There is a growing body of evidence supporting the idea that biophilic architectural design can have a significant positive impact upon the wellbeing of a building’s occupants, their productivity and their creativity. Specifically, within an educational setting, students in a biophilic classroom display enhanced physical, mental and emotional health; improved cognitive function and better educational outcomes, However, before we describe why this is the case, it is perhaps best to begin with an explanation of biophilia.
The term was popularised by the American psychologist, Edward O Wilson, in the 1980s who observed that increasing urbanisation was causing a disconnection with the natural world. Biophilia broadly describes the deep-rooted need for humans to connect and affiliate with nature. In contrast, a growing disconnection is having a detrimental impact on overall health and mental wellbeing, particularly among children.
NATURE DEFICIT DISORDER
In 2005, Richard Louv coined the phrase ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ to describe the negative impact upon the physical and mental health of the modern child growing up in the cocoon of contemporary, sterile buildings, increasingly rivetted to screens and devices. There can be little doubt that the pandemic has further exacerbated the mental ill health of many young people, with an alarming 2/3 of 13-25 year olds now believing that the pandemic will have long-term negative effects on their mental health. Lockdown has shown how important technology can be in education, but it is now imperative to compensate for increased screen time and address the nature deficit.
REDRESSING THE DEFICIT
To this end, the basic principle of biophilic architectural design is to incorporate natural elements into a building, at every available opportunity, offering its occupants the ability to effortlessly connect with nature. This is achieved through the use of natural materials and textures; the maximisation of interior levels of natural light and fresh air and the facilitation of access to the natural world outside.
Unfortunately, many modern buildings lack adequate natural light and ventilation; use sterile artificial materials and shapes; and fail to provide views of vegetation and the natural world. Research suggests that these environmentally impoverished spaces result in fatigue and impaired performance and productivity.
BIOPHILIC DESIGN PRINCIPLES
Stephen Kellert, a pioneer of biophilic design, has created a framework of principles to improve connections with nature. These focus on direct experiences with light, air, water, weather and natural landscapes and eco-systems. However, even indirect experiences can improve wellbeing, including images of nature, the introduction of natural materials, shapes, colours and textures and the simulation of natural light.
Embedding nature and adding natural sensory elements into learning environments can encourage students’ curiosity and imagination; reduce stress and fatigue; and enhance cognitive functionality. Furthermore, classrooms that incorporate biophilic design principles result in improved attendance, behaviour and focus and better educational outcomes. A 2015 study found that optimising exposure to natural light increased attendance by 3.5 days per year; the speed of learning by 20-26%; and test scores by 5-14%. Likewise, the introduction of plants into classrooms results in fewer sick days and punishment records.
NEW BUILDS AND OLD TRANSFORMATIONS
When considering new builds, it is important to choose a provider who is able to collaborate with you at the early design phase in order to maximise the biophilic potential. A specialist eco-classroom provider such as TG Escapes will ensure maximum physical access to the outdoors (sights, sounds and scents) to improve discipline, creativity and risk taking. They can incorporate adaptable ventilation to reduce the levels of CO2 and other pollutants, keep air fresh and optimise thermal comfort. Perhaps most importantly, they will optimise interior levels of natural light by using floor to ceiling glass windows and doors, sunpipes and smart lighting systems to encourage serotonin production and reduce myopia.
However, existing buildings can be vastly improved by the introduction of biophilic elements to boost exposure to nature. These may include the introduction of plants, perhaps supported by natural mimicking techniques such as green space wallpaper and murals, grass-like floor coverings and timber wall and ceiling panelling.
Old or new, it is important that classrooms are designed to seamlessly blend the work and pleasure of learning with the life enhancing effects of the natural world. The three most critical design elements upon which to focus are exposure to natural light, enhanced views of nature and improved physical access to the outdoors. These will serve to improve children’s health, happiness and engagement and enhance their ability to learn.
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