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Embracing nature: The health benefits and importance of biophilic interiors in design and flooring choices

In last year’s Specifier’s Guide to Flooring, Scott Hosie, head of product at Crucial Trading, wrote the following on natural flooring: It’s long been recognised that our relationship with nature has positive impacts on our health and wellbeing. Numerous studies have grappled with the question of exactly why nature is so good for us, and – more importantly – how, in an increasingly urbanised world, we can continue to reap these benefits. Connection with nature dictates how we feel and how we act.

While recent advances in scientific research have enabled us to quantify some of these benefits, the importance of natural connection has been known for centuries. Indigenous communities have always had a ‘biophilic’ respect and love for nature, and practices such as wild swimming and forest bathing are linked to personal healing and health.

What health benefits does nature provide?
It is widely acknowledged that being in nature, and even viewing nature, can positively affect our minds, bodies, feelings, thoughts, and social interactions. It has the power to calm us, connect us, and make us resilient. And so, we seek it out, chasing a relationship that is becoming increasingly rare as green spaces deplete in cities. Viewing nature diminishes the boundary between nature and the self, evoking a Romantic era view of humans being dwarfed by the awe-inspiring expanse of nature, where our worries and frets seem insignificant in comparison. The 19th century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson surmised this as, ‘there I feel that nothing can befall me in life – no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair.’

In a 2015 study, just one minute looking at eucalyptus trees led participants to feel less entitled, and five minutes of Planet Earth made them feel that their concerns were insignificant and that they themselves were part of something larger, in comparison to a group watching funny clips.

Furthermore, this feeling of awe is linked to lower levels of a biomarker (IL-6) which could lead to less chance of cardiovascular disease, depression and autoimmune disease, confirming nature as not just a mental health benefit, but a physical one.

The reduction of stress, anxiety and depression that comes from interacting with nature has a knock-on effect on our physical health, and the way we treat others. When individuals are of a stronger, healthier nature, we are more open to interacting with others. This is why, in a study by Frances Kuo, the poorer areas in the urban city of Chicago experienced less violence and crime, and more neighbourly civility and calmness, the nearer they were to green spaces such as lawns, parks and trees. This study was heavily linked to the lessening symptoms of ADHD when interacting with these green spaces. In an overwhelming and fluctuating world, being able to feel connected to nature gives people a richness of experience that comes with rest, calm and connection.

Why are biophilic interiors important?
There are also clear benefits to natural materials and elements being integrated into our architecture and design because, for many people living in highly built-up areas, this is the closest connection to nature they can get. Bringing this feeling into the home is paramount for promoting a healthy living environment. People are spending more time indoors than ever before, limiting their direct contact with nature. Compounded by worldwide lifestyle changes that came with the Covid-19 pandemic, such as the increase in working from home, our physical relationship with nature is becoming more and more tenuous.

As well as this, in urban areas the practicalities of interacting with green spaces is a barrier to this connection. For example, in 1980, 39% of the world population lived in cities. By 2015, this had increased to 54%. In recent forecasts, the urban share will be up to 66% by 2050.

As urbanisation has risen and our connection to the natural world has weakened, it is also clear that our collective stresses have magnified, and the pace of modern life has accelerated. Introducing biophilic, nature-based design and specification seeks to practically address the difficulty of reaping the benefits of nature and to reconcile this with a modern, busy, indoor lifestyle.

Building standards such as WELL have listed biophilia within their design categories, emphasising its positive impact on mood, sleep, stress levels, and recovering from illness. Biophilic design can involve bringing natural sounds, aromatherapy, green plants, and views of nature into building interiors, but the introduction of organic materials as a natural alternative to manmade materials can also help to create this connection to nature, switching a cold, sterile environment into a harmonious and welcoming one.

What do organic materials do for our health?
Bringing nature into living spaces breaks down the boundaries between indoors and outdoors, enabling people to connect with natural elements for the 90% of their lives they spend indoors. Floor coverings offer a simple way of doing this with many organic and natural options available.

Air quality is often dramatically poorer inside; by selecting natural materials for flooring alongside good ventilation and other natural material furnishings, occupants can benefit from better indoor air quality. Our reaction to nature is also a psychological one, based on how our environment feels and looks. Selecting natural floorcoverings is as much about how the product makes the occupant feel as it is about the practical, physical benefits like low volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Natural materials such as sisal and jute are made tougher by their natural climates, from South American droughts to Indian monsoons, and – once stripped and treated – are immediately ready to be crafted into hard wearing floor coverings. Other variations such as Sisool – a blend of sisal and wool – and coir, appeal to both an aesthetic inclination towards neutral bases and those looking to maximise the health benefits of going organic. These materials are all non-toxic, emitting no VOCs into the atmosphere. These invisible emissions impact our health in many ways – from headaches, respiratory problems, dizziness, depression, and fatigue – with prolonged exposure to artificial materials potentially undoing all the good we get from interacting with the natural world.

The benefits of stress-reduction, calmness and positivity permeate the indoors when the room is made with natural materials. Therefore, occupants don’t just get a connection with nature for the hour or so they go outside, but every time they enter the room.

Carefully considering the sources of the floor covering materials chosen for a property can mitigate the negative effects of staying indoors. Organic materials such as sisal, seagrass, coir, and jute can be hypoallergenic, having been derived from anti-microbial plants, and the choice of natural over synthetic gives peace of mind when it comes to the volatile chemicals in a home. Like nature, neutral tones are also calming and contemplative, and a great choice for those specifying for modern and versatile homes. The weaves and textures that are available also enhance the natural aesthetic of building interiors.
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