According to a growing swathe of research, timber used as a material for interiors and furnishings can enhance human wellbeing and contribute to improved indoor environment quality, from maintaining a sense of warmth in winter to absorbing moisture and enhancing our ability to think.
Wood works on multiple levels, director of the Centre for Sustainable Architecture With Wood at the University of Tasmania Greg Nolan says. He points to research at Aalto University in Finland that shows, for instance, that in public buildings such as medical centres and child care facilities, timber leads to increased perceptions of wellbeing and feelings of comfort.
Other positive qualities of wood include temperature control.
Nolan says: “A lot of our feelings of heat and cold come from radiant surfaces. Concrete for example in cold weather feels like it sucks the heat out of you.
“Timber doesn’t have that radiant quality, it is an insulator, and stays relatively warm in cold weather, which makes a building feel warmer.”
It also stays relatively cool in hot weather, and does not conduct or reflect extremes of temperature the same way steel or masonry does.
In Europe the growing adoption of the PassiveHaus standard has also led to more research to ensure well-sealed buildings do not have issues with mould and moisture.
The findings indicate timber has hygroscopic properties. This means exposed wood will literally absorb humidity when the level of moisture in the air is high, and release it when the air is dry. This helps moderate the indoor climate.
Better to think with
These two aspects also mean timber might help people think more clearly. As the CogFX Buildingomics study recently showed, better thermal comfort and improved humidity levels in an office building increases the cognitive performance of people in them.
Sound becomes energy and heat
Another quality of wood that improves indoor environment quality is its acoustic properties. The cellular structure means it does not reflect and transmit sound in the same way as steel or masonry, instead some of the sound is converted to energy and heat within the wood.
People will feel implicitly more comfortable in areas of buildings where the surfaces are timber, Nolan says.
Health benefits could be far reaching
Since Planet Ark released its Wood – Housing, Health, Humanity report in early 2015, there has been a growing acceptance of the wellbeing benefits of timber in buildings, according to Planet Ark head of campaigns, Brad Gray.
The report, still believed to be the most comprehensive Australian-produced research on the subject, quickly gained traction with a range of industry leaders. Lendlease for instance, is understood to have referenced the report to promote the benefits of its all timber International House commercial office project in Sydney.
The development will include exposed wood, something Gray says is important for its positive effects.
“People need to be able to see it.”
The texture, colour and way timber responds to light are all biophilic qualities that humans respond to, he says.
Studies in Japan and northern Europe have also shown that exposed timber can reduce stress levels, lower blood pressure and reduce heart rates.
“Wood is seen as natural, so it has the same impact on people as plants.”
Gray says the findings of the report, which will be updated by early next year, were similar to those of the organisation’s recently released research report, Adding trees: a prescription for health happiness and fulfilment.
Canadian research has also made the case for wood’s benefits for psychological health. Sally Augustin, principal of Design With Science and David Fell, research leader for FP Innovations, say in their 2015 paper, Wood as a Restorative Material in Healthcare Environments, that wood can produce similar biophilic benefits in healthcare settings, such as those produced by views of nature, natural light, plants, and images of natural landscapes and plants.
The authors concluded that evidence-based studies showed wood induced a biophilic stress-reduction response, which led to better health outcomes for patients and improved worker wellbeing.
Gray says it was clear from discussions at the recent Timber Design Awards, that architects are increasingly interested in the health and wellbeing angle.
Government in Australia is becoming supportive
Locally, various government agencies are paying attention. The Tasmanian government uses the Planet Ark report as part of the evidence base for its Wood Encouragement Policy, expected to come into effect in the near future.
Latrobe and Kyogle councils have both passed Wood Encouragement Policies and are citing the health benefits of timber in buildings in addition to the economic case for using timber to support the local timber industry.
Western Australia is also showing interest, again considering the health aspects as well as the carbon sequestration benefits and the local industry benefits.
“People are really interested in it,” Gray says.
Older people do well with wood products
In Australia, HammondCare has been using wood to improve the wellbeing of residents in its new dementia care facilities, in particular in handrails, doors, window frames, furnishings and outdoor seating.
The case for this was on the basis of evidence-based design principles developed by the Dementia Centre, a research centre the organisation founded.
It has found that people with dementia experience improved wellbeing in environments that are warm, familiar and home-like, and wood is a material that has these qualities.
Studies in Japan have shown that when wood is used in the aged care setting, residents are more likely to socialise and their mood is generally more positive, (just as studies in Northern Europe have shown children learn better when there is exposed timber is used).
Nolan says that while Australia hasn’t had a strong architectural tradition of looking at timber buildings as “credible structures” such as in Japan and Europe, architects learn from what they have seen and from precedent.
Locking up carbon is also a key way to mitigate climate change and its associated health impacts – making using wood something that’s good for everyone’s wellbeing.