Interview with Oliver Heath, Oliver Heath Design

Biophilic design consultant Oliver Heath shared with me the insights he’s drawn from the events of the past 18 months. What have been his positive learnings and what does he think we should be doing differently in the future.

‘A massive cultural reconnection’

The pandemic has been a lightbulb moment. People have realized just how important our natural world is for physical and mental wellbeing.

We’ve seen a massive cultural reconnection with both nature and the need for us to lead more sustainable lives.

It’s been a catalyst for people to think in a more systemic way about their lives, the planet and their interactions with the natural elements.

People have long known that nature is good for them. But now there’s a deeper level of understanding interwoven into our daily lives. Even small doses of nature, on a regular basis, have been really important to help maintain one’s physical and mental wellbeing during the pandemic.

‘Better conversations, creativity and innovation’

There’s also been a recognition that social interaction is very important for innovation. Having regular conversations over Zoom can be a poor substitute for sitting around a table and sketching out ideas on a whiteboard.

We’ve seen that people can probably work better on focused tasks at home. But there’s a lot of value to having people around, in the right frame of mind, for innovation to happen.

We all need a diversity of spaces and experiences. These energize and stimulate us. Without them we become a little bit flatter, less well informed.

As we get back to the workplace people will need space for not just focused communication, but also incidental communication. Organizations have long leases left on spaces, so will need to reimagine and reinvent them, to allow better conversations, creativity and innovation.

‘Bringing nature into the workplace’

There’s been much greater awareness that contact with nature enhances physical and mental wellbeing. It makes us feel more relaxed, more open, optimistic and happy. It reduces stress and helps us recuperate from physically and mentally exhausting tasks.

Biophilic design can elicit similar responses. It can harness the benefits of nature, albeit in an artificial way, within buildings.

People have become more open to bringing nature into the workplace. There’s a deeper understanding of what it means and how to see a return on investment.

‘People react to sensory stimuli in very different ways’

We’ve been looking at neurodiversity. Recognizing that people react to sensory stimuli in very different ways.

Recently we wrote a white paper for Interface – helping organizations appreciate that people can have very different sensory thresholds for sound, smell, touch and taste. And how connection with nature and good design can facilitate a better working practices.

Understanding this neurodiversity can help people identify how they work best. What are the things that distract them and inhibit productivity? How can organizations enhance spaces to allow people to work better? How can they create better places to support peoples’ individual needs?

‘We don’t have to keep on living as we were before’

It’s difficult to imagine that life could go back to how it was. Things have moved on. The pandemic has changed everybody on the planet. Caused us to think differently. It’s going to have a seismic change upon many areas of our lives.

We’re recognising that we are highly capable of adapting and adjusting to meet specific needs. It’s changed our behaviour and changed our interactions. And it’s an empowering thing.

Covid has been a wake-up call. It’s been such a big, globally connected, issue. It’s highlighted the enormous fragility of our social structures and our norms. The way we interact with work, with technology, with food. It’s affected all of our lives.

If we can change because of Covid, then we can adapt to the climate crisis. It’s made us realize that we don’t have to keep on living as we were before.

It’s given us a more systemic, connected, view of the world. Now we see much more clearly that things are inextricably linked together.

As a relatively small company, we can be quite agile. It’s important for us to constantly adapt to what people are looking for. Working out what role we play in facilitating some of that change.

‘We have to re-evaluate the way we work’

Previously, a lot of health and wellbeing was focused on the workplace – come to work and we’ll look after you.

But with people working at home this shifts the responsibility. How are they going to support their own physical mental wellbeing? It’s a different set of requirements.

At work we can place financial benefits on health and wellbeing. Such as improved productivity or reduced absenteeism. But at home it’s much more difficult to use these metrics.

During lockdown we wrote a new book called Design a Healthy Home. It distils a lot of the ideas we’ve been discussing over the last five years in commercial situations. We recognize that individual homeowners want to connect with health and wellbeing.

We’re showing people that design can be used as a force for personal mental good. That your design choices, use of colours, materials, views of nature, connections with water, good air quality, all contribute to mental and physical wellbeing.

‘The city of the future’

We want to scale up our health and wellbeing ideas – looking at these issues with a wider approach. We all have to re-evaluate the way we work, how our cities are structured, mobility, finance and technology.

The city of the future must support our physical and mental wellbeing, our need to communicate, to travel and interact with people.

Wellbeing is typically looked at within the workplace. It’s not being considered enough in healthcare, education, domestic design, prisons, hospitality spaces etc.

We’re looking at how we integrate the concept of wellbeing into wider urban planning. Making sure that we think about it on a citywide level, neighbourhood level, and a street level.

That’s become really important for us. It’s what we want to do differently in the future. We’re asking ourselves what constitutes ‘enough nature’ to support wellbeing on a daily basis.

‘We advocate a deeper level of responsibility within the interior design industry’

I’ve always taken a pragmatic approach to what design can do and how it can make you feel. I’ve recently become a founding signatory in a group called Interior Design Declares.

It started off as Architects Declare; to encourage architects to engage with the climate crisis in a more productive way. I felt there was an enormous opportunity for the interior design industry to do the same.

It’s a long way behind the architectural world – often seen as a luxury, an added extra. If the budgets are there, you don’t need to worry about the environment.

We advocate a deeper level of responsibility within the interior design industry. The group includes both designers and material and product suppliers. We’ve currently got 87 companies.

‘This should be about human rights’

We know the economic costs of creating and managing buildings. So it seems amazing that we don’t actually look at the health and wellbeing of the occupants in any tangible or measured way.

This is absolutely fundamental to the creation of sustainable buildings in the future. Not just should buildings have a reduced impact on the environment, but also a reduced impact on the people within them.

We need a much more regenerative approach – creating buildings with a more holistic mindset. This should be about human rights.

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