Touching Nature and Designing Outdoor Spaces for Mind and Body

By Karen Howell Landscape Architect Director Iteriad

Q: The important role played by good landscape design in the creation of therapeutic mental health facilities.

We all recognise how green outdoor spaces and access to nature benefits our health and wellbeing. Most important is the provision of accessible outdoor space for mental health environments.

‘Spending time in nature has been proven to reduce stress, improve our memories, and make us kinder and more creative. It is almost impossible to overstate how good nature is for our minds.’

Ben Channon – ‘Happy by Design – A Guide to Architecture and Mental Wellbeing’.

Ben’s words ring so true for getting the designed landscape right in all types of settings. Our focus on good design should look to integrate nature into and around our buildings as much as possible, and to design to provide views out to the landscape. Creating views of the external landscape immediately provides a connection with nature even if nature can’t be brought into the building.

This starts with good site master planning.

This works most successfully when the landscape architect works in collaboration with the architect to plan the location and orientation of a building on the chosen site so that it effectively captures available natural light and sunny aspect, is set into the site to allow landscape to surround the building where possible for views to be focussed out to nature particularly for healthcare projects. Taking opportunities to maximise accessibility and to get the scale and size of the outdoor spaces in balance with the building is also very important.

Building on the masterplan the design team look to establish the ‘placemaking’ of the development. This sets the distinctiveness and character of the scheme to give it its unique ‘sense of place’ or ‘spirit of place’. This covers the shaping, materiality and scale of a building and its external environment so that it takes clues from and fits seamlessly with it’s surroundings taking cognisance of the setting and reference to it’s history.

Nature reflected in architecture and interiors is often referred to as ‘biophilic’ design. Building forms can be shaped to mimic nature that bring the landscape in. Whether this is through green walls, internal planting, artworks or nature’s colour palette used in interior design it will soften an internal space and immediately benefit our mood making us feel calmer and happier.

Biophilic design works from the macro scale right down to the micro detailing. Building forms that are shaped to ‘hug’ the landscape make great spaces to create ward gardens, so that there is an immediate adjacency and synergy with the internal environment. A good example are the ward units at New Park House Mental Health Unit located at North Manchester General Hospital designed by Gilling Dod Architects (GDA) to mimic the shape of a maple tree fruit often called spinning jennys, helicopters or wing nuts. This has enabled ourselves as the landscape architect to create safe and private outdoors spaces within a comfortable microclimate focused on providing a place to sit and relax and enjoy the garden without feeling overlooked. (See case study below)

The entrance and external public realm arrival space to a mental health building needs to be designed to be welcoming so that patients and service users immediately feel like they are coming to a place of safety and refuge not the austere institutional hospitals associated with the Victorian era.

Requirements for safety, privacy and security are key components of the designer’s brief for the external environment in mental health settings.

Integrating soft landscape and planting allows the designer to create outdoor spaces that present the full sensory experience connecting patients and service users with nature. Integrating the landscape with the internal spaces of a building means that you feel fully connected and immersed with nature. Plants are the living elements that help make buildings feel ’breathable’.

The choice of material, colour and texture of the paving and seating area surfaces is vitally important in contributing to the calming feel of an outdoor space. The furnishing of the outdoor spaces is also key not only to comply to the clinical and functional requirements of the specific setting but to be cheerful and inviting to sit on, perch or play. The arrangement of the outdoor furniture should be carefully considered to provide places to be sociable as well as to allow for areas to sit on one’s own away from others for privacy, quiet and contemplation.

Where possible green roof spaces or sky gardens are a great way to maximise the connection with nature and provide more functional space particularly on a constrained site or urban setting where a building may need to be several storeys high rather than just one or two storeys. This can greatly enhance the opportunities for biodiversity within a development.

Greenery is easy to provide but the ability to design a water feature into a scheme is more of a challenge. Often budget constraints and concerns about control of water sourced infection tends to mean that these features are omitted from a project early on on the design stages. However, the presence of water no matter how small the feature is proven to be beneficial to our sense of happiness. Whether it’s a small pool, bubbler or fountain even within the arrival space (if it can’t be within the clinical environment of the hospital) provides a focus and a welcoming sight for everyone using the building.

Well designed outdoor spaces with access to living plants allows a patient and service user to feel immersed in nature to promote the sense of healing, recovery and wellbeing. This can help to reduce the length of time that a patient or service user spends in hospital.

Designing for ease of, and reducing the cost of managing and maintaining the building over the longer term is very important. This also includes the future cleaning regime for windows and gutters that need to be accessible from the gardens often by mobile lifting platforms so space needs to be designed in to accommodate this type of equipment.

Designing for long term sustainability and a low carbon footprint is applicable across all aspects of a project and needs to comply to higher BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental (Sustainability) Assessment Method) and Embodied Carbon Assessment Targets.

Singularly the most important part of the design process is consultation and engagement on every aspect of the project with the trusts, estates teams, hospital staff, clinicians, patients and service users. Each project is unique with differing requirements to suit the specific brief of that scheme so the designer needs to listen and work with all of the prospective building users towards a successful outcome to the design.

The above criteria provide the designer with their design checklist that helps them to unlock the brief for the particular project and to help disseminate the exact requirements in collaboration with the healthcare trust network.

Specialist healthcare contractors such as IHP Vinci and Kier whom we work with regularly can significantly help in guiding the design, cost and construction viability in a positive way through the design process. We are working in collaboration with experienced mental healthcare design managers and the supply chain who are proactive in ensuring so that emerging designs are fully deliverable and affordable.

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