Following Nature’s Lead When Designing Healing Environments

By Nan Schramm, Medical Construction & Design

At IDO, we strive to incorporate nature-based, biophilic design into all our clients’ healing environments. Nature-based design is proven to improve patient (and staff) overall experiences, but it also has a positive, therapeutic effect on ailing patients. We utilize this theory in more than just healthcare design projects. It transcends into government, life sciences, and higher education sectors too. The September/October 2022 issue of Medical Construction & Design (MCD) magazine features tips on how to do this within the built environment.

Healthcare architects and designers strive to create environments that foster a sense of tranquility and comfort while promoting patient and staff wellness. One of the most successful ways to achieve this goal is by incorporating biophilic, nature-based design.

Coined by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in 1973, and popularized by biologist E.O. Wilson in 1984, biophilia is the concept that humans are innately drawn to nature. Biophilic design, often referred to as nature-based design, is the practice of incorporating elements of nature into the built environment. Embracing the innate connection between humans and the natural world not only improves the patient and staff experience, but has been shown to have a positive, therapeutic effect on patients.

Taking a closer look at specific patient populations, for example, research indicates biophilic design aligns with best practices in designing for individuals with autism and related disorders. This approach was vital to designing the new Glickman Lauder Center of Excellence for Autism and Developmental Disorders at Maine Behavioral Healthcare.

The interior was inspired by a camping theme, with murals and artwork reflecting the local, surrounding environment. Active spaces were organized on the exterior of the building to maximize daylight and views of nature through floor-to-ceiling windows. Adjustable, circadian lighting helps align participants to the rhythms of the day. Acoustic paneling was installed to isolate and dampen sounds that may be distressing for individuals with autism and related disorders.

Adding plants helps create a comforting atmosphere, but that may not be feasible for every project. The Holy Cross Cancer Center (Silver Spring, Maryland) added healing gardens to provide an outdoor space where patients and staff can spend time. To combat traffic noise, the project team added a water feature. The sound of rushing water acts as natural noise abatement and creates a soothing space with abundant plant life.

When incorporating biophilic elements as an integral part of a healthcare project, there are a few key considerations to make. These include:

Establishing visual connections

Establish a visual connection to nature by adding views to the outside, selecting artwork that features images of nature, or adding living plants to common areas. Nonlinear patterns found in nature can be incorporated into flooring and finishes.

Natural finishes such as wood and stone help bring the natural world into the built environment but may not be ideal for healthcare facilities. Selecting finishes that mimic these materials but are also able to withstand harsh cleaning chemicals is a solid alternative.

Adding nonvisual connections

Incorporate nonvisual connections to nature by considering sensory experiences including sound, touch and smell. Acoustical paneling might be added to dampen and isolate distressing sounds. Though not appropriate for all settings, a water feature creates a soothing soundscape and reinforces the connection to nature.

Maximizing daylight

Maximizing daylight is a critical element in both biophilic and sustainable design. This can be achieved through extensive glazing or clerestory windows. Frosted glass or partially opaque window film will diffuse light, add privacy and reduce distractions. In low-light spaces, consider adding adjustable circadian lighting that mimics the rhythm of the day. Increasing natural daylight also helps reduce energy consumption, lowering operating costs and environmental impact.

Nature-based, biophilic design provides designers the opportunity to follow nature’s lead in creating intuitive systems that increase user satisfaction, as well as energy efficiency and sustainability. Humans have long coexisted and found comfort in nature. Employing nature-based design in healthcare projects can increase patient comfort and well-being by invoking a connection to the outdoors.

Nan Schramm, WELL AP, LEED GA, EDAC, is a Fitwel ambassador and associate partner at E4H Environments for Health Architecture.

*To view this publication in its entirety, click here.

If you want more information on how to incorporate biophilic design into your space, drop us a line here. We’d love to hear from you.

Written by Anne Holden