Every Person Must be Within 6m of Nature at all Times
One Rule to Rule Them All
Recent research has revealed that there is a friendly bacteria in soil that affects our brain in a similar way to antidepressants… a little whiff of that dirt and our brains produce a shot of serotonin — the stuff that helps balance our moods and even helps with cognitive thinking.
Sunlight also gives us a serotonin boost and melatonin, the heady cocktail that helps us fall asleep at night. Sunlight also gives us Vitamin D for our bones and teeth and triggers the release of nitric oxide which helps lower our blood pressure and improves heart health.
And even having a direct view to nature helps not only our mental wellbeing but our physical health. Since the seminal study by Ulrich in 1984 in which a study showed that hospital patients with a view to nature recovered faster, had higher pain thresholds and took less pain medications, the evidence of the link between a connection with nature and our health has piled in.
These and a swathe of other examples fall under the heading of Biophilic Design — a term used in the built environment design industry to talk about the human-nature connection. There’s a wonderful guide from Terrapin Bright Green on the 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design if you want to go down that rabbit hole.
So, knowing all this, why do we continue to design fat buildings with deep floor plates, disconnecting the inhabitants from these very things that help us thrive and keep us healthy?
The human-nature connection is not a technology.
It can’t be added on after the building shape is committed to. It’s just good design which we’ve become extraordinarily bad at, and I’ve earned the right to say this after reviewing so many project designs that literally haven’t attempted to create this connection.
These projects typically start the planning process focussing on car access and parking grids, loading docks and service drives, clinical services plans and the like — and the ‘nature stuff’ is added on afterwards like a garnish (No-one eats the garnish).
What if we flipped it and made the human-nature connection the first and primary design requirement? That connection that helps us thrive?
What if we had one golden rule for all building design, regardless of the function, that ‘every person must be within 6m of nature at all times’.
Of course, there’d be a collection of definitions to work to. We’d need to define Nature, for example ‘at least 1m2 of living plants that are maintained and in good health’.
We’d need to define how people are connected with nature, for example the connection must be at least visual (a direct line of sight), and preferably multi-sensory.
Nature could be outside the building or inside. And critically the rule would only apply to habitable and relevant spaces — no point in enforcing a nature connection in an operating theatre which is incredibly task-focused and where distractions can be a problem.
A 6m rule would also maximise the benefits of natural daylighting — not just biophilic but also energy saving. We’re also enabling natural ventilation (subject to planning layout) which again has biophilic and energy benefits.
I’ve tinkered with this idea in a hospital setting, partly because this human-nature connection isn’t typically included in clinical services planning. How might we have all patients and all staff members enjoying this constant connection with nature? Even when we have strict infection control requirements?
Prior to the 1950s it was considered good practice to include gardens and landscape in hospital design, integral to the healing process. The rise of the pharmaceutical industry saw an end to that with a seismic shift towards medicinal solutions instead, such that today we struggle to find ways to add landscape to a resolved design rather than designing a hospital around a healing landscape (nature).
In design terms this 6m rule is relatively easy to achieve and it’s because of other non-physical drivers that it becomes so difficult. I’ll tackle those next.
If you’re in the building design or planning space have a tinker with the 6m rule — see what you discover. How might you retrofit this human-nature connection into an existing ‘fat building’?