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American Hardwoods Enhance Healthy, Healing Spaces
Meeting the exacting requirements of aesthetics, sustainability, durability
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Research and Environmental Design

An emerging body of research and observation is showing that natural materials are more than substitutes for toxic building materials: They are important in achieving occupant health and well-being, stress reduction, healing and increased productivity.

In a 1984 study, Roger Ulrich, Ph.D., Professor of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at Texas A&M University, showed that patients recovering from gall bladder surgery recovered more quickly and required less pain medication if their hospital room window had a view of trees rather than a brick wall—findings with clear cost-related implications. Some 20 years later, the Center for Health Design in Concord, California, published a watershed report written by Ulrich and others. It summarizes the findings of more than 600 studies that link design decisions to clinical outcomes. Research is substantiating that patients in home-like, reduced-stress health care environments require less medication or experience shorter hospital stays, thereby reducing costs. Natural materials including native hardwoods are an important part of these settings.


Lewis and Clark State Office Building
Jefferson City, Missouri
Designed by BNIM Architects of Houston, the building houses Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources, and features paneling of regionally harvested ash.
Photograph © 2006 Mike Sinclair


“It’s been proven that nature really lowers your anxiety level,” says Ana Maregatti, IIDA, President, Maregatti Interiors, Indianapolis, Indiana. “Ninety percent of people will say they feel best somewhere outdoors. It could be in the mountains, by a creek or the ocean. So how do we bring the outdoors inside to create a healing environment with the natural materials? We’re not only talking wood, but we also bring a lot of natural stone, slate floors, or glass to show some transparency in the space to make it more nurturing and inviting.”

Throughout the design and building community there is growing enthusiasm for incorporating nature into the built environment. Key underpinnings of this trend include:

Biophilia: Popularized by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson in his 1984 book, Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species, biophilia is defined as “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” As translated into the built environment, biophilia signifies such design features as use of local, natural materials; natural ventilation and opportunities to have contact with nature both physically and visually.

The Planetree Principles: In 2003, Susan B. Frampton, Laura Gilpin and Patrick A. Charmel published the Planetree principles for patient-centered health care in their book: Putting Patients First, Designing and Practicing Patient-Centered Care (Jossey-Bass).

The Planetree model aims to transform health care settings from high-tech and sterile to warm, comfortable, nurturing, stress-reducing and people-centered. In the Planetree approach, design can help to create a healing environment and is an integral part of the patient’s experience of health care.

When it comes to non-toxic and natural materials, the authors note: “The use of different textures is also important to minimizing the institutional feel of a hospital. Our homes are filled with a variety of rich textures and the presence of different tactile elements can remind patients of home.” They add that designers and architects can achieve that objective by using, among other things, wood furnishings and cabinetry throughout health care facilities.


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