Known as Foxglove Cottage, this former B & B was purchased by a young family hoping to save much of the building, both structurally and in exterior character. Confluence Construction was the general contractor on this magnificent project, where a tricky process of engineering ensued. The home was gutted, then redesigned by Becky Broeder with custom finishes & high end fixtures throughout. Each piece of lumber was hand selected at Heritage Timber by Becky and Bruce, the cabinet maker. Considering sensitivities to artificial light and allergens, this home was thoughtfully designed to maximize daylighting. Selection of healthy, mindful, regionally sourced materials prevailed, and locally made custom furnishings are being built to further fill the space. The result is a light, airy, customized environment that truly reflects the personalities of the homeowners & the architecture, and displays Becky’s texture-driven aesthetic.
I discuss the impact of the built environment on human health and wellness a lot, and I do so because where we use our bodies is just as important as what we put into our bodies. The construction industry is seeking to meet new demands to improve, or at least not diminish, human health and wellness. Focusing on building materials and finishes is a great place to start.
An emerging concern is whether or not a material contains toxicants. Toxicants are chemicals synthesized or concentrated by manufacturing that are harmful to our health. They may negatively impact the functioning of respiratory, neurological, endocrine, and other bodily systems. And even though we’ve come a long way in reporting data that relates to recycled and regionally sourced content, we still know very little about a materials ‘ingredients’ and how they will affect an occupant’s health. We now know, after decades of delay between science and practice, that lead and asbestos are not to be used at all costs. We are, however, still in the incubation phase of regulating toxicants. And beyond that, it’s rare that a product even declares what it is actually comprised of. The newest version of LEED rewards projects that source at least 20 materials where the manufacturers have fully disclosed the ingredients it contains. This is proven through third-party entities and published on the Health Product Declaration online database. It is my hope that just like the FDA requires compositional data from food manufacturers, we will have the same access to a product’s ingredients in the building industry. And just like those that choose to eat artificial, bad-for-you ingredients, there will be consumers / builders who will still opt to go the unhealthy route, which is unfortunate.
As a LEED AP, it was drilled into me years ago to be aware of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) in products such as paint, the presence of formaldehyde in particleboard, and the toxicity of flame retardants on furniture and stain guard on carpets. However, we’re learning more and more every time I turn around about the real threat of a lot of common building products and finishes to human health and wellbeing. A recent study showed that minimizing VOCs in an office environment significantly improved cognition. This isn’t just great for the inhabitants, but for business’ bottom lines, as well. Healthcare environments have eliminated formaldehyde, which in turn has led to a reduction in asthma symptoms by over half. These types of measures have been shown to be more cost effective than clinical treatments of related illnesses.
What can you do? If you’re embarking on a new project or remodel, early planning is key. Hiring a qualified design or building professional who knows how to navigate through the threat of ‘green washing’ is a good route to go. If you go it alone, research, research, research. There is information available that is trustworthy. Here are a couple of third party organizations that certify, report, or catalog healthy materials: Cradle to Cradle, Pharos, and GreenWizard. In my own practice, there are times when it’s unavoidable to source some less-healthy products because of durability, code, availability, cost, but when I have the opportunity to substitute a ‘good’ finish with a ‘bad’ finish, I feel it’s my obligation to my clients, family, and friends to do so.
It’s important to know that there are options. Many manufacturers are preparing themselves for the inevitable trend of consumers requiring more information on products’ impacts on their health and wellbeing, and are taking strides in providing more data for us to make informed decisions.
As a person who thrives in nature and outdoors, I find a little irony that my greatest passion is creating interior environments. But it’s beginning to make sense to me. When I’m indoors, shades are up, doors are wide open if it’s not freezing outside, windows open sometimes even if it is freezing, plants and flowers surround me, and my dogs are always close. In my practice, my favorite and most used approach to the interiors I create for people is to intuitively interject natural elements everywhere I can. Whether it’s through natural finishes like real stone or organic cotton, or sneaking in day-lighting where possible, I love spaces that remind me, even if just subtly, of being outside. Turns out, I’m not alone and all these billions of dollars in studies are stating the obvious: What feels good to us- gardens, animal companionship, views, sunshine, are actually proving to be good for us. Duh. And it’s catching on in a massive fashion. Empirical evidence shows that even a brief experience with nature can elicit a restorative response in humans. Biophilic design is design of the built environment that reconnects us with nature and it’s been shown to be essential for providing people healthy environments that produce less stress and actually contribute greatly to the users’ health and well-being.
The term, ‘biophilia’ literally means, ‘love of life or living systems’. Unlike a ‘phobia’, which are aversions and fears that overtake people, ‘philias’ are attractions and positive feelings that people have toward habitats, organisms, and natural surroundings. As humans, we have an innate biological connection with nature. We are captivated by a crackling fire, sunrises, crashing waves, and for good reason. We can’t not love these things. But for decades, we’ve created sterile built environments doomed with interiors that are plain, toxic, devoid of any daylight, and causing us to die a slow, painful death both psychologically and physically. I’m thrilled that biophilic design is not merely a trend, instead, it’s going to be how we design built environments from here on out.
Next time you are in a commercial or hospitality environment and REALLY feel good, ask yourself why and try to pin it down. Every time I am having this experience I can unanimously point to natural elements whether it’s actual green things growing, daylight, natural materials. Then, next time you’re in an environment you are bummed out by and loathing, try to figure out why. Sometimes, it’s the colors of that environment, sure, but bad color comes from bad lighting a lot of the time. Bad lighting is not a part of biophilic design. Sadly, I’ve found myself going through this analysis often in medical settings- environments that should feel the best to us.
Here’s a great paper on biophilic design if you’d like to learn more: http://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/reports/14-patterns/
Above is a kitchen I designed using many biophilic elements: maximized views; controlled day-lighting; natural materials in walnut cabinetry and flooring, travertine, granite, metals; plants and flowers; non-synthetic fabrics.
Thanks for reading! BB
One of the primary reasons I chose interior design to be my calling is my passion for designing spaces that improve lives. Good design lowers stress (decreased blood pressure), improves mental health (aids in fighting depression or PTSD), minimizes toxins that contribute to health issues (decreases risk for cancer), encourages movement (improved heart health), and enables people to stay in their homes as they age or suffer from a disability, among other good things. Healthy homes are an essential need in the human experience, no matter of socio-economic status or neighborhood.
Recently, I attended a forum in Boston discussing a partnership between ASID (American Society of Interior Designers) and the Clinton Global Initiative uniting to advance Health and Wellness by engaging 11 important partners in order to establish protocols for heath and wellness in design. Interior designers have always been able to tell you that a space feels good with arguments of scale, balance, proportion, etc. Now, as a result of these strong partnerships, new research is emerging daily supporting these claims with FACTS. As a true design nerd, I find this era in design to be extremely exciting. I love being able to support my design decisions with solid explanations. It’s a great time to be a designer, and an even better time to hire a qualified and knowledgeable designer.
Here are just a few design solutions to ponder:
- Increased daylighting in hospital settings has been found to greatly reduce healing time among patients as well as greatly reduce the burn-out rate among nurses.
- Eliminating high sensory objects and design details in an environment where the user or users have autism reawakens their ability to interact with society and discourages disconnection.
- The American Cancer Society released a report in the American Journal of Epidemiology stating that men who sat for six hours or more per day had an overall death rate that was nearly 20% higher than men who sat for three hours per day or less. Women who sat for more than six hours per day had a death rate that was almost 40% higher! And dedicated exercise showed no neutralizing effect. Designing corporate work environments that encourage mobility will lead to more productive, healthy, happier people who live much longer.
Here’s a link describing the ASID / CGI partnership along with the 11 organizations helping to create health and wellness protocols that will help us all in our built environments: