Why Some Spaces Make Us Feel Right at Home

HM_LOGOHere is this month’s piece on the changing world of work from furniture maker Herman Miller, a company for which Peter Drucker long consulted and that continues to exemplify his principles of innovation and effectiveness.

Why do we immediately feel comfortable—or uncomfortable—when we enter a building for the first time? Why is it so easy to relax on a patio? Why in an enclosed room do we prefer to face the door?

The answers lie in our evolutionary history, and what we know about that history can help us create office environments that make us feel at ease and better able to focus on work. Innovating in this way also illustrates a key tenet of Peter Drucker’s: “At least half the important new technologies that have transformed an industry in the past 50 years came from outside the industry itself.” This is why understanding biology is so important for a design firm.

What we’ve learned is that people take in information about a setting through our senses, which send messages to our limbic system—a “set of structures deep within the brain that fires up in situations which have implications for our survival and well-being.” It’s a matter of feeling before thinking. For our ancestors, direct ties existed between the environment and survival. Enclosure made them feel safe from predators, while long vistas allowed them to see what was coming.

How we feel is still influenced by the habitat selection and environmental preferences of our ancestors. Because we evolved on the African savanna, humans still prefer that particular landscape and the habitat it affords. Irrespective of culture or birthplace, we still want to be in places that have the same attributes as the savanna, which provided all the things necessary for survival.

Photo courtesy of Herman Miller
Photo courtesy of Herman Miller

This idea that basic human needs evolved through, and are satisfied by, connection with the natural world is called biophilia. The theory behind biophilic design is that we can apply knowledge about ancient preferences to our buildings. And while research has long shown that bringing elements of nature into healing environments or mimicking those elements speeds healing, these techniques may improve cognitive processes and might enhance productivity, as well.

When it comes to the environment, there are certain human needs that, when not met, can affect comprehension and satisfaction. That’s according to Terrapin Bright Green in “The Economics of Biophilia,” who cites these five needs:

  • For change/variety of temperature and light
  • For the ability to act on the environment and see the effects
  • For meaningful stimuli (stagnant atmospheres cause chronic stress)
  • For one’s own territory to provide safety, an identity and protection
  • For a view to the outside world

The three tenets of biophilic design address those needs. The first—“nature in space”—is simply bringing plants and water into the building or providing direct access to nature through, say, a courtyard.

The second tenet involves “natural analogues,” materials that evoke nature. These include pictures of nature and materials and finishes that are reminiscent of nature, which can include reflective surfaces because they mimic water.

“Nature of the space”—the third tenet—refers to the layout of the actual space. We are hard-wired to prefer spaces that offer prospect from the vantage point of refuge, spaces that let us see out without being seen.

Environments that effectively incorporate these principles can help restore balance between the sympathetic system, which is important for thinking and doing, and the parasympathetic system, which regulates things like digestion. The body feels “at home”—and so does the brain.

—Betty Hase, Advanced Knowledge + Applications Lead