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Dave Fell: More wood=Less stress

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The creation of healthier indoor environments is receiving increased attention in the specification and design of buildings. The evidence-based design movement in health care stipulates that designs incorporate scientific evidence in the pursuit of healthier environments.

The quest for human health in design is expanding to other building types such as schools and offices, and is considered by many to be a follow-up movement to the current focus on sustainability.

Recent research at the University of British Columbia and FPInnovations has provided evidence of a link between wood visual surfaces and stress reactivity in occupants of the built environment. The study concludes that the presence of wood indoors reduces stress and promotes better long-term health.

The stress-reducing effects of nature have been studied for the past quarter-century. It has been well established that exposure to nature reduces stress, increases focussed attention, and reduces illness and aggression. These are all positive effects for health and well being. Unfortunately, Canadians spend 88 per cent of their time indoor and only 6 per cent of their time outdoors (with the remaining 6 per cent spent in our cars).

To take advantage of the health benefits of nature we need to either get outside more, or find a way to bring the benefits of nature indoors. This has been achieved through plants, natural sunlight, and views to nature from the built environment. Each of these elements has been scientifically proven to reduce stress, promote health and increase productivity and attention.

In the past decade several surveys by FPInnovations and other researchers have tried to explain the human affinity for wood. Wood surfaces are repeatedly described as healthy, warm, and calming. However, such survey results do not explain the nature of the humanrelationship with wood, and do not meet the scientific requirements of evidence-based design.

To this end, a controlled experiment on wood and stress reactivity was carried out at the University of British Columbia.

Wood and non-wood offices were constructed to study stress reactions in the presence and absence of wood. A total of 119 subjects participated in the study giving the research scientifically- credible results.

The study looked at physiological stress reactions in the body. Skin conductance, a key indicator of stress, was statistically lower in the wood room than in the nonwood room. Skin conductance is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, often referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response. While this response prepares us for immediate stress, it also suppresses functions such as cellular repair, digestion and focussed attention. For this reason, prolonged periods of stress activation are associated with colds, indigestion, irritability and other negative health conditions.

The study concludes that wood decreases stress activation in the occupants

of the built indoor environment. The scientific nature of this study supports the demands of the evidence- based design increasingly being practiced in hospitals, offices and schools. However, the results are also of general interest as we all finish and decorate our homes and work environments. If we can’t get outside in the cold Canadian winter, we can bring nature indoors with wood and be healthier for it.

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