The next step in sustainable design is bringing the weather indoors

Dancing sunlight patterns reflected onto an interior ceiling from a wind-disturbed external water surface. Image: Kevin Nute/creative commons.

A building’s primary purpose may be to keep the weather out – but most do such an effective job of this that they also inadvertently deprive us of contact with two key requirements for our well-being and effectiveness: nature and change.

In the 1950s Donald Hebb’s Arousal Theory established that people need a degree of changing sensory stimulation in order to remain fully attentive. And 30 years later, landmark research by health care designer Roger Ulrich showed that hospital patients in rooms with views of nature had lower stress levels and recovered more quickly than patients whose rooms looked out at a brick wall.

Unfortunately, many buildings – especially in cities – are not blessed with green surroundings. I am part of a group of architects and psychologists at the University of Oregon that has been examining ways to overcome this problem using an aspect of nature available anywhere: the weather. Think of rippling sunlight reflecting from water onto the underside of a boat, or the dappled shadows from foliage swaying in a breeze. Other examples can be seen at vitalarchitecture.org.

When we brought these kinds of natural movements indoors, we found that they reduced heart rates and were less distracting than similar, artificially generated movement. Early results suggest that seeing live natural movement of this kind in an indoor space may be more beneficial than viewing outdoor nature through a window, and could not only help to keep us calm but also improve our attention.

These findings are consistent with the Attention Restoration Theory proposed by University of Michigan psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. Among other things, their work suggests that familiar natural movement patterns of this kind have the capacity to keep us alert without being distracting.


Beyond green building

Over the last two decades architects and engineers have developed approaches to building design that greatly reduce the impact of buildings on the natural environment (“green” buildings) and their human occupants (“healthy” buildings). But these movements focus primarily on new buildings, which benefit only a relatively small number of people compared to the many who could be helped by making existing structures more habitable.

Moreover, most people – including many of those responsible for ordering the construction and remodeling of buildings – are not aware of these advances. Many key features of green buildings, such as energy and water conservation, for example, are not immediately noticeable, and as a result, these simple but important practices are significantly underused.

Several leading commentators on sustainable design, including Judith Heerwagen and the late Stephen Kellert, have suggested that in order to have any meaningful impact on the daunting environmental problems we now face, green buildings can no longer simply “do no harm.” Rather, they argue that buildings need to actively demonstrate ways of living in harmony with nature. Our work suggests that bringing the movements of sunlight, wind and rain indoors could make passive energy-saving features in buildings more obvious to the people who order and occupy them, and so greatly increase their usage.

Bringing the weather indoors

Light shelves, for example, are devices that are commonly retrofitted to the windows of existing buildings to reflect daylight deeper into an interior. Former University of Oregon master’s degree student Aaron Weiss and I have shown that when a shallow layer of water is added to the top of a light shelf and is disturbed by the wind, the shelf reflects moving sunlight patterns onto the ceiling inside.

A water light shelf reflecting wind-animated sunlight onto an interior ceiling; the arrow on the right represents air movement. Image: Kevin Nute/creative commons.

Water light shelves being tested on a dental clinic waiting room in Eugene, Oregon. Image: Kevin Nute/creative commons.

In controlled experiments using a windowless room, with a fan and powerful light to represent the wind and sun, we found that this kind of wind-animated light not only lowered occupants’ heart rates but was also less distracting than similar, artificially generated moving patterns. Importantly, adding wind movement did not reduce the amount of light the shelves transmitted. However, it did make the shelves much more visible to people using the space.

We found the same was true of a range of other key passive energy-saving techniques, including solar heating, shading and natural ventilation. Adding sun, wind or rain-generated movement did not reduce their environmental performance, and in many cases it revealed their operation to those using the building.

The calming effects of natural indoor animation could be particularly helpful in stressful locations, such as hospitals and doctors’ offices – especially in places where people experience the additional stress of waiting. Aquariums are often used in medical waiting rooms, for example, because they have been found to have a calming effect on patients. The stress reduction can be even greater, however, when indoor movement comes from uncontrolled nature such as the weather.

This field test in a medical waiting room confirmed that most people seem to find the naturally moving indoor light patterns calming and fascinating in a nondistracting way. 

A glazed internal courtyard can bring weather-generated movement into its surrounding indoor spaces. Image: Kevin Nute/creative commons.

But how can we invite the movements of the elements indoors without undermining a building’s first task – sheltering us from the weather? There are three simple ways. We can enclose weather-generated movement in glass courtyards; use sunlight to project movement from outdoors onto interior surfaces; or project it onto the outside of translucent materials, such as obscured glass.

Wind-animated foliage shadows projected by the sun onto an interior surface. Image: Kevin Nute/creative commons.

Allowing the sun to project wind-animated shadows onto the exterior of translucent materials, such as obscured glass, can also effectively bring that movement indoors. Image: Kevin Nute/creative commons.

No real substitute for live nature

There are many kinds of recorded natural phenomena available today. We can watch videos of gently rolling ocean waves, or fall asleep to the recorded sounds of falling rain. There are even sophisticated software programs that can generate these effects digitally. So why go to the trouble of redesigning buildings to bring these effects indoors?

To answer this question, former University of Oregon graduate student Jeffrey Stattler and I projected a digital tree shadow onto the wall of a windowless room and tested whether there was any difference in people’s responses depending on whether the electronic tree moved with live changes in the wind outside, or according to a computer program.

The digital tree shadow developed by Jeffrey Stattler can move realistically with live changes in the speed and direction of the wind outside. Image: Kevin Nute/creative commons.

Most people could not tell whether the tree movements were generated by the wind or by computer. But when they believed the movement was wind-generated, their assessments of its beneficial effects were significantly higher in all categories.

In other words, indoor sensory change is likely to have a much greater beneficial effect on us when we think it is natural and live. So unless we are prepared to mislead people, there is no real substitute for using the real thing.


According to the Environmental Protection Agency, most people in the United States now spend more than 90 per cent of their lives inside buildings. Features that make us more relaxed and productive in those indoor environments, then, could have significant positive effects on a great many lives.

Lighting, heating and cooling those buildings accounts for almost 40 per cent of U.S. energy consumption. The same natural indoor animation effects could also help to reduce that figure by increasing public awareness of passive energy-saving in buildings.

The ConversationIn addition to its practical benefits for people and the environment, weather-generated indoor animation also shows us that, while separating us from its extremes, buildings can also reconnect us with nature.

Kevin Nute is professor of architecture at the University of Oregon.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.