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Cooped up indoors, self-isolating? There’s a reason you don’t feel well

If you don’t have enough contact with the natural world, there can be emotional and physical costs. But you can reduce stress by bringing the natural world inside.

Cooped up indoors, self-isolating? There’s a reason you don’t feel well

Don’t just put a single orchid in the corner; instead, try a grouping of plants, as the biophilic design firm Greenery NYC did here. (Photo: Brad Dickson)

When you spend a lot of time indoors, as many of us are doing now, it’s easy to succumb to a sense of malaise. Scientists, architects and others who study the concept of biophilic design – creating buildings and interiors with cues from the natural world – say there’s a reason for that.

“Humans have an affinity toward nature that’s biologically embedded,” said Bethany Borel, a senior associate at CookFox Architects, which has designed numerous offices with biophilic elements, including its own studio in Manhattan. If you don’t have enough contact with the natural world, Borel said, there can be emotional and physical costs.

Biophilic design attempts to counter this by connecting people with nature, which “can help reduce stress, improve cognitive performance, elevate our mood and have various physiological benefits,” said Bill Browning, a founder of Terrapin Bright Green, a New York-based sustainability consulting firm established in 2006 with the founders of CookFox.

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A recent study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, published in the journal Environment International, supported that claim, concluding that biophilic interiors helped inhabitants recover from stress and reduce anxiety more quickly than interiors without natural elements, and documented a notable reduction in blood pressure.

So how can this help you survive an extended lockdown? We asked architects and designers for tips on how to incorporate biophilic design at home.

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One of the most straightforward ways to add nature to a space is with houseplants. But don’t just put a single orchid in the corner. Instead, try a little grouping of plants.

“We respond differently to a group of plants together,” Browning said. “Environmental psychologists are theorising that when we see a cluster of plants together, the brain says, ‘Oh, look, there’s a habitat, so this must be a good place for me to be.’”

A grouping of greenery enlivens a master bedroom designed by Clodagh. (Photo: Keith Scott Morton)

It doesn’t have to take up a lot of space: A few types of plants could be installed together in a terrarium.

Or, “if you’ve got one big potted plant, create an understory,” he suggested, with a small plant spilling over the side of the pot. That way “it becomes a miniature landscape.”

“Environmental psychologists are theorising that when we see a cluster of plants together, the brain says, ‘Oh, look, there’s a habitat, so this must be a good place for me to be.’” – Bill Browning

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Those of us who have a checkered history with houseplants should start slowly and choose plants that are easy to maintain.

“Sometimes, having a lot of houseplants around can actually make you feel anxious about taking care of them,” said Rebecca Bullene, a partner at the biophilic design firm Greenery NYC, which operates Greenery Unlimited, a plant store in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “If you’re killing plants all the time, it can make you feel really sad.”

But no worries: “There are a handful of plants that are relatively foolproof,” said Adam Besheer, Bullene’s partner at Greenery NYC. That includes ZZ plants (Zamioculcas zamiifolia), snake plants, pothos, Philodendron cordatum and aglaonema.

Clodagh, a New York-based interior designer who employs biophilic design principles in her projects, often uses jade plants for their simplicity. “In our own office, we have about 20m of window boxes filled with jade plants,” she said. “It’s very, very easy and helps clean the air.”

To increase your chances of success, Besheer said, make sure you know how much water your chosen plants require over time, and that your planters have proper drainage holes. If your home doesn’t get a lot of sunlight, buy a simple full-spectrum LED retrofit light bulb for a lamp, to serve as a grow light.


In autumn, the south garden at Mt Cuba blooms with native perennials. (Photo: Mt Cuba Center via The New York Times)

Indoor plants aren’t the only way to create a visual connection to nature. If you have a terrace or balcony, greenery outside the window works well. Or, you may be able to capture views of a park or tree down the street.

“We’ll use mirrors to bring positive views inside,” said Clodagh. “If there’s a tree, we’ll use a mirror to bring a view of that tree inside.”

Dried flowers are another option. Michael Hsu, an architect in Texas, commissioned a ceiling-mounted installation of dried flowers from the floral design studio Davy Gray when he recently opened an office in Houston.

“I call it a flower cloud,” Hsu said. “You see a lot of green walls in offices right now, but they have their own challenges with lighting and water. This is easier to maintain, but still changes the mood of the conference room.”

Photographs of natural scenes can also do the trick, Borel said: “Even if it’s not an actual beach that you see out your window, it has a calming effect and helps to drop your cortisol levels down a little bit.”


Adding finishes, furniture and accessories made from natural materials – wood with an appealing grain pattern, for example, or natural stone – can evoke nature, too.

“We try to use natural materials with the least amount of processing possible,” Hsu said. “It’s the architectural equivalent of eating organic food. With wood, we want to celebrate the grain and character of each species. It does so much for us, emotionally.”

Part of the appeal is the tactile nature of those materials.

The American painted lady butterfly, Vanessa virginiensis, enjoys one of the phlox cultivars in the Mt Cuba trial garden. (Photo: Mt Cuba Center via The New York Times)

“When I’m sitting at a table that has a live edge, or some kind of articulation to the wood grain, I end up running my fingers over the edge of the table,” Borel said. “That subconscious connection with the natural helps us calm down a little.”

Manufactured products like carpets, wallcoverings and fabrics that mimic patterns found in nature can have a similar effect.

“Think of the honey locusts in Paley Park that create the amazing dappled light in that space, or the pattern of the water on the waterfall,” Browning said of the Manhattan green space. “Those are statistical fractals.”

When fractals like those are used as decorative patterns on the things that surround us, he said, “the immediate response you see is a reduction in stress.”


“In our own office, we have about 60 feet of window boxes filled with jade plants,” said Clodagh, a New York-based designer. “It’s very, very easy and helps clean the air.” (Photo: Daniel Aubry)

If your home doesn’t get a lot of natural light, consider adding lamps and light bulbs that provide various colour temperatures and intensities over the course of the day to help keep your body’s circadian system in check.

“People tend to gravitate to windows because you see the light change throughout the day,” Borel said.

“As humans, we have a cycle that is dependent on the natural lighting in our environment: Blue morning light helps us wake up and feel energised,” she said, while the gentle, warm light of the setting sun helps prepare us for sleep.

If your home has a lot of static artificial light, it may be worth investing in adjustable bulbs, Borel said, from companies like Ikea and Philips, which make affordable options. At CookFox’s office, she said, the architects use Koncept Lady7 task lamps to change between cool and warm white light at their desks.


Water – in the form of an aquarium or a small fountain – can be another powerful reminder of nature.

“The sound of water is clinically proven to help you relax,” said Clodagh, who often includes water features in her projects, from private residences to apartment lobbies. “Any kind of moving water is terrific.”

The sound may also help block out distracting noises, like traffic or screaming children.

“A small fountain, little waterfall or small, gurgling stream is by far the most effective acoustic masking sound,” Browning said. “The brain will focus on that and filter out most of the conversations or other noise in a space.”

And it doesn’t have to be complicated or elaborate, Clodagh noted: “You can put a bubbler in a big steel dog bowl, with some pots of greens around it, and have your indoor garden.”

“The sound of water is clinically proven to help you relax. Any kind of moving water is terrific.” – Clodagh


Even with a wide array of natural elements, you may still feel the need to retreat from roommates or family members, like an ancient hunter-gatherer returning to a cave. If so, try to identify a cosy place where your back is protected, preferably somewhere with a low ceiling, Browning said.

In most homes, he noted, “that’s the window seat, the wingback chair or the four-poster bed – it’s just that little space where you can tuck in for a break.”

By Tim McKeough © 2020 The New York Times

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