Optimise your Spaces for Work & Living: An Interview with Lily Bernheimer
Lily Bernheimer is an environmental psychologist with a message: 'To build a resilient future, we must take an active role in the shaping of our own environments.'
In her first book The Shaping of Us: How Everyday Spaces Structure Our Lives, Behaviour, and Well-Being, Bernheimer shares valuable insights into how we can tweak, design, and build spaces that benefit our mental and physical health, our productivity, how we connect with the world, and how these methods can have a wider positive impact on the cohesion of communities and the sustainability of our world.
Lily Bernheimer © Space Works Consulting
The book is a must read for anyone interested in optimising lifestyles and environments for themselves and others. Bernheimer illuminates her evidence-based design strategies in a way that prompts us to question our own characteristics and perspectives, gives actionable advice, and will no doubt have you laughing out loud with her witty way of guiding us through this fascinating field of study.
Q1. Your research reveals how ‘we have an innate human attraction to the natural world and are drawn to elements in the built world that echo it’. The ‘calming and enlivening’ effects of bringing elements of nature indoors is an attractive notion. Potting plants indoors is a great start, but how else can we enjoy the benefits of nature in spaces that otherwise feel very man-made?
I’ve developed a ‘BALANCED’ checklist, which I use in my own work and have included in the book. It’s an easy way to remember the most important elements to consider in an interior space, to help understand how different aspects will affect wellbeing and to evaluate what’s currently working and what could be improved.
(extract from the ‘BALANCED Space checklist’)
The first item on the checklist is ‘Biophilia’ as this is very important but the term in isolation is a little misleading, as each element on the checklist should be considered within the framework of how they can support our wellbeing in the natural world, and how we can make the built environment mimic that positive effect in some way.
For example, the first ‘A’ stands for atmosphere, which includes lighting, air quality, air movement, temperature, all of which remain in a constant state of flux in the natural world, whereas indoors they can be held static. This means that even if we find the perfect indoor lighting quality, if we experience the same light source all day, it will still feel unnatural to us as sunlight changes in direction, colour and intensity throughout the course of the day. Making these indoor atmospheric qualities more similar to the natural world is also biophilic and makes a positive impact on our wellbeing.
There is a tendency to use potted plants as an afterthought. There are other ways to introduce elements of the natural world, especially through materials. For example, the house that I grew up in was, by Californian standards, quite an old house, built c.1900, with hardwood floors, dark wooden features and mouldings around the windows and doors. There were not many potted plants, but the organic shapes and the wood grain had a biophilic influence. In urban and interior settings, the checklist helps to identify where the biophilic factors are being introduced and in which ways they are lacking.
Q2. You have highlighted the housing crisis that affects many places around the world, and point out that ‘more than just building housing, we need to create homes’. In a time when an increasing number of large-scale, modern developments are being built with ever-smaller lots, what is your key advice to those who live in new-build housing to personalise their space, and which could also introduce a sense of community?
When you have houses in a row that all look similar, personalisation of the outdoor areas can be an ideal opportunity to differentiate, by cultivating very different styles of gardens, balconies, or window boxes. Equally, people living on the street could agree to introduce a common element together, which would bring about coherence but also a sense of community. For example, they could all decide to grow Wisteria along the front facades of their houses, to tie them together, but then introduce different planting styles in their gardens, to give a real sense of character of the owner of each property. This sort of approach can build community and also bring about the ‘ordered complexity’, which humans thrive on.
Focusing on the interior of the houses – space is such a big issue. Research I conducted with Grainger PLC has reported decreasing residential space and the wellbeing impacts this is having on people. The evidence shows that ceiling height really affects our perception of space, as even if we have a small floor area, with higher ceilings, we feel less constricted and can feel less irritable and more tolerant of others, so I would urge developers to be generous with vertical space.
If you do find that the floor and vertical space is small, it’s important to be good at not cluttering or accumulating too much, as this makes spaces feel even smaller. Another tip is to use artwork, particularly those which give you a sense of other spaces, preferably with a natural view or if the work is abstract, it should introduce a sense of spaciousness.
Q3. In the same vein, I was particularly interested to read in your book that ‘the simple act of making a space your own elevates daily life’ and that the empty spaces and blank walls of our homes and offices are waiting to be enlivened. How important do you think it is to have artwork in spaces, whether that be a painting, a child’s drawing or framed photography?
Most houses and offices have imagery in some form on the walls, be it through calendars, posters or photography. Houses especially look unfinished without pictures on the walls, so I think it is quite essential to include them; they provide a connection to the personality of the people occupying the space. On the other hand, if the pictures hanging on the wall are forced, it can feel artificial, like a fake plant, both of which I always find disappointing. Artificial plants don’t provide the same positive effects on air quality that real plants do. Using lamps or sculptures that echo the fractal forms found in nature feels more authentic, and has more of a positive impact then something artificial. Equally, a superficial picture does not give the same positive feelings as when it’s connected to the person inhabiting the space.
Q. Through your research you have found that ’we thrive on sensory stimulation’ but that ‘a lot of the built environment is under-stimulating visually and acoustically over-stimulating’. Finding a balance is challenging, what lighting techniques & selection of materials can we employ to help us to achieve this balance?
In terms of lighting, a lot of institutional environments are actually over-stimulating, on the basis that they can be too well lit. This is understandable in hospitals and kitchens for example, but there are spaces, like classrooms, which are constantly so brightly lit, that they can feel like unnatural environments to us.
With reference to the under-stimulating aspects of institutional spaces— like hospitals and many university buildings— when every corridor feels and looks exactly the same, there is nothing to help you orient your way around the space and distinguish one hallway from another.
In terms of the residential environment, it’s important to have less direct lighting, which is less uniformly placed in the centre of the ceiling. In the living room for example, you could have one pendant light in the centre of the ceiling but also a floor lamp and a table lamp next to the sofa. Even if the quality of the light in these sources is not the best, having these variations and a layered effect is the most effective way to make the space feel more natural.
Furthermore, it is much more beneficial if you can invest in really good quality LED light bulbs, which more closely mimic incandescent light. Incandescent bulbs feel more like sunlight or firelight to us as they also create light through heat. More energy efficient lamps, like fluorescent or the old generation LED, save energy as they don’t create light through heat, but the cold quality of the light they emit warps our perception of an environment, especially of colour. Using new LED light bulbs, with warmer colour temperatures, and including a shade over the bulb, will really help you to create a more biophilic environment.
In reference to noise and acoustics, it’s important to have a greater proportion of soft surfaces in a room. New build housing can feel quite institutional at first, with a lot of hard surfaces without much variation, which creates acoustical environments where there is a greater amount of reverberation as the sounds waves aren’t being softened.
You can fill a room with sofas, rugs etc. but there are also specific wall hangings and ceiling panels that can be used if the acoustic quality is really poor. The wall-to-wall carpeting that is used in some new-build housing is good in terms of noise but not always ideal for light conditions and keeping spaces dust-free, so there are pros and cons to using carpeted flooring.
Q. Through your research you address the human need for order and legibility in spaces but have found that we also crave a sense of mystery in an environment. In our own homes, which we often need to be versatile, multi-functional and able to accommodate all our belongings, all whilst providing us with a sanctuary which reflects our individuality, how can we approach decoration and furnishing in a way that again strikes a balance?
In my book I explore the concepts of ‘mystery’ and ‘legibility’ in a space, which has developed from my consulting work, usually more oriented to public and work spaces. But in the home environment, these concepts play out in the idea of styles of decoration.
Artwork could be a good way to bring biophilia and mystery into the home, especially when used to balance a specific style of decoration or lifestyle. For example, a stark, minimalist style, which is highly ordered, could be balanced with artwork that has more of a sense of mystery. Alternatively, a chaotic, complex style could benefit from more structured artwork, which could introduce more of a sense of order and coherence to a space.
In all cases it depends on the architecture of the building that you’re working with as a foundation: old houses tend to have lots of features such as mouldings. I was surprised to learn that the detail of mouldings over door and window frames typically mirror forms found in nature, they are characterised by the same fractal qualities, and these details bring ordered complexity into a environment. Whether or not your space contains these features, you can think about how you can balance a space with patterns, in the form of upholstery or curtain fabrics for example, to counter the complexity or simplicity of the architectural backdrop.
Q. Your evidence-based strategies for designing spaces to help us expend and replenish energy, to optimise productivity, are valuable for organisations of all shapes and sizes, they are equally interesting for the increasing number of people who are self employed. What is your top tip for people who work from home?
I have some personal experience of this, although I have never worked 100% from home, my home has always been my work base. My first tip is to create a workspace outside of the bedroom. A lot of people put their desks in the bedroom, but research is clear that getting a good night’s sleep has become such a problem for people, and that it’s really important for sleep patterns to reserve the bedroom for sleeping predominantly. Even if a person would need to set up every morning on their dining table for example, I would still suggest that this is worthwhile to avoid working in the bedroom. Good task lighting at the desk is also key, so that you can control the direction and intensity of the light in your workspace.
It’s also advantageous to have a view out of the house, to benefit from the biophilic effects. Even if you have an urban view, simply looking up from work at a plant or tree for a few seconds has an amazing ability to restore your “capacity for directed attention”. Natural patterns calm us, reduce stress levels and have a refreshing capacity, all of which improves our ability to focus. It’s also important to retain our connection with the outdoor world, working from home can feel isolating at times, so I advocate working out of the house too: whether this be through a part time membership at a co-working space, in a café, or just by taking a stroll at lunchtime. Changing your environment can really help you to reset yourself and restart work feeling refreshed.
And just because Lily is so wonderful and concerned about our wellbeing, she offered us this last piece of advice:
It’s also important to consider the concepts of ‘order’ & ‘mystery’ in a house environment in terms of the space layout. It’s key to think about how your spaces convey a sense of mystery and intrigue and draw people in, to explore them further. When you look into a room, do you feel drawn towards the other side of it? Is there an inviting place to sit? Are there interesting things on walls and shelves?
To achieve a welcoming space, you could try creating a small seating spot with two chairs positioned corner-to-corner and to establish a pool of light to define the area, just like the different areas of density and light that we find when exploring a forest. By mirroring nature in this way, we can create our own mini-habitats throughout our spaces, to make them work for us.
Lily Bernheimer is the founding director of Space Works Consulting, which helps designers and organisations to sculpt spaces to better serve their function and the people that use them.
The Shaping of Us: How Everyday Spaces Structure Our Lives, Behaviours, and Well-Being, is available now in English and Polish, published by Little, Brown.
© Lisa Bretherick
Impact Hub, King's Cross
Space Works Consulting provided a research-based design strategy and training service for this co-working space.