In our modern world, people spend around 90% of their time indoors, so it is essential that internal spaces are designed with the health and wellbeing of users in mind. This starts from the ground up, where flooring choices can have a profound impact on the way people feel, and how effectively they are able to work, learn and live.
Natural materials have been shown to have both mental and physical benefits for occupiers, and with today’s customers, tenants and visitors demanding much more from the buildings they spend their time in, designers must aim for the highest performing, most attractive indoor experience.
How can nature support mental and physical wellbeing?
As creations of the natural world ourselves, connection to the environment has long been associated with healthy bodies and minds. Known as ‘biophilic’ design, the process of bringing the outdoors in shouldn’t just be aspirational, but foundational. It is even recognised by voluntary wellbeing-focused building standards such as WELL as a tool to care for future inhabitants.
Good indoor air quality is essential for people to feel and perform their best. We typically think of air pollution as an external issue, caused by things like traffic fumes or industrial activity. However, in September 2019 a report into ventilation and indoor air quality in new homes published by MHCLG and Aecom, identified that concentrations of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in the air were as much as 20 times higher inside than outside.
VOCs are emitted from many manmade, manufactured furnishings such as paints, adhesives, upholstery, and floor coverings. Once a project’s furnishings enter a building, the process of ‘off-gassing’ begins, releasing these compounds into the air. Large volumes tend to leach into the air immediately after they’re installed, but some materials can continue off-gassing for many years.
These chemicals have been shown to cause a wide range of damaging impacts on people, spanning from mild irritations to more serious illness. With some VOCs even being classed as carcinogens, designers and operators have an obligation to avoid these chemicals as far as possible to protect those inside and create healthy spaces.
Natural materials are innately low emitters of VOCs, given they aren’t manufactured from petroleum-based, synthetic source materials, like their artificial counterparts.
By reducing the levels of VOCs and improving the overall Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), designers are caring for their eventual occupiers. From supporting better quality sleep in hotels or homes, to encouraging better academic performance in schools or workplaces, starting early in the specification process helps to create a holistically healthy space.
Connecting people to natural environments is known to help nurture mental wellbeing. Natural stimuli in the outdoors have influenced feelings and behaviours for millions of years, and our rapid transition to urbanisation has disconnected people from these natural guides. Reintroducing organic colours, textures and materials back into interiors, and improving all-around visibility of nature, can help to re-establish these essential links.
For areas such as workplaces, including natural elements has been shown to improve general productivity. One study compared workplaces without natural elements to a ‘lean cage’, likening people to animals who become anxious when deprived of organic visual and touch points – highlighting that these natural connections are not just pleasant, but essential.
Infusing nature into design
One of the largest surface areas in any project is its floor – so it’s only logical for designers to begin introducing natural materials, textures and designs here. Utilising organic pile fibres, as opposed to the petroleum-based synthetic fibres of artificial floor coverings, designers can reduce the levels of VOCs in space, supporting good indoor air quality whilst introducing important natural features from the outside world.
Wool carpets, rugs and runners, for example, have been used for centuries – and for good reason. Their organic fibres are effective at trapping allergens which build up in a space, allowing them to be easily vacuumed away. This reduces the amount of airborne dust and dirt, whilst requiring fewer chemicals during cleaning and maintenance.
The material is also naturally hygroscopic, meaning that it reacts to the changing moisture levels change in the air. In practice, as conditions become damp, wool can absorb excess moisture from the atmosphere, realising it later as the conditions become drier. This helps to better regulate indoor areas, combatting the risk of mould and fungus growth.
Some plant-derived fibres have also shown to be hypoallergenic, thanks to the antimicrobial properties they exhibited during life – this reduces the likelihood of aggravating existing allergies for those inside.
No matter the selection, natural floor coverings offer unmatched character for any project, and designers have a myriad of materials and weaves to choose from. Animal-coat materials such as wool are renowned for their cosy comfort and underfoot durability, dyable in vibrant patterns and tones to add life to a space. Bold plant-fibres, such as sisal, seagrass, jute or coir, each boast individual qualities of hardiness, texture and tone.