Wood and wellness

24 April 2019


WBPI's sister magazine, TTJ’s, Wood and Wellness conference heard that timber has the perfect opportunity to benefit from the growing well-being agenda. Sally Spencer reports.

TTJ’s Wood and Wellness conference, which took place at the Hilton London Tower Bridge Hotel on February 13, 2019 heard that the wood sector is perfectly placed to potentially benefit from the growing global well-being economy.

The event, which saw UK merchant James Latham as headline sponsor, with Medite Smartply, the British Woodworking Federation and Accoya as other main sponsors, attracted positive comments from delegates, who asked for “more of the same”.

The role timber can, and does, play in health and well-being was explored by architects, interior designers, researchers and other construction professionals speaking at the conference.

Architect, interior designer and biophilic design expert Oliver Heath, of Oliver Heath Design, set the scene with an inspiring presentation that covered both the carbon footprint and wellness credentials of wood in the built environment. The use of timber, he said “puts people in a positive space”, reducing stress and enabling them to work and function more productively.

He said that specifiers had a better understanding of the lower carbon footprint of timber construction, but they didn’t always consider the impact a materials’ choice has on the occupants. “We need to find the sweet spot between the two,” he said, adding that with energy typically accounting for 1% of a building’s total operating costs, and employees for around 90%, there is an enormous opportunity to consider human health.

“World Health Organisation research shows that stress accounts for 44% of all workrelated ill health cases and, globally, 76% of employees report a struggle with well-being. The human and financial cost is huge.”

Studies have shown that the use of timber in interiors improves air quality by moderating humidity; lowers sympathetic nervous system activation (the SNS causes stress responses, increases blood pressure and heart rate); and increases the rate of communication and interaction.

While there is plenty of evidence of the benefits of timber and biophilic design in the health and education sectors, it’s in the workplace that the most accurate measurements can be taken. Mr Heath highlighted the work his practice is doing with the BRE in a live case study in which the health and well-being of people working in spaces designed with biophilic principles are being monitored.

The first year of the three-year project has been spent monitoring air quality, temperature, humidity and so on and combining that data with qualitative results from the people working there. Occupant monitoring of psychology is taking the form of questionnaires, cognitive tasks and interviews, while physiology is being tracked using biomarkers and ‘wearables’. Business productivity is also being measured.

“We’re looking at the role of technology and of natural elements in buildings and how to get a return on investment in biophilic design,” said Mr Heath.

Ed Suttie, research director at the BRE, agreed that everything pointed to the fact that the health and well-being agenda has “real potential for this sector and for society” and flagged up a new publication co-prepared by BRE and BM TRADA entitled The role of wood in healthy buildings.

Dr Suttie provided a summary of similar research throughout the world over the years and looked at the well-being movement in the context of mental health, physical health and social health, all of which have equal importance, he said.

This research has explored hypotheses including people’s positive attitudes towards wood in interiors; that wood has a positive effect on human psychology and physiology; and that wood is specified for its health and well-being qualities.

Studies highlighted Nyrud, Bringslimark and Bysheim’s 2014 research, which showed a preference for the use of wood in hospital rooms; and Ulrich’s 1984 research which demonstrated that patients in rooms with a view of nature recovered 8.5% faster, required 22% less medication and felt less pain. In Japan, Anme, Watanabe and Tokutake’s research in 2012 concluded that wood products improved the life of elderly people, leading to more social interaction and improved mental energy.

Dr Suttie included timber preservatives in the equation, updating delegates on the BRE’s collaboration with the UK's Wood Protection Association (WPA). Emissions studies conducted on treated timber were limited, he said, mostly because preservative-treated wood products are not found in the living spaces of buildings.

He added that the evidence suggests that emissions from pre-treated wood to air are small and that the complexity of the pathway from the treated product to the indoor air compartment means that the concentration reaching indoor air is negligible.

Dr Suttie said future research and evidence-gathering should focus on the need to understand the cultural and individual differences that influence preferences for wood in indoor settings; conducting more studies outside the laboratory; and conducting more ‘longitudinal’ studies (repeated observations of the same variable) to get a better picture of how benefits persist or dissipate.

Oliver Jones, director of research at Ryder Architecture, issued an open invitation for delegates to participate with his practice on building a well-being home.

“Our ongoing research is around the ‘building as a lab’, taking indoor and wearable measurements and looking at how to transfer this into advice on living better,” he said. “We’re working on an experimental house style and community, which is full of sensors, all focused on well-being and we want to engage with as many institutions and practices as possible to deliver a timber well-being home.”

Mr Jones outlined the building as a lab project at the BIM Academy, in partnership with Northumbria University in the UK.

“Everyone wants data but how do you use that data?” he said. “This research is enabling us to produce actionable advice.”

He added that the health and well-being market was worth €26bn in 2018 and said that timber is “perfectly placed to target this”. “But will the industry galvanise and get behind it? We need a total reinvention – we’ve spent too long tinkering around the edges. We need to redefine ‘good design’ as something that makes lives measurably better and improves health and well-being. If it doesn’t, then it’s not good design.

“We’re seeing the repercussions of not heeding the changes in consumer behaviour and the influence this has on the built environment,” he said, in a reference to the changing face of the high street.

Furniture maker Sean Sutcliffe, co-founder of Benchmark, spoke about his company’s increasing focus on well-being and said that while previous speakers were geared up for monitoring data, he measured nothing, other than intuitively.

“I’m driven by instinct and I know what makes me feel good – fresh air, open spaces and wood,” he said. “My measurements are a time-long distillation of empirical experience.”

Benchmark has always been driven by sustainability principles but is now taking it further with furniture designs geared towards providing “tangible evidence of nature in our workplaces”. A new range with this specific goal in mind will be launched in London in September.

Mr Sutcliffe highlighted existing ranges and projects that ticked the wellness box, including the Ovo range developed with architect Sir Norman Foster, which has been commissioned by American technology giant Comcast and the Health Education Centre in Cleveland, Ohio.

“They are at the forefront of medicine, including robotics and genetics and I love the fact that they chose to fill the huge atrium – the size of a football pitch – with solid oak furniture.

“As ‘woodies’ the light of opportunity is shining on us,” said Mr Sutcliffe. “We believe we have the edge in wellness.”

Three inspiring case studies were presented at the conference, including one at a rather surprising location – The Shard.

DaeWha Kang, lead designer at DaeWha Kang Design and Alex Morris, a psychologist and head of workplace well-being and behavioural change at facilities management company Mitie, provided a fascinating insight into the Winter Gardens project at the glass and steel edifice. Here, several areas of Mitie’s office space have been fitted out with wood products as part of a 'Living Lab' experiment to assess worker performance and well-being.

“The use of bamboo and the design which arches over workers, giving the idea of shelter but not obscuring the vista, provides a visual connection with nature,” said Mr Kang. “There is richness but it is also very calming.”

Mitie conducted a study with University College London in which eight participants spent four weeks working in the Winter Garden space and four weeks working in a control office space.

“They took part in daily ‘experience sampling’ surveys showing how they felt at that moment,” said Dr Morris. “Results showed that 38% felt more relaxed, 36% were less worried and they felt 60% more productive in the Winter Garden space. Negative emotions decreased, positive emotions rose and 81% were more satisfied with their physical environment,” she said.

The next stage of the study is to induce stress in people and then assign them to either a control space or to the ‘regeneration pods’ with wearable technology and see how long it takes people to recover.

“This will give us the hard data we need,” said Dr Morris. “If we know there is a high correlation between human data and technical data it enables us to trust the tech more. We can use this to optimise our buildings more.”

Alex de Rijke, director at dRMM Architects, highlighted timber’s potential in the healthcare sector with his profile of Maggie’s Oldham, which saw the first use in the UK of hardwood (tulipwood) CLT.

Healthcare tends to use materials that are actually detrimental to health, said Mr de Rijke, but the Maggie Centres’ aim was to develop “architecture for hope”.

He explained how the Endless Stair project had generated enough technical analysis to enable tulipwood CLT to be used at Maggie’s Oldham and said that the benefits of panelised offsite construction had included the decrease in disruption for patients and staff.

The education sector was under the spotlight with Eleanor Brough, an associate at Sarah Wigglesworth Architects, who outlined the award-winning “Tree-Top Classroom” extension at Mellor Primary School in the Peak District.

The extension was designed to support the enhancement of the school’s curriculum and in doing so “connected with the landscape”.

Covered timber decking areas enable the children to spend as much time outside as possible and the structure features larch glulam portal frames, while the interior is fitted out with birch plywood joinery.

The east and west elevations are clad with vertical western red cedar (WRC), while other elevations are clad with WRC shingles. Ms Brough said that the idea of using timber and keeping it as exposed as possible became embedded in the scheme early on and that while there was no “hard data” on how the building had improved well-being, feedback from staff and pupils has been excellent.

“Once you step through the doors there is a real sense of calm,” said one. “I like all the wood and having the doors open in the summer out onto the decking,” added another.

There is a real sense of your [woodland] surroundings in the classroom, said Ms Brough, and the importance of keeping in touch with the forests was amplified by Chris Sutton, managing director of conference headline sponsor James Latham, who explained his company’s 12-year association with the National Forest.

“During the 12 years we have seen how the landscape has changed and how our efforts are making a difference,” said Mr Sutton. “We are really proud of it and it is an integral part of our corporate social responsibility.”

Activities for Lathams include corporate forest days, in which customers are invited to take part in forest management pursuits, and sponsorship of the National Forest’s Timber Festival (this year on July 5-7).

David Bourque, director of development at the National Forest, described the progress made since the forest establishment began in 1995 and how the landscape and people’s lives had been transformed.

Forest cover within the 200 square mile National Forest was 6% in 1991 and last year had risen to 21% (the UK average is 13%). The aspiration is to achieve 33% forest cover. Next steps include the ‘Our National Forest’ campaign to promote more sustainable lifestyles; connecting people to the Forest through ‘greener’ design; and creating opportunities for sustainable buildings.

“We’ve got some timber construction coming through,” said Mr Bourque. “There is an appetite for it, but it needs momentum.” James Latham provided each delegate with a complimentary copy of “Shinrin-Yoku, the art and science of forest bathing”, a book which describes the benefits of spending time in the forests and a principle that is now part of Japan’s public health programme.

Maggie’s in Oldham, UK
Oliver Heath said the use of timber puts people “in a positive space”
Mitie’s offices at The Shard in London were designed by DaeWha Kang
Alex de Rijke spoke about Maggie’s Oldham
Acoustic panels made from Medite Premier FR in the Central Bank of Ireland
Delegates at the Wood and Wellness conference