The Sky Factory

The Sky Factory

Fairfield, IA


Can an Interior Illusion Improve High-Rise Occupant Well-Being?

By TheSkyFactory
Jan 8, '16 3:42 PM EST
Biophilic illusions of nature provide a perceived spatial opening to open skies.
Biophilic illusions of nature provide a perceived spatial opening to open skies.

Contributed article as it appeared in High Rise Buildings magazine in October 2015.

The universal experience in high rise buildings, no matter what floor is your destination, starts in the lobby—waiting for the elevator. Surrounded by strangers, even a small wait can feel lengthy. Most people’s unconscious reaction is to avoid eye contact. Instead, they look up.

Now, architects and designers alike are taking advantage of this natural reaction to give occupants and visitors an unexpected wellness experience.

When people’s gaze begins to drift upwards, their periphery vision will first sense and their frontal vision will then discover a visually alluring open blue sky that allows observers to feel as if they were not underneath several stories of concrete and steel, but on the uppermost floor.

This contemporary Trompe-l’oeil (French for “deceive the eye”) is designed as a biophilic illusion that takes advantage of how our cognitive perception assesses visual/spatial stimuli to create a surprising experience of openness in otherwise enclosed interiors.

These virtual skylights called illusions of nature are designed to leverage our hardwired habits of perception in a way that generates a genuine experience of proximity to open space. Unlike backlit nature photography that creates a symbolic or psychological impression, biophilic illusions are designed to be perceived as part of the exterior envelope of an interior space.

This allows the optical (biophilic) illusion to engage areas of the brain involved in spatial cognition, triggering an automatic “relaxation response” in the physiology. When the eye and mind organically assess a palpable, visual connection to a natural exterior, our physiology relaxes.

According to an impressive body of research, a visual connection to nature offering what environmental psychologists call “Prospect & Refuge,” the ability to see one’s natural surroundings from a place of comfort and safety, is among the most beneficial attributes that natural environments offer to human health and wellness.

While it’s no secret why most of us prefer an oceanfront room while on vacation or why we invariably enjoy unencumbered vistas from balconies surrounded by undulating forests, pristine mountains, or tropical bays, now there is abundant evidence detailing why these visual attributes contribute significantly to lower stress and anxiety, balance the emotions, increase cognitive function, enhance mental acuity, and even contribute in spurring creativity.

The resurgent notion behind nature’s healing ability stems from Edward O. Wilson’s famed Biophilia Hypothesis, proposed over 30 years ago by this eminent Harvard biologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

Wilson observed and intuitively believed that humanity had a genetically predisposed need to affiliate with life and life-like processes, a tendency he encapsulated in the term “biophilia” from the Greek “bios”  (life) and “philia” (love of) as in love of or affinity with life systems.

Given that larger proportions of the population reside in complex urban centers, our biophilic connection to nature has continued to diminish. However, the consequences to optimal human wellness and performance are now beginning to be recognized in the commercial real estate industry.

It is out of this body of research that interest has also emerged in how human perception works and how the physical design of a building doesn’t necessarily limit the occupants’ perceived experience of that space. That’s where illusions of nature come in.

Using high resolution digital photography specifically captured to depict a perceived zenith, the point in the celestial sphere directly above the observer, allows for  key multi-sensory input—both visual and tactile as it relates to gravity, our sense of balance and spatial orientation—to fully engage areas of the brain involved in the assessment of depth.

The Open Sky Compositions used in the creation of these illusions of nature employ sophisticated calibrated printing techniques, archival inks, and optical-quality lightweight acrylic panels to design modular Luminous SkyCeilings. These luminescent panels use the proper color temperature of light to mimic the frequency of daylight (measured in Kelvin, 6500K) and accurately reproduce the soft hues and rich saturation characteristic of high altitude, deep blue, open skies.

Virtual skylight installations have garnered interest in light of the new WELL Building Standard® that provides a deeper understanding of how interior environments enhance or hamper occupant wellness, health, and productivity. Facility owners and managers are beginning to realize that investing in biophilic design strategies that open up the interior core of their buildings will transform occupants’ experience of enclosed areas.

For example, common areas like lobbies and hallways can cease to generate feelings of confinement and instead create a sensation of comfort and relaxation by incorporating a perceived connection to a natural exterior.

The American Institute of Architects recently released a report called The Drive Toward Healthier Buildings, detailing the market drivers and the impact of building design and construction on occupant health, well-being, and productivity. The report echoes some of the same points highlighted in the WELL Building Standard®.

For this reason, high rise buildings with their deep plan plates have become a point of concern given that according to the Institute for Building Efficiency, over 50% of the buildings that will still be in use by 2050 have already been built.

Furthermore, a recent survey by the U.S. Energy Information Agency found that nearly ¾ of the floor stock in the United States—equivalent to 46 billion square feet—belong to buildings over 20 years old, before the principles of biophilic design were well understood, let alone widely applied. Among these key principles of biophilic design are ample use of daylighting, abundant green spaces, and access to views of nature; traits that older buildings do not feature.

This trifecta of new design means high rise properties managers will have to prepare their portfolio to compete against newer buildings designed with these biophilic features. Creating illusory views to nature is one such strategy not because the simulations are remarkable, but because their effect on the physiology is genuine; we do, in fact, react differently when a perceived connection to a natural exterior is created. We perceive interiors to be more ample and inviting.

Biophilic illusions of nature’s unique ability to trigger spatial cognition (depth perception) by engaging areas of the brain involved in this function was the subject of a pioneering study in neuro-architecture in Health Environments Research & Design Journal that went on to win Best International Research Project of 2014 at the Design & Health International Academy Awards.

“We are the first to study and quantify a simulated view to nature designed to be perceived—not as an artifact—but as an architectural feature,” says Dr. Pati, lead researcher and co-author of the study.

In western Paris, La Défense holds the European Union’s largest purpose-built business district where companies like Total S.A., one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, are among the first high rise buildings to incorporate biophilic design features.

At one of the ground elevator lobbies in its Tour Total tower, the company added an illusion of nature installation. Likewise, at the CB21 Tower, Suez, France’s largest provider of gas and electricity added Luminous SkyCeilings along the interior corridors, to enhance biophilic engagement, our innate affinity for views to nature.

From condominium towers to corporate buildings, the architecture of lobbies and hallways is delivering restorative benefits for occupant outcomes.

By David A. Navarrete, M. Sc., MBA

Director, Research Initiatives

The Sky Factory, LC