeing throughout the whole home.

What do we mean by wellbeing?

Wellbeing has been described as a sense of contentment which is made up of mental health, physical health and a feeling that where you are, at any time, is a good place to be.  It probably consists of two main components: satisfaction with life and comfort (both physical and mental). Our wellbeing is not only affected by a healthy physical environment, but also our personal health and our relationships with others.

Workplace wellbeing is a developing discipline and encompasses interior design along with corporate culture and management styles.  There are now many ways of measuring wellbeing in the workplace (some better than others, it has to be said), so it is possible to generate evidence about the effectiveness of any changes that are made.

The home, however, is rather different.  How can we tell whether our living arrangements affect our wellbeing and what can we do in our homes to really improve our wellbeing?

The biophilic home

Biophilic design is a way of designing spaces that brings the theory of biophilia into the built environment.  

Biophilia is a theory rooted in evolutionary biology and genetics, and was first popularised by Edward O. Wilson in his classic book, Biophilia, published in 1984.  Essentially, the theory reminds us that we are animals that have spent over 99% of our evolutionary history living in environments, such as the open plains of Africa.  Such environments are characterized by having scattered and clustered vegetation, wide open skies, ample water and undulating landscapes that allow views from positions of height into the far distance.  

Biophilia: an important and influential book

Biophilia: an important and influential book

During that time, our survival as a species depended on our senses being fine-tuned to that environment, where we relied on the species and materials that we found there for food, shelter and fuel.

an Apache Wickiup - a semi-permanent dwelling

Image: an Apache Wickiup - a semi-permanent dwelling

It is only a few short centuries – only a few hundred generations – since we ceased being hunter-gatherers and nomadic pastoralists, and domesticated ourselves to live in artificial environments, such as houses in cities. We divorced ourselves from our natural environment and the sensory stimuli that we need to thrive, and this separation from natural stimuli has increased dramatically since the industrial revolution of the late 18th Century.

For the domesticated human animal, we need to create our enclosures (our homes) to be as stimulating and stress free as possible.  We can do that by recreating natural stimuli in buildings - physical and mental - and that includes bringing some natural, or naturalistic, elements into our buildings.  This is what is meant by biophilic design.

Biophilic design is a way of creating environments that rebuild some of those sensory and biological connections, which reduce stress and increase wellbeing and happiness.  As animals, we are as prone to being stressed in unnatural environments as any other species, which is why enclosures in zoos are designed to be as close to the animal’s natural surroundings as possible (and as safe).

Creating a healthy environment in the home

A healthy environment supports both our physical and our mental wellbeing - the wellbeing of the whole human.  That means taking an holistic approach to interior design: stimulating our senses whilst keeping us from danger.

It is possible to create a safe environment just by having a bare room with easily-cleaned surfaces, functional furniture, sterilized air and water, and bright lights to expose any hidden dangers.  In such an environment, your physical health is protected, but the lack of sensory stimulation will do severe harm to your mental wellbeing.  So as well as using materials that are easy to clean or which exclude danger, we also need to think about how we can also design spaces that improve our mental comfort.

A sensory approach to interior design

The human body is packed to the brim with highly developed sensory organs that help us to navigate our surroundings, alert us to danger and tell us where resources can be found.  Our eyes help us to know which way is up, if something is moving - and how fast and in which direction, how big something is, how far away it is, how ripe a fruit might be and even the time of day.  

Our skin, which is our largest sense organ (although often largely covered), tells us how sharp something is, how hard or soft, how hot or cold, wet or dry, where the wind is coming from, and so on.  Our other sense organs - ears, tongue, nose and our many internal sensors, are similarly sophisticated and multi-dimensional.  By interpreting the signals from all of our sense organs simultaneously, our brain is able to work out almost everything it needs for survival.  

When our senses tell us at the same time that our surroundings are safe, we become relaxed.  If some of those senses are out of tune with the others, however, that could be a sign of danger, or at least the need to be alert.  For example, if you can smell smoke, but can’t immediately tell whether it’s a barbecue or a faulty plug socket, that causes stress - especially if it takes mental effort to resolve the conundrum.

What does that mean for the design of our homes?

If we take a biophilic approach to interior design, it means that we stimulate our senses congruently.  It means taking cues from the natural environment and using them holistically to create an  environment that relieves mental effort and physical discomfort.  It is almost like a musical composition where sensory stimuli, such as light, sound, colour, pattern, smell and texture are used like instruments to create harmonious spaces that will contribute to an overall sense of wellbeing.  It means bringing natural materials into the home (minerals as well as things that are - or were - alive), as well as creating a sense of nature by using light, scents, texture and sound - and even repositioning furniture or mirrors to bring views from the outside further into the home. 

Houseplants: an easy starting point

In this article, I am going to concentrate on how to use houseplants as part of biophilic design for the home. Houseplants are a very obvious, living manifestation of nature in the home and are very easy to use. Adding houseplants to our environment needs no mess or remodelling of the structure of the home.  They are ideal for any living space, from student bedsit to a palace, and you rarely need permission from a landlord to have them.

The physical beauty of indoor plants stimulates our visual senses and our touch with their varied shapes, sizes, colours, patterns and textures.  Not only that, but they can be used to define space and create a sense of flow through a building, and they are good at hiding ugly features too.

Houseplants also bring out our nurturing instincts too.  Caring for plants is good for our wellbeing in many ways, and simple tasks such as watering, pruning and even cleaning the leaves can be a useful focus of our attention when we need a welcome distraction from other concerns and pressures.

Which plants are best for wellbeing?

Sometimes, we are asked ‘which plants are best for wellbeing?’  There is no answer to that - all houseplants are good (and we have a huge range to choose from).  Your choice should be determined by how much space you have, the light and temperature in your home and, most importantly, whether you like the look of it.  

If you choose a plant because of a function that it might perform (maybe having been influenced by exaggerated claims of air purification or miraculous sleep-inducing properties), then there is a risk that your plants become a tool whose care and maintenance you might soon come to resent.  

Your wellbeing will be better enhanced by having a plant that you want and enjoy, not just because it might be able to do other things as well.

How many plants

The best of the best gangThe new gang

There is something to be said about quantity.  Our ancestors lived in environments where vegetation was plentiful, often with a variety of shapes and sizes and scattered among the landscape.  Whilst a single large specimen plant can make a statement, a varied collection of smaller plants might be just what is needed to create a more naturalistic look. (We have some carefully curated collections 

of houseplants that can help you achieve that quite quickly).

Colour and pattern

Did you know that the human eye can distinguish between approximately 350 different shades of green?  Take a look at plants in nature, or in the garden or home, and see how varied the colour green is.

Look even more closely, and see how many different shades and patterns of green can be found on just one leaf.

And it’s not just green.

Many plants have patterns of different colours on their foliage.  This is called variegation. Sometimes, variegation is a result of a natural mutation that catches the eye of a plant breeder at a nursery, but usually it is an adaptation to the natural environment for camouflage or to aid pollination.

Arrowhead vine

Some variegated species need a little more light than their naturally all-green counterparts, but most species are surprisingly well adapted to low light levels, especially plants that have their natural origins on the rainforest floor, such as members of the Maranta family, such as this peacock plant - Calathea veitchiana "Medallion".

Calathea medallion

Texture

Foliage comes in a vast variety of textures.  From hard and shiny to soft and feathery - and everything in between.  Unless a plant is very spiny or has sharp edges, touching and feeling the foliage of plants can be quite sensual.

Ferns, such as the Boston Fern (Nephrolepsis exaltata) have beautifully soft foliage.

Boston fern

Moss is also very tactile, and our preserved moss panels are very soft to the touch and have a range of textures on them.

Texture isn’t just about stimulating our tactile senses, however.  Varied textures also create interesting visual effects: micro shadows cast by the tiny undulations on their surfaces.

Moss Panel

Texture, as well as variety in the shape and size of leaves, can also have an impact on one of our other senses.  The way that sound is reflected around a room can be affected by the careful positioning of plants and this can reduce distracting and annoying noise and help create a more calming mood.

Accessories

There are many other biophilic features that you can bring into your home to complement your plants and increase your comfort.

Mirrors are a good way of bringing views, and light, from the outside in.  They can reflect movement and give an impression of more space.  Carefully positioned mirrors behind plants and create an impression of a greater mass of foliage.

Indoor water features and aquariums are also relaxing, especially if they can provide a random, non-rhythmic sound.

Nature sounds are also available through smart speakers.  Having the sound of rainfall, falling water or birdsong playing quietly in the background is a good way of helping to create a nature-inspired indoor environment.

Amazon echo

Technology is also very useful for making your lighting biophilic as well.

It is worth remembering that artificial lighting in our homes (beyond candles) has only been around for 150 years or so.  Our natural biological rhythms are reset every day by the sun and the gradual changes in the quality of light throughout the day.  However, uniform artificial light throughout the day can disrupt those natural triggers.

Fortunately, the advances of smart home technology has made it possible to make indoor lighting more naturalistic.  It is now possible to use smart bulbs and programmed routines to change the light quality and brightness throughout the day to change the mood and make lighting more comfortable. 

A much more low-technology sensory stimulus comes from fragrance. Scented candles and reed diffusers can scent a room with nature-like fragrances and are very effective at creating a mood.

Image: scented candle

Image: scented candle (Jill burrow, via Pexels)

Windows and views - making use of outdoor nature where possible

No matter how big or small your home is, it will have windows.  Windows are not just to keep the weather out, they are to let light and views in, and give your eyes the opportunity to focus on something in the far distance as well as close up.  With luck, there will be something worth looking at, even if it is just the movement of the clouds in the sky.  In the busiest, most crowded urban areas, there is usually something green to see nearby.

Gardens and public open spaces

In the UK, over 80% of people have access to a private garden (much less in cities and some deprived areas), and there are usually some public open spaces within walking distance of almost everyone’s home.

Gardens are great for wellbeing.  Being in direct contact with the soil and plants has well documented benefits for both physical and mental health.  Growing and tending plants is also hugely rewarding and can also benefit the wider environment too by providing habitats for wildlife and even trapping pollutants.

All of these techniques on their own will have a positive effect, but when used harmoniously together, the impact can be much greater than the sum of the individual effects.

By Kenneth Freeman

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