Architect Oliver Heath explores the importance of sensory and biophilic design in modern bathroom projects
It is a fact that we are spending more time indoors - 90 per cent of our lives, to be precise. So it stands to reason that the spaces we spend so much of our time in will be having a dramatic impact on how we feel. Furthermore, our 'always on', busy lives require us to be in a constant state of alertness and, while being alert might have been beneficial for our ancestors whose survival relied upon awareness of their natural, multi-sensory surroundings, for us it is more a case of our attention being pulled from one screen to another.
Our indoor, technological ways of living seem to have gone hand-in-hand with increasing levels of stress and both physical and mental illnesses. So we need to look at the built environment as more than just a place that fulfils basic needs of shelter and consider what might be missing. With roughly 85 per cent of the UK living in urban areas, we inevitably have a reduced connection to nature - something that connects us to each other (and our local environment) while helping us to relax and recuperate by stimulating our senses in a way the built environment alone cannot.
A carbon-centred approach to sustainability has been at the forefront of design for many years. However, we are now seeing a rise in more human-centred approaches to sustainable design that consider the health and wellbeing of occupants. Certification through the WELL Building Standard, Fitwel and the Living Building Challenge are helping to give human-centred design a strong presence and propelling it into industry practice alongside more traditional sustainability certification systems, such as BREEAM and LEED.
Many concepts within these new building standards are practical, focusing on aspects such as healthy air and water quality, but there is also consideration of mental wellbeing and how biophilic design can be used.
Biophilia (meaning love of nature) is a term coined by the American psychologist Edward O Wilson in the 1980s that has been turned into three core principles for designing the built environment by Professor Stephen Kellert, the ‘Godfather of Biophilic Design’. Kellert wrote about the positive impact biophilic design can have on the connections between people, place and nature* due to our innate attraction to nature and natural processes. It is based on the idea that we all have a genetic connection to the natural world and that our responses to our environments stem from our evolutionary development and survival.
Terrapin Bright Green has since created its '14 Patterns of Biophilic Design', a more neuroscientific and psychological take on biophilic design, which looks at what goes on in our heads when we connect with nature and considers how to enhance spaces we occupy with:
- Nature in the space Designing in direct contact with nature or natural systems, using items such as plants, light, water and fresh air.
- Natural analogues Design strategies that use references to, or representations of, nature, such as natural materials, colours, textures, patterns and technologies.
- Nature of the space Mimicking the spatial qualities of natural environments to evoke or enhance human responses; to create spaces that are calming and relaxing, but also energising and aspirational.
Biophilic design features can be seen as the aesthetic language of healthy buildings - immediately suggesting that this is a space where life can thrive and flourish - and of course appealing to those seeking ‘Instagrammable’ spaces. Increasingly, we are seeing that good design is more about how spaces make us feel, both mentally and physically, and less about how they look. Biophilic design gives us the opportunity to create wellbeing spaces with universal appeal, as one thing most of us will have in common is positive experiences in nature.
We are beginning to see more and more of these '14 Patterns' being brought into the built environment. For example, bathrooms - often harsh and sterile with poor acoustics due to hard and cold surfaces - can be transformed into softer and more sensory places of refuge and recuperation. There are many opportunities to use biophilic design to maximise the potential of the bathroom to be a nurturing, sensory space: through the use of soft orientation lighting, odour extraction technology, behind-the-wall acoustic measures, textural contrasts in flooring, timber or green walls and planting schemes, among others. We can create spaces that appeal to all the senses and are reminiscent of the inspirational bathrooms we might find on our travels.
As designers, we have an exciting opportunity to create bathroom spaces that offer moments of tranquillity and restoration in otherwise hectic urban environments, drawing on the vast body of evidence about the positive effect of sensory stimuli on wellbeing and our innate desire to connect with nature.
*Kellert, S. R., Heerwagen, J., & Mador, M. (2011). Biophilic Design: the Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. John Wiley & Sons.
Explore this subject further by downloading Geberit’s new white paper, The Science Behind the Sensory Space, featuring a foreword by Oliver Heath, for free.
For more information and technical support, visit: geberit.co.uk/bathrooms