Restorative Environments: The Impact of Wood on Well-Being

By Rick Reynolds

The built environment we inhabit can have an enormous impact on our lives, affecting us both physically and psychologically. Along with concerns for the environment and personal health, a movement is underway to better understand these effects. And with increased interest in healthy homes and public structures, the promise of wood in restorative environments is being addressed as never before by psychologists, designers, architects, and others directly, or indirectly, involved in promoting healthy, indoor environments.

So what is a restorative environment? According to Rachel Kaplan, PhD and Phil Kaplan, PhD, a wife and husband team* in the forefront of research on restorative environments (and from which much of this article is drawn); a restorative environment is “any surrounding or natural setting which assists in rejuvenation or recovery from tension or chronic fatigue.”

Research by the Kaplans and others in the field, suggests that the current epidemic of depression may be caused by a sense of uprootedness and alienation brought about by the spaces we inhabit. Moreover, solid, scientific data suggests a strong connection between housing and overall health.

There also appears to be evidence that the use of wood can help to create healthful environments. Rooms with exposed wood elements are alternately described as “warm,” “comfortable,” “natural,” “inviting,” “relaxing,” and “calming.”

Why is this so? For architects and other designers, wood is a biophilic material, meaning it links human beings to nature. And the rise of the biophilic design movement has encouraged the use of natural materials, such as wood, in designed environments to address the affinity humans have for natural and life-like processes. Through the introduction of plenty of daylight, plants, and natural materials like wood and stone, biophilic design works in concert to promote the restorative environment.

But wood holds a special place in biophilic design because it is both a natural material and a structural/building material. That is to say, the pro-health benefits of wood can be found even in windowless rooms where natural light and nature views are not present and where plants cannot grow. And wood has excellent sound dampening qualities. As such, when it comes to design and application feasibility, wood has the right properties for all areas within the restorative environment.

At their best, our homes are sanctuaries, where families come together in safety, security, and shelter. It is also where we all spend most of our time. And in addition to being our greatest expenditure, the home usually represents our greatest asset, as well. Because of its central role in our lives, the home’s impact on our health— both positively and negatively—makes it incumbent that the government and the building industry promote biophilic design to assure that all Americans have access to healthier homes.

In the workplace, the same holds true. From architects designing in bold new ways using timber frame, mass timber, and cross laminated timbers (CLTs)—to interior designers using natural patterns in abstract ways, like using branch-like fractals to make ceilings mimic tree canopies—wood is being reintroduced into the work environment to help relieve stress, promote quiet, and increase productivity. In the words of psychologist Judith H. Heerwagen, PhD, and principal of J.H. Heerwagen and Associates, “Once you start thinking about it, this kind of design makes perfect sense,” she explains.  “We didn’t evolve in a sea of gray cubicles.”

Likewise, in healthcare, seniors in biophilically-designed assisted living facilities showed improvement in cognitive skills. And restorative environments can have beneficial effects that go beyond the mind. According to the Roger S. Urlich, PhD, director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University, nature can help the body heal, too. He found that surgical recovery improved within restorative environments.

In our schools, children who live in restorative environments were found to have a greater capacity for paying attention and were better able to delay gratification and inhibit impulses. In addition, noisy environments can have effects that go beyond hearing loss. In one study, first and second-grade children scored 20 percent lower on word recognition tests when airplanes were flying overhead.

As research on wood in the built environment continues, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the building material holds benefits well beyond its aesthetic and structural properties. Wood architecture can play a major role in promoting human health and behavior, manifesting as it does, nature’s ability to help people recover from life in the modern world.

 

  • Rachel Kaplan is a professor of psychology and the Samuel T. Dana Professor of Environment and Behavior in the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Stephen Kaplan is a professor in the Departments of Psychology and Computer Science and Engineering. The Kaplans teach at the University of Michigan.