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Oliver Heath on the new approach to eco-design

Urban life and nine-to-five desk jobs are leaving us disconnected from the natural world we evolved in — but by transforming the space around us we can bring the connection back, deepen it and be better off as a result.

PQ speaks to Oliver Heath, eco-designer, writer and TV presenter, about a new approach to design that’s bringing back our love for life.

‘On some level’, says Oliver, ‘we all know the deeper benefits to our health and wellbeing from being in or close to nature; be it a walk in the woods, looking out over rolling hills, sitting next to a roaring log fire or even just the company of pets.’

Biophilia — which quite literally means ‘love of life’ — recognises this primitive attraction to our natural environment, and was popularised by American biologist Edward O Wilson when he started to notice society’s drift away from it.

‘Biophilia refers to our innate attraction to nature and natural processes’, Oliver explains, ‘and concerns our residual genetic inheritance from the hundreds of thousands of years we’ve survived and thrived in the natural world — either as hunter gatherers or as an agrarian society.’

Urban sprawl

Our drift towards urban lifestyles, which really got going after the industrial revolution and has gathered pace ever since, means we’re increasingly cut off from our natural habitat, with many of us spending minimal time outdoors. Our primitive and innate connection to nature has been severed by a lack of exposure to plants and trees, a reduction in the dynamic natural lighting conditions that impact on our circadian rhythms and the rarity of views out onto woods, water and open spaces.

Oliver uses our wider approach to environmental conservation as evidence that, by embracing urbanisation, we’ve unwittingly undervalued nature’s impact on our health and wellbeing. ‘We have decided, to our detriment, that our cities and nature are two quite separate spaces that shouldn’t mix’, he says. ‘One is clean-lined and pristine, one is dirty and dangerous. But let’s be honest — which is which?’

Humans are incredibly adaptable; we’re being cooped up in shrinking spaces — with less and less experience of our natural home — and we’re still managing to survive. But this way of living, in an ‘always on’ society that bombards us with information to which we’re constantly required to respond, is far from ideal for our health or wellbeing.

We lose touch with our emotional landscape and find it harder to focus, concentrate, socialise, listen and restore. ‘What is clear is that, as this pattern continues, we’re similarly seeing a rise in stress’, says Oliver. ‘Stress is a known cause of mental health and cardiovascular related illnesses, which the World Health Organisation has noted will be the two key contributors to illness by 2020.’

Re-imagining design

In the design world, biophilia is being used to explore the concepts behind our deep attraction to nature and natural processes. ‘Biophilic design principles can be used to create a physical landscape that connects to our emotional needs’, explains Oliver. ‘We can then create spaces that serve us better, with numerous benefits. It’s as simple as that.’

A biophilic approach can be used to improve everyday products, transform the spaces we interact with and invigorate us as a result. It can provide secure, restorative places to regroup our mental and physical energies in preparation for new tasks ahead, with benefits including improved energy levels and concentration, a sense of calm and greater focus.

These are the emotional and physical needs that apply to most of the spaces we inhabit, from homes and schools to healthcare facilities and offices. ‘As an emerging science and style’, says Oliver, ‘it’s a subject that’s becoming increasingly important to a number of organisations, including Amazon, Google and Apple. I’m currently working with Interface, a visionary carpet manufacturer and sustainability pioneer, to promote the many benefits that biophilic design can have in the built environment’.

The benefits

Studies in the US have uncovered measurable benefits in a number of different types of building where biophilic principles have been applied.

Hospitals incorporating biophilic design principles have demonstrated improved rates of post-operative recovery — with less pain, 8.5% shorter stays and 22% less medication for their patients.

There are benefits for everyone, from the patients and doctors to the visitors, and staff are able to enjoy greater focus.‘I love the playful and natural qualities designed into the Crown Sky garden at the Chicago Children’s Hospital’, says Oliver, ‘and the way St Mary’s School in Oxfordshire, by Jessop and Cook Architects, allows natural light to flood in, with views out onto nature and plenty of natural materials inside.’

Schools have demonstrated that children learn 20-25% faster when natural light is present.

Offices can use biophilic design principles to improve levels of productivity and creativity, while also reducing absenteeism and ‘presenteeism’, where employees are at work but not focused on the tasks in front of them. ‘When you consider that staff costs represent 90% of many business expenses’, says Oliver, ‘then improving staff health and wellbeing can clearly create large improvements in profit for relatively small outlays.’

The biophilic home

For Oliver, there are four key biophilic principles that can be applied to the spaces we inhabit, from homes and offices to schools and healthcare spaces, that allow us to perform better.

The first is natural light, which helps govern our circadian rhythms. ‘Maximising natural light is essential to our health and wellbeing’, says Oliver, ‘whether it’s through windows, roof lights or glass doors.’ The second is a view out onto nature, which Oliver explains ‘can improve focus and create a greater sense of calm’.

You don’t need a national park on your doorstep; a garden, green roof space or terrace would do fine. Natural materials are also a must; studies have shown that natural materials, patterns, products and textures have a calming and restorative quality, with a surprising number of additional positive side-effects.

‘Lastly’, says Oliver, ‘you need to have a safe space to retreat back to. We all need somewhere to sit and restore energy and focus after a period of activity. This could be a quiet space in an office or a favourite armchair next to a roaring log fire.’

On top of the immediate and tangible benefits to productivity and creativity, Oliver explains that biophilia is also about ‘understanding that our wellbeing — both psychological and physiological — is intricately connected to that of the environment we have emerged from.’

Once we understand this, we can measure the many tangible benefits in a range of spaces, such as hospitals, schools and healthcare facilities, and start to put a financial value on them. ‘Sadly’, Oliver concedes, ‘it seems that only by placing a monetary value on nature, and linking it to our health and wellbeing, can we really impress on our society the value of preserving the environment on a wider scale.’
For more information on Oliver Heath’s eco-design, interiors and architecture, visit

Oliver’s top 5

There are plenty of ways to bring ‘biophilic’ benefits to your home. Here are Oliver’s top suggestions.

  • Encourage a connection with dynamic forms of natural light. Make sure your curtains don’t block light. Incorporate roof lights or sun-tubes into spaces and fit glass into doors — especially those that connect to exterior spaces.
  • Make visual features that will lead the eye to exterior spaces and fill them with nature — be it plants, water features or elements that will attract birds and other wildlife.
  • Incorporate green leafy plants into interior spaces. Many, such as ferns, spider plants and moth orchids, will even remove toxins.
  • Use natural materials, products and textures, such as timber wall panels or even floor surfaces with natural qualities.
  • Create safe, warm, cosy spaces for relaxing and restoring your energy. Think spaces with big armchairs, blankets and fleeces, a wood-burning stove, side tables with soft low-level lighting and gentle, calming smells, like lavender.

For more information on Oliver Heath’s eco-design, interiors and architecture, visit

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