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Non-Visual connection with nature: A total sensory experience

This is the second post in an on-going series outlining each of the 14 patterns of biophilic design, a collection of biophilic strategies codified in Terrapin Bright Green’s “14 Patterns of Biophilic Design” paper.

Pattern 2

Imagine a time when you’ve experienced complete silence in the forest. I bet you can’t. Only when there is impending danger do birds stop singing and scavenging creatures take pause. For urbanites, complete silence is also rare and unnatural. Sensory deprivation can be unsettling and sometimes even disconcerting, yet the power of our non-visual senses — sound, smell, touch, taste — is typically undervalued and often forgotten in the design experience. Consider the smell of impending snowfall, the burgeoning of balsam fir in the springtime, the feel of smooth cool river stones, and the crispness of autumn on your breath. Positive non-visual experiences, especially natural ones, can provide potent stimulation, giving biophilic designers a significant opportunity.

While the benefits of a Visual Connection with Nature are great, to only see nature is not to experience it. As the second biophilic design pattern, “Non-Visual Connection with Nature” aims to engender a deliberate and positive reference to nature, living systems or natural processes through greater access to auditory, haptic, olfactory, or gustatory stimuli. These sensory experiences can enhance the user experience through practical applications, unique unto themselves or, better yet, in combination with each other or with associated visual stimuli.

Calat Alhambra

Dax Fernstrom/Flickr

Interventions that focus on the visual connection can integrate other sensory stimuli for a more enhanced user experience. The Non-Visual Connection, like the other patterns, arose from evidence of its health benefits. Auditory (sound), olfactory (smell), haptic (touch) and gustatory (taste) experiences of nature are shown to help reduce stress, support healthy respiratory function and improve perceived physical and mental health. But how can we know which design interventions, or combinations of patterns, create the best experience? How much is a good thing? When is enough… enough? These are all great questions! Researchers in Finland, Japan and elsewhere are trying to answer them. In the meantime, consider your own experiences in nature. Often there is one sensory experience that dominates, while the others enhance the pleasurability of it, and your desire to relax and wish to stay there all afternoon. There’s a reason nature makes us feel this way. Research has shown that tree-derived essential oils are associated with improved immune function, that the scents of lavender, chamomile, and sandalwood can have anxiety-reducing effects, and that the scents of peppermint, jasmine, and rosemary improve alertness and cognitive performance. We can imagine spaces in the built environment where incorporating scent with these benefits would be most suitable.

We can design these spaces with deliberate multi-sensory experiences either by providing access to real connections with nature or by designing and engineering simulated connections. Ornamental vegetation can be fragrant and even edible. Mechanical systems that cannot draw directly from outdoors can be scheduled to release periodic bursts of natural scents. Consider that in nature, we do not experience scent in concentrated doses, like with perfume or scented candles; the experience is usually ephemeral, momentary and sometimes only seasonal.

City Hall plaza, Hann. Münden, Germany

Courtesy of Atelier Dreiseitl/Flickr

Just as sound is an inseparable facet of nature, acoustics is an age old problem for design. Perhaps we have too wilfully brandished acoustics as a problem ‒ why don’t we make it an opportunity? It’s an art form in and of itself. We extol those spaces that achieve acoustical design excellence, such as Carnegie Hall by William Tuthill, and consciously avoid spaces with poor acoustics. Views to water fountains or bird activity can be supplemented by resonating their sounds inside the space from which they are viewed. Streaming water sounds can be an effective acoustic barrier with a calming effect. Providing a place to observe and even touch that water is more likely to engender restoration, attachment to place, and even encourage spontaneous interaction with passers-by. The first step in identifying opportunities for integrating a Non-Visual Connection with Nature is to assess what qualities currently exist in or near your space.

As the designer, what features do you have control over and which systems do you have the capacity to modify? In some cases, the intervention may be to educate occupants of the benefits of making greater use of the operable windows, whereas in other cases, the intervention may consist of programmed features that require collaboration with a mechanical engineer, acoustician, or horticulturist. The opportunities for a multi-sensory experience are endless and can be catered to the needs and programming of any environment. In all cases, consider that the non-visual connection is meant to enhance the user experience — to instil a sense of wonder, indulge positive memory, and even influence perceptions of movement or time. Its placement should be deliberate — whether to reinvigorate without heavily distracting from the task at hand, or to encourage relaxation by stopping to smell the roses.

Read other posts in the 14 patterns of biophilic design series by Catie Ryan 

1 comment

  1. Great article! The places we inhabit make an indelible impression on us – from the walk in the forest (sadly, a rarity for most of us) to standing at the 9-lane intersection of Thompson Peak and Frank Lloyd Wright blvd in Scottsdale waiting to cross. The sensory characteristics and impact on human emotions of these places are measurable and quantifiable. Its core tom y Ph.D. research, which I’m conducting in the Phoenix metro region – in many ways a poster child of what can happen when you subordinate human needs to short term real estate profits and the convenience of automobile drivers.

    I’m hoping that my research won’t be used as an “answer machine” which is one of the problems of creating any kind of measures. From points-chasing to secure a LEED certification to standardized tests in schools, we’ve become rather too easily enslaved by metrics. However, I’m hoping that my research will provide the beginnings of a more robust evidence basis for designing better quality environments for people and countering the powerful forces of expediency and cheapness, driven primarily by the banking and real estate speculation sectors of the economy.

    Keep up the good work!



    Phil Allsopp | 3 years ago | Reply

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