By Rachel Hur
Imagine that you are in a cubicle located in the middle of the office floor plate. Your office has a glazed front, but you are looking into another open office. You have no real window or view to the outside, so you can't tell if it's raining outside or sunny. If you are lucky, and you do have a window, it's fixed, and you are looking into an office in the neighbouring building that is five metres away.
The fluorescent lighting that you sit under for eight hours has thrown out your body's natural circadian rhythm. The ventilation is alright, but you start to feel droopy at around 3pm because the carbon dioxide levels in your shoebox have risen. It might even feel a bit stuffy, regardless of the door being open or closed. As you don't have an operable window, you have been breathing in recycled air all day. When you get outside and take a breath, you will instantly notice that the air outside is fresh.
Now multiply that by five days a week, 48 weeks a year. Maybe you will get a pot plant in a few weeks.
The Biophilia Hypothesis
Exposure to the natural world is essential for human wellbeing because humans have an innate connection with the natural world (Gills).
It sounds obvious, doesn't it? But how often do we rely on the natural world to recharge and reconnect? We live in a world full of distractions and in a culture that prioritises efficiency, quick change and instant gratification. Is it any wonder that the rates of anxiety and depression are increasing, and our knowledge and awareness of mental health issues and mindfulness are growing to combat this?
We need the natural environment now more than ever. To look beyond the concrete jungle that has become our normal life, and find moments to breathe, destress and recover. Nature has been there all along, patiently waiting for us to stop, take a breath and recharge.
What does this have to do with design and architecture, you might ask?
Biophilic Design – what is it?
Biophilic design philosophy encourages the use of natural systems and processes in design to allow for exposure to nature. Exposure to nature has been found to have positive responses on human psychology and physiology in contribution to improved health and wellbeing (Gills, Soderlund).
It is the integration of the biophilia hypothesis into design. Biophilic design has been further incorporated into environmental psychology theories of Attention Restoration Theory and Stress Recovery Theory. Both theories suggest that there are stressful and non-stressful environments and that non-stressful environments can actively help people recover from stress and fatigue (Gills).
These theories are supported by studies that have found that exposure to nature reduces heart rate variability and pulse rates, decreases blood pressure, lowers cortisol and increases parasympathetic nervous system activity, while lowering sympathetic nervous system activity (Soderlund).
Biophilia is not merely about providing trees and greenery, but consists of different natural layers, which can be divided into direct experience of nature (light, air, weather), indirect experience of nature (natural materials, evoking nature) and the experience of space and place (prospect and refuge, organised complexity).
What do we do with it?
As we specialise in correctional facilities here at Guymer Bailey, we strive to create humane environments that allow for rehabilitation. One of the key ways we do this is using biophilic design.
Let's face it; prisons are known to be "not nice". When we look at the statistics, 44.8% of prisoners released during 2014 – 2015 returned to prison within two years across Australia.
With a design focus on rehabilitation and not punishment, part of this rehabilitation is creating therapeutic spaces and calm environments where people can feel safe and secure. A lot of our decisions in the design process are around biophilic design such as providing access to natural light and fresh air, views to the landscape and use of colour and materials.
Enhancing living quality doesn't have to be complicated or expensive, it just comes down to prioritising and efficient design, and in the case of our secure facilities, the balance with security requirements.
Rivergum Residential Treatment Centre, a project completed almost a year ago in the Grampians Region, is an example of successful biophilic design implementation with views out beyond the perimeter fence to the mountains, natural light in every room for both residents and staff, and either operable windows or natural ventilation units in every room across the site. Timber has also been used internally and externally, and we retained as many existing trees as possible to keep that connection to nature. So far, we have received positive staff feedback about the therapeutic design of the facility and the benefits of being able to open all the office windows.
What can you do with it?
Biophilic design can reduce stress, improve cognitive performance and positively impact emotions and mood. What's more, it can be implemented in all typologies, including residential, education, commercial, health, and as you have seen corrections. We've even started to implement it in our own studios.
Our Brisbane studio has many operable windows, granted Brisbane has much better weather than Melbourne! In Melbourne, we are restricted from major modifications because we're on the fifth floor of a building but have a row of potted peace lilies to help filter the air. We have also recently replaced a fixed window with operable louvres, and even though it's only one, we've already started feeling the difference in the air (and no, it's not just the cold air of winter!). The CO2 levels are lower on that side of the studio as well.
It's not the easiest thing to change in a building already built, but biophilic design is something that we can design into new projects. Hospitals are seeing the benefits of biophilia for patients and have started building in courtyards and windows. Prisons are doing it; schools are doing it. When will you start doing it?
Gillis, K., Gatersleben, B. "A Review of Psychological Literature on Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Biophilic Design"
Soderlund, J., Newman, P. "Improving Mental Health in Prisons Through Biophilic Design"
About the Author
Rachel Hur specialises correctional architecture with a strong focus on rehabilitation and creating therapeutic spaces. This, combined with her passion for sustainability and biophilic design in prisons, makes her a valued member of the Guymer Bailey corrections team. Rachel was the Project Lead on the Rivergum Residential Treatment Centre, which was recently shortlisted in the 2019 Victorian Architecture Awards Sustainability Category.