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.

 
 
 
 

So how could Northern Ireland spend £400m on new infrastructure?

Great Victoria Street station, Belfast. Image: Milepost98/Wikipedia.

Last year’s confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative party and the DUP saw 40 per cent of the Northern Irish party’s £1bn price tag allocated to infrastructure. Although there is, at the time of writing, no functioning government in the North to spend it, where could £400m be best used?

Northern Ireland is not, geographically, a large place. The six counties are inhabited by under 2m people and, to use a comparative metric that anyone who has sat in a high school geography lesson may remember, the North is less than half the size of Belgium. Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland’s two major urban centres, are only a 70 mile drive apart. On the face of it then, an injection of cash into infrastructure should be relatively straightforward.

Yet the Belfast Rapid Transit system is the only notable public transport infrastructure currently being developed in the North. That takes the form of a web of connected bus lanes, as well as investment in a new bus fleet for use in them, that aims to cut car use in the heavily congested city.

One way to spend the money might be to tame the Irish Sea. Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson claimed back in January a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland was “feasible” and would be a “much needed alternative” to the current ferry route. Unsurprisingly, he isn’t the first to notice that Northern Ireland’s east coast is only 20 miles from Scotland.

But while some MPs dream of bridges across the sea, interest in more useful infrastructure is less forthcoming. Take the NI Railways service, which despite the name only covers a fraction of the North. A simple glance over a map shows how fractured coverage is.

Even where the trains do run, the service is hardly efficient. The Belfast-Derry journey takes over two hours, which doesn’t compare well with the current London-Birmingham fast service, which covers almost twice the distance in 1hr22. Belfast City Airport, which last year handled 2.5m passengers, is serviced by Sydenham Station – but only via shuttle bus, which you have to request, or via the verge of the A2.

Meanwhile there is no train at all to Belfast International Airport: instead, an expensive taxi or a bus through the Northern Irish countryside is required. It may be scenic, but it isn’t good infrastructure.

That said, NI Rail saw 14.2m  passenger journeys last year, compared to 11.5m in 2012-13: the problem isn’t that there is no demand for infrastructure, simply that no one has bothered to build it.

It is a similar story with roads. Belfast and Derry are only a 70 miles apart, yet there isn’t a direct, or even indirect, motorway link between the two. In fact, there are only 60 miles of motorway in the entire North: all are in the east, almost exclusively focused on Belfast.


Northern Ireland is, of course, not the only part of the UK poorly supplied when it comes to transport. Anyone reading this who lives in the North East of England or who relies of commuters trains around Manchester, for example, will have experienced similar problem. So what makes Northern Ireland special?

Well: for a relatively small geographical area, there is a striking polarisation in the provision of transport. Not only is there an overall lack of infrastructure, but what does exist is overwhelmingly concentrated in the east. To take one instructive statistic, 51 of Northern Ireland’s railway stations are located east of the River Bann, the traditional dividing line between east and west.

This divide isn’t an accident: rather, it’s a legacy of the North’s sectarian history. The east has been traditionally unionist, the west nationalist, and there has been a strong bias in economic power and investment towards the former. As analysis from Northern Irish regeneration advisor Steve Bradley shows, the main rail and road networks are almost exclusively confined to areas where Protestant are more common than Catholics, and where the DUP holds political power.

So, if the North does come under direct rule from Westminster, there are some fairly obvious gaps in the transport network that could do with being filled – based on the needs of citizens, rather than their background or voting preference. But with the open question of the Irish border hanging over us – something which brings implications for cross-border travel along with everything else – the chances of that appear slim.