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How Wooden Interiors Change the Human Body

Over the last few years, you might have seen the terms 'biophilia' or 'biophilic design' appearing all over the internet. If you're in the design field, you've most likely seen it so often that it feels like a universally rising trend. It might conjure up an image of the dangling green roofs in Singapore, or the faux plant wall in your nearest Instagram-friendly bar. Despite its trendiness, the roots of biophilia extend beyond just a design fad - they stem from the realms of neuroscience and biology.

Dozens of scientific studies conducted over the last decade have discovered the significant tangible effects of biophilic interior design on inhabitants. In hospitals, increased natural light and the presence of plants help lower patient anxiety and are directly correlated to faster recovery. (1) In retail spaces, customers are more likely to approach and enjoy a store with landscape elements. (2) The list of impacts is long and fascinating, but this post will focus on just one factor: wood.

Wood is one of the most ancient and universal of all building materials. On the architectural scale, it's been associated with traditional building methods of cultures all around the world, from the Norwegian hytte to the early American log cabin, to the Japanese minka. Wood's popularity is experiencing a revival in the era of climate change, as it is a renewable alternative to high-emission concrete construction. The first all-wooden skyscrapers are currently being designed and built, following the vision of a sustainable, renewable, biophilic built environment.

On the interior scale, wood is equally universal, and yet unique and special to each of us. Ask a dozen people to name the first wooden thing in their home and you might receive thousands of different, emotional responses. To some, they would mention the original hardwood floors they just restored - the semi-rickety table their kid made in woodshop class - the wooden carvings of saints passed down from their grandparents - the sleek, Scandinavian furniture piece they saved up for - the list goes on. Wood, in the human experience, is a meaningful material.

Logic would suggest that this connection to wood stems from its connection to nature, (i.e., biophilia), or to tradition (i.e., back when we only had natural materials). Recent studies on the affect of wood in the interior environment has found scientifically significant links: wooden interiors actually change our bodies' experience of space.

In 2005, Japanese researchers created two identical single offices. They had no windows, and were just set up with an identical workstation. One room was cladded with white steel wall panels, and the other with wooden wall panels. They monitored the blood pressure of participants for 90 minutes in each environment, as well as asked them qualitative questions about how they felt in each space. People who reported liking the wooden walls panels showed a significant decrease in blood pressure. People who didn't like the wood walls showed no change in blood pressure. However, in the white panelled room, participants who reported not liking the white panels actually experienced a significant increase in blood pressure, while people who reported liking the white panels experienced no change. (3)

It gets even more specific than that: A 2017 study in China tested people's physiological conditions within a series of identical rooms, set up with basic office furniture (a desk, a chair, and a laptop). The only difference between the rooms were their interior cladding. The first had no wood, and the other three were all covered in exposed wood panels in different wood tones (light, medium, and dark). They were able to measure that in the room wrapped with dark wood, people actually sweat less. The calming effect of the dark wooden interior made it so that under the same conditions, the same people that were producing a typical amount of perspiration in every other space actually produced less. (4)

Additional studies elaborate on these physiological links. A 2019 study of over 60 people compared their stress responses by monitoring their concentrations of salivary cortisol. Participants spent 75 minutes in 3 identical office environments: one with oak furniture, one with walnut furniture, and a control space. The result was that people produced less cortisol (the primary stress hormone) when the room was furnished in oak. (5) In 2023, a study that monitored biometrics like heart rate variability and attention span, found that people experience a decrease in anxiety and negative emotions in a space with wooden elements compared to an equivalent space with none.(6)

One of the most interesting, yet abstract of these experiments was a digital experiment run by professors of engineering and architecture at Mansoura University in Egypt in 2018. In an entirely virtual environment, they ran a series of simulations that tested the resonant frequencies produced in a series of different 3 geometric forms in different materials. They used numerical analysis to translate those frequencies into brainwaves - theoretically demonstrating how the intersection of spatial geometry and material affects the human brain. According to the simulations, wooden-clad cubic interiors would induce the brainwaves of focus and information reception and wooden-clad domes and cylinders would induce meditation and a sense of peace.(7) Amazingly, this series of mathematical simulation aligns exactly with the results that the in-person physiological studies found.

Wood is an undeniably impactful material in the interior, and should be recognized for its compound psychological and physiological effects. It's not just a trend, it's science.


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