Second nature: The mood-lifting benefits of plants indoors
Revamping your natural habitat? Go green and connect interiors with outdoor spaces
Nature makes us feel good. Our grandmothers could have told us that. Contact with the natural world makes us healthier, happier people and we don't have to be out in the rain to get the benefits. Just looking at trees through a window is enough to lower your blood pressure. The research behind this is documented in '14 Patterns of Biophilic Design', published by the US company, Terrapin Bright Green.
The theory behind biophilia, in a nutshell, is that humans are innately drawn to nature and other forms of life. In 1973, the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm described it as "the passionate love of life and of all that is alive". So far, so woolly.
Ten years later the American biologist Edward O Wilson published Biophilia (1984), proposing that the human tendency to affiliate with other life forms has a genetic basis. His theory was, and is, contested. Then an article by the environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich, published in the journal Science (1984), demonstrated that looking out on to a garden can help patients heal more quickly. It was solidly researched study and showed that post-surgical patients whose bedside windows looked out on leafy trees healed faster, needed less medication, and had fewer complications than the more unfortunate control group. These looked out at a brick wall.
Much research followed, most of it focused on the design of hospitals and workplaces rather than homes. The reason for this is probably financial: speeding the recovery of sick people saves money; making workers more productive makes money. Now, this research is trickling through into the way we design our homes. Ideally, you'd be able to look out your window at real plants. If that's not possible, it seems that looking at a painting of a landscape brings some of the benefits of a real one. Bill Browning, the founder of Terrapin Bright Green, argues that biomimicry, which includes the use of natural materials and even the patterns found in nature, has a part to play in biophilic design.
"In particular," he writes in his blog. "We believe there are many unexploited opportunities to use layered fractals in fabrics, wallpapers, flooring, and ornamentation."
But does this mean that artificial plants have the same benefits as real ones? Browning admits that they have their place but suggests you keep them where they can't be touched.
"Think about the experience of seeing some really beautiful flowers, walking up to them, touching them and discovering they were fake. Notice how your hand jerked back, you felt disappointed... Your subconscious told you the plants were real. You are almost embarrassed to discover your subconscious was wrong." I can relate to this. Artificial plants make me feel cheated, but many people love them.
Browning also suggests that mini habitats, like a terrarium with plenty of biodiversity or an arrangement of bonsai, are better for the head than isolated plants. "If you're building or redesigning your home, it makes sense to have a look at the research on biophilic design and think about how it might work in practice. Designers and architects are coming up with interesting ways of connecting interiors with outdoor spaces, even if you live in suburbia.
One of the coolest examples is on Hollybrook Grove, Clontarf, a housing estate just outside Dublin city centre. The project was designed by David Leech, an Irish architect whose practice is based in London. Last year it won an Architectural Association of Ireland (AAI) award and, in December 2018, was awarded House of the Year at the World Architecture Festival in Amsterdam. While Leech doesn't use the word biophilia, the house is all about the garden. "It's not about bringing the outside in or bringing the inside out. It's about blurring the boundaries between them." On the ground floor, all the structure is contained within the body the house, which is supported by an x-shaped core. The outside walls don't have a supporting role and are almost entirely made of glass. In the summer, they can be folded back entirely.
The way that a garden is planted isn't usually considered part of the interior but Leech feels that, because of the walls of glazing, the view of the garden from the inside of the house is "as much a part of the furniture and objects of the house as the interior items within". In this, he worked closely with Maria Canavan "an amazing horticulturist who can translate my design intent into planting". The day-to-day living space on the south side of the house looks out on to a habitat of native and edible plants: wild strawberries, wild raspberries and a very small apple tree. The north side is planted as a woodland with shady ferns and ivy. "Maria ensured that there would be planting of interest all through the year in all seasons," Leech explains.
Not everyone is in a position to create such a landscape but even the most meagre back yard or balcony will look better for a bit of planting. Indoors, we can fall back on biomimicry with real plants and (if you must) faux plants. You'll find them everywhere from Homesense, where there may be bargains to be had, to Penneys, where a mini succulent in a ceramic pot costs just €3. Faux plants from Debenhams and Harvey Norman are more expensive - you can pay up to €225 for a large cactus in a pot from Abigail Ahern Edition for Debenhams - but there's a strong argument for buying the best that you can afford. Unlike real plants, you'll be looking at that cactus for a very long time.
See david-leech.co.uk, debenhams.ie, harveynorman.ie and Maria Canavan Gardens. For more on biophilic design, see terrapinbrightgreen.com.