It is frequently observed that we have become an indoor species, spending more than 90 percent of our time inside our homes and offices. When we are not in these spaces, we are often traveling in cars on our way to or from these spaces. Relatively little of our day is actually spent outside enjoying such things as sunlight, wind, weather, and birds, among the other earthly delights around us. Our “interior worlds” are worthy, then, of much more concerted and careful attention to their biophilic qualities and dimensions. We must do better at finding ways to connect with outside nature, to be sure, but it is equally true that we need more attention to the many creative ways that interior spaces can be more natureful and biophilic.
Some of the ways are quite obvious, of course, and we have many good examples of full-spectrum natural daylight into homes, schools, offices, as well as many new off-the-shelf planting structures that make bringing living nature inside more feasible. There are both large and small examples. Larger examples include the spectacular four storey green wall in the interior of the University of Guelph-Humber building in Toronto (shown below). It makes for an impressive natureful interior, with small seating areas jutting out above the wall.
There are now many smaller green walls, some off the shelf kits, of various sizes.
And we have new ideas and ways of designing the edges of interior spaces to draw us outside, physically and visually. The new office and retail project 300 Lafayette Street, designed by Cook+Fox architects, is one positive model, where lush terraces, planted with plants native to Manhattan, will interweave with the interior spaces of this seven-story structure. These lush terraces will provide a natural connection for workers inside, but will also add to the greenery of the surrounding urban neighborhood.
Windows that are operable, and that expose us to urban nature views, will do much to ensure biophilic qualities of interior space, mindful that they seek to minimize bird collisions (increasingly possible with new glass products such as Ornilux glass, designed with an infrared etching that mimics a spider’s web and that can be seen by birds). Sound is increasingly something that can be creatively brought into interior spaces. The Center for Sustainable Landscapes, at the Phipps Conservancy in Pittsburgh, boasts an innovative sound installation by acoustic artist Abby Aresty. Made up of sound recordings from around Pittsburgh, the installation delivers sounds, from rain to birdsong, to the interior spaces of the Center, through a network of small transducers (converting windows to speakers).
One goal of interior biophilic design might be to foster emotional connections to outside nature. We know we appreciate furnishings and materials that connect us to place and tell important stories. The use of Texas Red Sandstone in the Dell Children’s hospital in Austin Texas, for instance, is a nod and an emotional connection to the Texas geology and landscape. Kroon Hall, the new home of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, incorporates a number of biophilic features, but its use of wood throughout the interior is key. Much of the interior red has been actually been sustainably harvested from the Yale-Meyers forest (one of seven forests owned and managed by the School).
Water is another potentially powerful indoor design element. From courtyard with fountains to water walls, the sight and sounds of water can transform living and work environments. A number of companies now offer water walls, of various sizes, and there are also now a number of “tabletop waterfalls,” very small water features that can sit on a desk or kitchen table. Making one of these can also be a DIY project.
We are apt to fill our homes and offices with furnishings of various kinds, of course, and here lies another opportunity to bring nature inside. Indeed in the US alone we spend more than $300 billion a year in furniture and home furnishings. The possibilities here are virtually without limit. There are now, for instance, many tree-shaped and nature-shaped wall decorations, that although not living nature per se, are certainly biophilic. Examples include Birch Tree Wallpaper, sold by Lucas with patterns such as swallow wall stickers and of ceiling stars. Interface Carpets, a sustainability pioneer, now offers a new line of carpets, called Urban Retreat™ intended to mimic nature. As the company’s product page says, “With its natural, neutral color palette, Urban Retreat evokes the quiet and sanctuary of an old-growth forest floor, down to the occasional moss or lichen-covered stone, as well as the cool splendor of glass and steel.” The tile is beautiful indeed, and uniquely reminds of the real nature not far away.
Home or office furnishings as ubiquitous as lampshades can reference nature. I recently discovered at a restaurant the impressive Leaf Lampshades made by the Philippine company Eangee. These shades are made from actual cocoa and banyan leaves, stitched together and laminated. A fairtrade product, the illuminated leaves of these biophilic lampshades produces a soft and pleasant interior lighting.
Furniture can be biophilic in many ways, of course, and offers another opportunity to cultivate our interior natures, There has been at least one academic paper written about so-called Furniture Design With Living Organisms (FDLO) . Think tables with designed spaces for plants to grow in them and from them. That we have a new acronym to use is helpful, though perhaps not one that rolls off the tongue.
We should choose objects and furnishings with meaningful stories, connections, relationships with real nature. And the provenance of the many things we fill our homes and buildings with is important also and another dimension to interior nature. Avoiding the purchase of a dining room table made from a tropical hardwood, in favor a local wood, preferably sustainably harvested, designed and constructed by a local craft person, is a biophilic act and choice. n this case a table might be beautiful, made from a biophilic material, and also embody a biophilic commitment to nature that is more global and remote perhaps but no less important.
Nature-themed art is now commonly found in many hospitals and offices, and can both help to elicit positive feelings and jog memories of earlier nature experiences. I have framed photos of Half dome, in Yosemite, for instance, and Monument Valley, Utah. These forms of interior nature are beneficial in themselves and enjoyable to look at, but also embody important memories and mental connections that can be activated with the slightest gaze or pondering. While not every time I look at these photos, but quite often, they have the effect of taking me back to the time and place, and sensations and family connections that I associate with those memories.
These are just a few of the many ways that interior spaces can be filled with living nature and nature-inspired furnishings and objects. A single object, such as an Eangee Lamp, can itself deliver considerable biophilic benefit, but even more potent are the ways that different design elements and interior products, from vertical planters to creative use of mirrors and water, might make help us remain mindful of the abundant nature that lies just beyond and outside.
One of the most challenging aspects is finding ways of designing interior spaces that actually help to propel us out outside. It’s not clear how this might happen, and perhaps an area we need to focus some creative design energy. Some form of clock-like wall device that reminds us that we have not taken a walk today, or that we have spent more than say three hours inside, would be helpful indeed. Our iPhone apps can do this of course, but we may need more visually compelling information. The framed urban trail map that offers us inspiration for where next to run or hike or bike might to be a good start, and might serve as a subtle commitment device to remind us of our intentions to go outside. Outside Lies Magic, indeed, (to invoke the terrific title of John Stilgoe’s excellent book), but there is no reason why our interior lives can’t be as magical in their own ways, and as biophilically rich and beneficial. We should seize the opportunity to reimagine our interior spaces, in ways commensurate with (unfortunately) the relative proportion of our day that we spend encased in them.