Write-up of the live eco-design talk held on 31 May 2023 at #DesignPopUp Dublin
Our latest sustainability talk was held at #DesignPopUp Dublin at a new venue, The Examination Hall in Trinity College. Biophilia and Sensory Design was a thought-provoking discussion from three leading figures implementing the latest wellness design concepts, including WELL Building Standards, to help people work, live and feel better.
Lisa Smyth Head of Interiors,
Emma Webb Design
Sarah Tilbury Concept Designer,
To headline day one of #DesignPopUp Dublin, we invited three designers to discuss the benefits of biophilia in design across residential, hospitality, and commercial projects.
Opening the talk, Emma Webb, who specialises in wellness-focused spaces at her practice, Emma Webb Interior Design, gave the audience an outline of biophilia design.
Infographic on the benefits of Biophilic Design
“It’s an evidence-based approach that fuses design with natural elements, using daylight, water, air, plants, materials, and sound.” Webb insisted it was by no means a new idea: “It’s in the Bible, and the Egyptians and Romans recognised the importance of clean water and bringing plants inside.” She picked out notable individuals whose thinking would be categorised as biophilic today, including Florence Nightingale, who said, “Don’t build new hospitals, build new homes”, emphasising the importance of a nature-led environment for wellbeing, not a sterile one.
The use of biophilia in homes cannot be overstated, Webb explained. “According to the World Health Organisation, 70% of our health and longevity is determined by our behaviour and physical environment. Up to 90% of our lives are spent at home indoors.” It’s interesting then, Webb went on to say, “that our homes have the most impact on our wellbeing yet it’s the most underrated and under-researched design environment. We rely on commercial and hospitality principles to design homes.”
Digging deeper into the tenets of biophilia, Webb presented the 15 patterns of the concept.
15 Patterns of Biophilic Design
She was keen to address the misconception that it’s just about bringing plants indoors. “It’s about nature in the space, perhaps a breeze that’s unexpected or sound we didn’t anticipate–because that’s what happens in nature.”
If that sounds too abstract, Webb took the opportunity to draw attention to the WELL Building Standard certification, a holistic approach to health in built environments, which includes biophilia within its evidence-based guidelines.
WELL Standard design considerations
To demonstrate the potential, Webb presented a floor plan of a house. First, she pointed out the main “opportunities through the day to move”, which biophilia encourages.
Elements of a supportive Biophilic environment inside the home
“If you put a bike somewhere that’s easy to access, you don’t have to lug it through the house.” It’s a “nudge”, she went on, “to make the right decisions.”
Webb also described the focus on natural light in one of the main rooms. “There are windows on three sides allowing the light to follow the sun; it’s important for circadian rhythms.”
She touched on recent dementia studies, which found the lack of social connection a major risk factor. “We’ve seen changes in the brain from age fifty even though dementia doesn’t kick in until our eighties. So we need to build spaces in homes where family and friends can share group activities.” Research also shows that families who eat together tend to eat more healthily, are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, are more bonded, and are more supported. A great addition to the home was the creation of a kitchen island. “It is very simple, and because it’s the centre of the home, everyone congregates and talks.”
Another central principle of biophilic design, Webb added, was creating a connection to the surroundings, “so what we’re looking out at is similar to what we’re looking in at”. The trouble is, Webb admitted, because most of our buildings are straight, it’s expensive to build natural curves. She advised designers to use surfaces to provide complexity. “Our brains get bored,” Webb emphasised. “We need to stimulate it with texture, shadow, and shape.” The solution in our cash-conscious times? “We can fake it!” she exclaimed. “We don’t have to use real marble – the brain knows it’s fake but it responds, perhaps not as strongly, but it’s more cost-effective.”
Regarding the greenery aspect of biophilic design, Webb explained: “NASA says there should be one plant per metre of space and it’s the first thing people think of when we talk about biophilic design.” Yet there’s so much more to it. Webb showcased a seaside Victorian villa that she renovated.
“I flipped the layout and brought the kitchen upstairs for more natural sunlight. We also went to the beach and took inspiration from pebbles and driftwood for the interiors.” Another small but crucial point was to limit clutter. “A study by UCLA on women living in cluttered spaces showed that their levels of cortisol [the body’s stress hormone] were similar to people with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
“It’s about nature in the space, perhaps a breeze that’s unexpected or sound we didn’t anticipate – because that’s what happens in nature.”
- Emma Webb, Emma Webb Interiors
Next up, Reddy Architecture and Urbanism’s Lisa Smyth, Head of Interiors, used her platform to showcase two notable projects. First Glencar in County Leitrim: a 7,000 sqm, Grade A six-storey office building following biophilic design; followed by the James Joyce Library, a project three times the size which incorporates WELL Building Design principles. Emphasising the growing importance of certification, Smyth confirmed that “100 of the top 500 Fortune-listed companies are WELL accredited”.
Walking the audience through the Glencar development, Smyth talked about the strategies Reddy applied. “We looked at a number of pillars of biophilic designs: light, play-space relations, natural shapes and forms, light and space, and evolved human nature relationships.” The outcomes included a sculptural tribute to the nearby Glencar Waterfall, which dominates the two-storey atrium.
Glencar Development project
“It uses anodised aluminium rods which we twisted into patterns to look like a waterfall.” The exterior of the building also exhibits a nature-led piece of art by Irish visual artist Rachel Joynt. “It’s a bronze sycamore seed in hyper-realistic size, sitting in a water feature that links to the back of the building where there is a sycamore tree.” Smyth cited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House as an inspiration, along with Yeats’ poems, which were included as engravings – a nod to the biophilic aspect of evolved human nature and curiosity.
In the atrium, Smyth presented technical drawings showing how organic forms cast unique shadows on the floor. “There’s no consistent pattern which mimics nature.” Going further, the team sought imperfections in the materials used, such as stones, while applying dark ash, hand-fluted glass, and a naturally pigmented colour scheme to create a space with ecological and human wellness in mind.
Moving on, Smyth presented the huge task of transforming the third floor of the James Joyce Library in line with WELL Building to offer 535 study spaces, including silent study rooms, sensory study spaces, and sit-stand desks.
“First off we looked at the idea of community. We found out people had very different wants and needs according to their studies, from postgraduate to undergraduate.” The team focused on the flexibility of space, particularly around neurodiversity and those sensitive to stimuli. The space features a choice of lights, including waffle lights in the ceiling, desk lights, and controllable lights; self-care areas, sound-absorbing materials, which were used to clad columns in the open plan area, and acoustic matting under the floor. Air quality was also an issue. “We looked at carpet tiles that absorb micro-particles such as pollen hair, dirt, and skin to improve air quality in the space.”
James Joyce Library Design is in line with WELL Building Standards
“100 of the top 500 Fortune-listed companies are WELL accredited.”
- Lisa Smyth, Reddy Architecture
Lastly, Sarah Tilbury took to the stage. A Concept Designer at the modular flooring company Interface, she began by stating they were “huge advocates of biophilic design”. To back this up, she spoke about Interface’s well-being commitment and the white papers it had commissioned on biophilic design, copies of which were shared with the audience.
The main thrust of Tilbury’s talk was to “look at different sensory thresholds: low, medium, and high, and stimuli within that”. She explained the design thinking behind each stage. Low sensory spaces for example, work best with a colour palette of “muted, organic textures”, taking inspiration from natural landscapes like deserts and rainforests. Zoning the floor was another feature, and Tilbury asked designers to consider separating spaces for social and individual time with simple floor sectioning.
A palette for a low sensory space proposed by Interface
Floorplan proposal for a medium sensory threshold
Moving onto medium sensory thresholds, Tilbury presented office projects that featured stronger colours, more background noise, less emphasis on total privacy, and a variety of textures underfoot. “Imagine if you walked through a rainforest or natural space that’s both hard and soft”.
Mood board for a high sensory threshold space
Finally, high sensory was an opportunity to be “more outspoken using modular flooring”. Tilbury left the audience with the thought that all three stages can be incorporated into every design development, and ended with a rallying call for change: “We need to start to design with more flexibility” which will tend to everyone’s well-being.
“We need to start to design with more flexibility”
- Sarah Tilbury, Interface
This event took place on Wednesday 31st May, at 5.30 pm. You can catch up with the video recording on your YouTube channel:
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