Positive Design - Mimicking Nature

Designing with nature in mind enhances well-being.

Posted Mar 03, 2010

Humans incorporate large windows into structures, even when those large windows complicate heating and air conditioning systems. Real estate advertisements highlight even the most pitiful nature views, because being able to sit on the living room couch and look at anything that's not manmade is something we're willing to pay big bucks for. Not surprisingly, research has shown that looking at nature reduces stress, helps us restock our levels of mental energy, and has all sorts of other positive psychological benefits. Daylight makes a space more psychologically comfortable and physically healthier. Indoor potted plants have similar effects.

More subtle aspects of nature than views, daylight, and being around plants have important influences on our psychological state. We can mimic those other aspects of nature in places where we live and work - with calming, comforting results. Mimicking nature in an interior space increases our pleasure at being in a place and our sense of well-being. Incorporating metaphorical nature into an interior is particularly important when views of nature and daylighting aren't possible.

In nature, things move - clouds drift overhead, snowflakes and leaves fall to earth. In many modern buildings, none of the designed elements ever drifts or moves in any other way - the space is static. Adding movement, by hanging ceiling mounted mobiles, for example, introduces a nature-like element that makes us more comfortable.

Natural places change because things move on earth, but also because the sun moves in the sky. At different times of the day and year, encounters with nature change, resulting in a variety of experiences generally missing from modern built environments. But experience cycles can be present indoors: lighting levels can be sequenced to change in an interior space to support circadian rhythms, for example.

In nature, sensations are also richly layered. From standing height, we experience a meadow in one particular way, but if we sit down, light levels change, as do the visual details observed. Often, this richness and layering of experiences is absent in recently designed spaces.

Imagine yourself in a natural outdoor space. The memory you've conjured up is no doubt intensely multi-sensory. When you're outside in nature, you hear the sound of leaves being ruffled by breezes, animals moving about, and twigs crunching under your feet. Even your sense of touch records a range of experiences as you walk along and the surface under your feet changes from springy moss to hard-packed earth to slippery pine needles. Although technically all of our senses function all of the time, in many interior spaces, particularly in North America, only visual sensations have been anticipated and consciously constructed. Places that are only pretty to look at just aren't really finished - and they aren't as comfortable or desirable a place to be as they could be.

Humans feel comfortable in slightly darker spaces with slightly lower ceilings that look out over places with slightly higher ceilings that are more brightly lit. A canopy bed fits the bill here, as do most window seats. It makes sense that we feel comfortable in these sorts of spaces - they were safe havens millennia ago as we roamed the savannas.

Interior floor plans that are strictly rectilinear are relatively easy to navigate, but so boring that they're alienating. Natural spaces entice us to move forward by conveying a sense of mystery about what's ahead. In interior environments, a curving hallway motivates us to move on, as long as the environment generally feels safe. In an environment where people do not feel secure, that same curved hallway can seem ominous.

Beware of mimicking unpleasant aspects of nature in a space. White noise is used in many workplaces, for example, to make nearby conversations a little less conspicuous. The type of white noise we hear most often is regularly modified in very open workplaces, where conversations are really cacophonous. The ensuing distortions make it sound like a rushing, stormy wind, however, which is stressful to humans. Humans have an aversion to pointy, tooth-like "v" shapes, particularly when they are overhead - use these elements only when you want to set visitors on edge.

Humans are willing to pay premiums for views of nature and cascades of interior daylight; clearly these direct connections to our natural world enhance our lives. Metaphorically mimicking other agreeable aspects of the natural places indoors makes a space feel more pleasant and increases our psychological well-being.