Insight | Thinking about Lighting and Biophilic Design. Part 1/2

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Biophilic design aims to support our innate tendency to seek a connection with nature. In lighting design terms this can include contributing to suitable conditions for interior landscaping and internal planting, through to a full ‘human-centric’ lighting approach. This two-part essay explores some of our thinking on this topic, balancing support for the aims of biophilia with environmental responsibility and the benefits of keeping things simple.

Part 1: How Green is Greening?

Including planting in architecture and interiors has been shown to produce positive results in reducing stress levels for occupants. The extensive greening of lobbies, workplaces and other indoor areas can typically earn points for BREEAM, LEED and WELL building certifications, even when the energy required to sustain these interventions can often be significant. This is particularly true where additional artificial lighting is needed to keep plants healthy - most often when there is limited access to daylight.

The great 'atria' schemes of the 1970s and 1980s, led by Roche and Dinkeloo's Ford Foundation in New York (1967), demonstrated that although extensive indoor planting in well daylit interior spaces is possible, it is almost always technically challenging and often expensive to maintain. In contemporary developments, large areas of open, top-lit 'public' space are rare, so indoor planting schemes can usually only be sustained by artificial means. With justifiable pressure from all sides to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings, it seems counterintuitive to be using so much light energy to keep plants alive indoors. Add in the cost of heat management, ventilation, water, and nutrients and the environmental (and capital) costs become even bigger – and make even less sense.

Increasing planting in urban outdoors spaces - roofs, external terraces, courtyards - is hugely beneficial in terms of the environment and wellbeing. But we can't help but wonder if there is a better way to improve the 'wellness' of deep-plan indoor spaces with limited or no access to natural light.

Asking why it is that people respond so positively to planting may hold some answers. Research suggests that this could be due to biophilic fractals – the patterns commonly found in nature that are created by indefinitely repeating one single shape in different sizes. They provide richness and complexity and have been found to enhance our visual capabilities and reduce stress. Given this, could these fractals be introduced into building and interior design to improve wellbeing in more sustainable ways?

For example, including an artificial green wall in place of a real one, or by integrating specific patterns into the textures and colours of materials, fabric and artworks. Even providing opportunities for people to personalise their space, bringing colour and pattern through their own objects and décor might provide as much of a positive result as a 'living wall', but without the environmental impact.

More research is clearly required, but we know from experience that using techniques such as layering in light accents, using grazing light to reveal textures, and including shadow patterns makes for a more engaging space that people enjoy.