Formally trained as an architect, the accomplished Founder of Oliver Heath Design, an architectural and interior design practice specialising in health and well-being, has long been an advocate for sustainability - through his experience as a designer, TV presenter and a writer. Oliver spent a good portion of two decades working for BBC, ITV as well as Channel 4 and National Geographic, and has written four books on sustainability and interior design. He is also Interface’s Biophilic Design Ambassador, and in that role he has presented at countless architectural seminars and workshops across the UK, Europe and Middle East.
With human-centred design central to his world-view and professional trajectory, Oliver explains what human-centred design is, how it fits with the notion of biophilia – and why it is so important that their positive effects on occupants can be measured and documented.
“Fundamentally, human-centred design puts human needs at the forefront of the thinking of how we create our built environment, and the products that we interact with all the time,” Oliver explains. “And our approach is one that looks at human health and well-being both in a physical, mental, and emotional sense, and how we design to support those human attributes through the spaces that people occupy.”
He adds that over the last 20 years, the industry has taken a carbon-centric approach to sustainability, fairly centred around the impact of the building on the environment. “But what we do with human-centred design is look at the impact that building has on human beings, and how that impact actually allows you to deliver on the intended function of the space to allow people to operate and to deliver that intended function without a detriment to their physical, mental and emotional states,” he says. For Oliver Heath Design, connection to nature – and biophilic design as its facilitator - is a key aspect of enabling that.
“Biophilic design is an evolutionary design approach that looks back at the way we've evolved in nature, and tries to find ways of reconnecting contemporary urban dwelling human beings, who live in noisy urban geometric spaces, and reconnect them with nature, to elicit a similar emotional response to that we find in nature,” Oliver says. “And human-centred approach using biophilic design seeks to reconnect people with nature, to make them feel less stressed, to aid recuperation; to reconnect them with a sense of space and place – and also the people in them to form stronger, richer communities that put humans in a better state of mind.”
Oliver points out that biophilic design is based on evidence, and there is robust research that demonstrates that enhanced connection to nature can reduce a range of negative elements – and improve positive outcomes across a broad range of design typologies.
“Research shows that when students study in natural light, it can increase the speed of learning, reduce absenteeism and improve test scores,” Oliver says. “In the world of health care, when patients recuperate in beds overlooking trees and greenery, it can reduce their post operative recovery rates by nearly 10%. They feel less pain and, as a result, need 22% less medication. In the workplace, positioning people with better views and elements of nature can improve productivity by 6% to 15%, increase creativity and the sense of engagement.”
Oliver says that this measurability of biophilic and human-centred design is not only fascinating - it is also rather unusual.
“Ordinarily, we don't tend to measure the success of the designs that we are doing for our clients,” he says. “If you think about all the different design styles that have happened through history, be it gothic or modernism, we've never tried to measure how successful this is. But increasingly, our clients are asking us to demonstrate that, actually, the approach that we take with human-centred design can deliver tangible and valuable results. And I think this is really important because as a design community, we can now start to demonstrate the real value of what we do. Not just by making buildings that look pretty, or that reflect an organisation's identity, but that demonstrate that the choices we make can actually deliver tangible benefits.”
And what is Oliver’s grand vision? To enhance nature and nurture connections to support physical and mental well-being across all aspects of the built environment, from cities to neighbourhoods, streets to buildings - all the way to the furniture we use daily. What may seem like a huge task, for him, is the only way to look at it. “You’ve got to think big,” he says with a smile. “No point limiting yourself from the outset.”
Find out what else this accomplished TV presenter turned biophilic design advocate shared with us by listening to the full podcast here.