Nature isn't just a nice to have, it's a need to have in our modern homes and built environments, concurred a panel of experts at a virtual IKEA x Frame talk during Dutch Design Week 2020. Here are their insights.

Today’s realities – rapid urbanization, climate change and COVID-19 among them – are making the need to live alongside plant life more evident than ever. Green living has shot to the top of our societal to-do list as we understand more and more how it can impact the planet’s and our own health. What does this shift mean for the design of our homes? And how can we truly intertwine with nature when so many of earth’s inhabitants live in urban environments? For a Dutch Design Week 2020 talk, we partnered with IKEA to dive into these questions, with experts taking a holistic approach to biophilic design.

For #FrameLive: The Wilderness Inside – presented by IKEA as part of its Virtual Greenhouse project – Frame founder Robert Thiemann spoke with Oliver Heath, founder of the UK-based practice Oliver Heath Design, Nina Sickenga, cofounder of Amsterdam's MOSS (Makers of Sustainable Spaces) and Antonin Yuji Maeno, cofounder of Cutwork, headquartered in Paris. As the panel has realized through their work, truly unlocking the wilderness inside is not just about incorporating plants into the interior, but working together to reshape entire cities for the greener.

Heath shared an image of his home, explaining how he utilizes interior elements, most often from nature itself, that mimic the outdoors. Photo: Courtesy of Oliver Heath

Increased time spent indoors due to COVID-19 gave renewed focus to the negative impact disconnection with the outdoors brings to one's health and wellbeing, explained Sickenga. Photo: Courtesy of MOSS

Living with nature

‘For 99.5% of human evolution, we've existed in very close connection to healthy forms of nature for basic human survival,’ shared Heath. ‘So we’ve had to develop our instincts in order to recognize landscapes that can support us – that can help us to survive, thrive and flourish.’ This, he explained, is in contradiction with the urbanized lifestyles we lead today considering we haven’t changed much evolutionarily. ‘We are, of course, very adaptable: we can live in these noisy, bustling smog-polluted cities, but it doesn't mean that we're actually living our best possible lives. And that's important, partly for the home, but also in the buildings that are so important in our lives, such as our workplaces, hospitality spaces and healthcare and educational facilities.’ Heath raised an example in the savanna theory of happiness, which ‘suggests that when we look out over lush, healthy green spaces, from a point of safety or what we call prospect, then it actually has this incredible ability to reduce heart rates and blood pressure levels, to make us feel more calm, more relaxed, and to help us to recuperate from intense physical or mental periods of activity and stress.’

We can live in these noisy, bustling smog-polluted cities, but it doesn't mean that we're actually living our best possible lives

‘The difficult thing is how we then translate those ideas of lush, healthy, Savanna-like environments into our noisy, bustling geometric cities,’ Heath continued. ‘And in a way, that's where biophilic design steps in.’ There’s two approaches, he explained: the neuroscientific, which suggests we spend time in nature to reduce stress, and the socio-psychological, that says bringing elements of nature into the built environment – by mimicking the ‘colours, materials, textures and patterns’ found there, for example – can ‘enhance our ability to experience space and connect with others in it’.

‘We need to reinvent our cities – to reinvent what it is to live together,' thinks Yuji Maeno. 'And when I say live together, it also means not only between humans, but between humans and other other species, living forms and understandings of nature.’ Photos: Courtesy of Cutwork

Thinking holistically

‘We spend 90% of our time indoors nowadays,’ Sickenga responded, which has myriad impacts on our health and wellbeing. ‘So it's not even only that we lost our connection with nature, we’re not even looking for it anymore. We have to bring back nature into the city. But we also have to start stimulating people to look for nature, because slowly the nature is driven out of the city.’ MOSS has worked with architects and project developers to see how greenery can be incorporated more totally within the city environment. ‘Don't think too small, think big: How can you apply green as much as possible in your indoor or outdoor environment?’'

Yuji Maeno concurred with Sickenga’s emphasis on thinking holistically, explaining we must go beyond ‘just putting greens on our buildings’. ‘We need to reinvent our cities – to reinvent what it is to live together. And when I say live together, it also means not only between humans, but between humans and other other species, living forms and understandings of nature.’

Don't think too small, think big: How can you apply green as much as possible in your indoor or outdoor environment?

‘Studies have shown that the workers with views of nature can perform 10 to 25% better cognitive functioning, improving reductions in absenteeism and education. You know, when we increase natural sunlight, there's an increase in speed of learning. Healthcare and hospitals, research studies have shown that actually, when we increase views on nature, recuperation rates of patients coming out of surgery can be reduced. And yet there is a deficit of research studies about bringing nature into the home. There have been a few to show that when natural elements are brought into communal areas of domestic design, there's a reduction in crime, a reduction in domestic violence and an increase in property value by between 4 and 5%.’ And, as he had pointed out earlier in the talk, ‘an increase in that sense of community’. 'So we really need to think about the power that architecture wields over us and how we can design it to elicit positive human spatial response.’ This solidified a main point verbalized by Heath, Sickenga and Yuji Maeno: nature isn’t just nice to have, it’s need to have.

Factoring in affordability

Sickenga believes that ‘real estate developers and architects can have the biggest impact on the city level’. ‘But of course, as human beings living in the city, we should definitely participate and contribute on a smaller scale. If we really want to make this big impact, buildings should be designed in a way where green is [incorporated]. Of course, greenery is still unfortunately often cut out due to costs. We should look into a way that’s more affordable for everyone.’

At Cutwork, Yuji Maeno and Kelsea Crawford are doing this, aiming to reduce the cost of making cities greener. ‘I personally have great hopes that quite soon we're going to be able to industrialize that kind of system that allows greenery to grow on buildings, from the group from the from the roots of the design, basically. For me to answer very literally the question of what should we do in order to help that happen . . . we should fund a lot of these projects, the research, to form a completely [new] understanding of [contemporary] architecture.’

'In the past, we thought from an ego perspective, and now have to think in an eco perspective – I think that's slowly happening,’ Sickenga said. Diagrams: Courtesy of Effekt Architects

Shifting perspectives

But, for the aforementioned to happen, ‘There needs to be a change of perspective at the personal scale,’ reflected Yuji Maeno. ‘We need to start looking at nature not only as just something that we use, something that we enjoy, or something that we somehow take care of – but something that we are proud of.’ Sickenga continued this thought. ‘In the past, we thought from an ego perspective, and now have to think in an eco perspective – I think that's slowly happening,’ she said. She believes education and sharing the importance of incorporating nature rather than imposing it is essential – ‘it’s about inspiring to show what’s possible’. ‘When I started in 2013 with my company, no one was speaking about a green roof; it was not even a possibility. Nowadays you see [them] in regulations, in Paris, in the Netherlands – there are subsidies, and new buildings have to be [sustainability] certified. It’s important to try, and not be scared to fail.’

We need to start looking at nature not only as just something that we use, something that we enjoy, or something that we somehow take care of – but something that we are proud of

Suffice to say: becoming biodiverse doesn’t have to be overwhelming for the organization or individual. ‘If every inhabitant of the city places one plant outside, can you imagine how many plants there are in Paris, or Amsterdam?’ Heath echoed this opinion: ‘It’s not necessarily about replicating natural wild environments. It is about eliciting that positive emotional response from the experiences that remind us that it is a very personal thing.’ Only then, together, can we accomplish a greener future.

WATCH THE FULL TALK HERE:

Hero image: The Urban Village Project, by Space10 and EFFEKT Architects, is 'a vision for how to design, build and share our future homes, cities and neighbourhoods'. Render: Courtesy of Space10