Nature-connected design is the key to making offices less stressful, hospital stays shorter and children better learners, according to a new report released today (Tuesday) by Planet Ark.

It points out the benefits of using timbers and biophilic design to attract higher rents and building values due to improvements in indoor environmental quality, and bottom-line business benefits due to the mitigation of stress and the resultant impact on employee productivity.

Nature-connected design using timber is also central to reducing the embodied emissions of the built environment, Planet Ark Make It Wood campaign manager David Rowlinson told The Fifth Estate.

Launched to coincide with World Wood Day, Wood–Nature Inspired Design is an update on the landmark 2015 Planet Ark report, Wood – Housing, Health Humanity.

David Rowlinson, Planet Ark

Mr Rowlinson said the new report examined the “why” of wood’s wellbeing benefits when it is used for the fabric and furnishings of buildings.

There are 91 international research references behind the report’s findings.

“It is a significant body of work. It isn’t just some whim,” Mr Rowlinson said.

Research has established benefits including improving levels of interaction for elderly people in aged care homes, managing humidity levels and improving comfort levels in homes and offices, and faster healing times for hospital patients due to reduced stress levels.

One of the studies, from New Zealand, also showed timber in the interior of an office generates more positive feelings about the workplace, and makes it more attractive to potential employees.

If we can’t get outside, bring the outside in

In combination with nature-inspired design, also known as biophilic design, Mr Rowlinson said wood was a way to ameliorate the fact that most Australians spend around 90 per cent of their time indoors.

“It is a way to bring the [positive] effect of spending time in nature indoors.

“All the research shows there is an innate connection humans have to nature and to natural things.

“That’s the definition of biophilia – the love of natural things.”

Scientists have shown that the physiological and psychological health benefits of nature-connected design are measureable.

“We know that workers are less stressed and more productive,” Mr Rowlinson said.

“People are also generally happier and calmer in indoor areas which contain wooden elements.

“Researchers have also reported people experiencing higher levels of self-esteem, improved cognitive function and decreased blood pressure when exposed to wood in their built environment.”

The benefits are especially important where it is not possible to connect people with the outside environment, for example offices where the view is of concrete buildings and roads.

Timber has also proven to be beneficial in hospitals where health and safety rules prevent introducing indoor plants.

Changing focus to embodied energy

Then there’s the environmental dividend.

“Responsibly sourced, certified timber is the only major building material that helps tackle climate change.

“Timber is renewable, it absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, and there are fewer carbon emissions associated with its production when compared to carbon-intensive materials such as concrete or steel.”

Mr Rowlinson said the embodied energy of buildings was also an area that needs to be considered.

“There is an increasing awareness of that,” he said.

“The embodied energy impacts of buildings are huge and growing.”

This is particularly because as buildings become operationally more energy efficient, the embodied energy component of a building’s emissions profile represents a greater proportion of lifecycle emissions.

Timber has a far lower embodied energy than plastics, steel, concrete or aluminium.

The UK Green Building Council recently highlighted the issue of embodied energy.

“Most of the focus has previously been on operational energy efficiency, but now it is shifting to an embodied energy focus.

“Australia is a bit further behind on this.”

Timber is also one of the oldest of the major building materials. The report highlights that it is also a durable one, with examples from Japan and Europe of buildings that are close to 1000 years old.

It is also highly versatile.

Other more contemporary case studies in the report include Library at the Dock, the Melbourne School of Design and Dandenong Mental Health Facility.

A renaissance

The increasing number of major projects using timber is a “significant trend”, Mr Rowlinson said.

“There is a renaissance in the use of timber.”

A factor in this trend is the new engineered timbers including laminated veneer lumber, glulam and cross laminated timber.

Library at the Dock and International House at Barangaroo, for example, highlight the potential of these mass timbers as materials.

“There are a growing number of architects I am speaking with that love the look and smell and appearance of timber,” Mr Rowlinson said.

“There has been significant growth in larger, high profile projects.”

Another driver is the increasing emphasis on occupant wellbeing evidenced by recent evolutions of the Green Building Council of Australia’s tools and the emergence of the WELL Building Standard.

“There is an increasing move to not just make buildings operationally efficient in terms of energy, but also in terms of being efficient for people.”

An example in the report is the new WWF headquarters in Sydney. The 5 Star Green Star Interior workspace used biophilic design and materials to “make sure it provides the best possible option” for people working there, Mr Rowlinson said.

In terms of further research into the benefits of wood and nature-connected design, more needs to be more done in Australia.

A positive sign is the new biophilic civil engineering school at Griffith University, headed up by Dr Cheryl Desha.

“I hope to see more of that,” Mr Rowlinson said.

The whole topic is one the federal government should ideally be paying attention to.

“If, for example, post-operative recovery times decrease because of the use of wood or views of nature, a major cost to the taxpayer could be reduced,” Mr Rowlinson said.

Wood in the aged care setting, by increasing the amount of social interaction and self-expression, can reduce the risk of dementia, a condition that costs the public purse over $5 billion annually.

“The federal government could be saying these are concepts that should be promoted.

“A national wood encouragement policy would be great.”

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