Natural Remedy

Excerpts from an article by Ed Clark and Marty Brennan, originally published in Healthcare Design Magazine March 2017

By abstracting nature scenes and mimicking circadian lighting patterns, biophilic design can help create calming behavioral health environments.

HUMANS RELY ON environmental cues to make judgments about perceived safety or peril. Evolution honed this intuition, and through the long-term relationship between perception and nature, we’ve developed an affinity for the life supporting aspects of the natural world. This specific attraction to nature is referred to as biophilia, which literally means the “love of nature.” It recognizes the intrinsic need for nature in our lives, including its psychological benefits.

Because biophilia inherently results in environments that soothe, comfort, orient, and calm, it’s specifically relevant to the design of spaces that support behavioral health.

Biophilic design connects building occupants to the cycles and patterns of nature by subtly incorporating cues reminiscent of the visual and spatial qualities of natural settings, such as through the use of patterns rather than the specific representations of nature. In this way, natural qualities can be readily brought indoors without being heavy-handed or kitschy. For example, turning to regional environments can provide design insight related to material color and patterns as well as the sensory qualities of spaces that answer patients’ intrinsic and often subconscious understanding of supportive and nurturing environmental qualities.

To support patient needs in behavioral healthcare, in particular, it’s important to avoid literal representations of imagery that may trigger undesirable or traumatic memories. For example, an abstraction of the verticality and rhythm of a stand of trees might provide a subconscious appeal, whereas a wall-sized natural image could trigger explicit memories associated with specific settings where abuse or trauma may have occurred.

Another opportunity to provide ties to natural settings is through the expression of the daily arc of the sun and the resulting dynamism of the sky. The color and intensity of the sky undergoes drastic changes daily and seasonally. While lighting systems have yet to capture the moment-to-moment variability influenced by the movement of clouds, for instance, we can mimic larger daily patterns of illumination and color and provide a sense of the passage of time and a connection to natural daily rhythms.

In short, designers should seek to leverage the principles of the natural world—and not simply use images of nature as decoration—to instill a sense of calm, safety, and well-being in behavioral healthcare spaces.


for a pdf. version click here: Photos for Healing Newsletter #118- May ’17