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.

 
 
 
 

A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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