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The Sky Factory

Can an Interior Illusion Improve Well-Being of Building Occupants?

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 are taking advantage of this natural reaction to give occupants and visitors an unexpected wellness experience in the form of virtual skylights called biophilic illusions.

“Buildings are more and more recognized as dynamic environments with a direct bearing on occupant productivity, health, and well-being,” explains Skye Witherspoon, CEO of The Sky Factory, a fine art and digital technology company. “Our collective understanding of the built environment has essentially confirmed that the human physiology is genetically wired for a life outdoors.”

The Sky Factory, based in Fairfield, Iowa, creates architectural illusions of nature (virtual skylights and windows) that are intended to trigger relaxation. Now, when people’s gaze begins to drift upwards, they might discover an open blue sky that allows them 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”) takes advantage of how our cognitive perception assesses visual/spatial stimuli to create a surprising experience of openness in otherwise enclosed interiors.

Our collective understanding of the built environments has essentially confirmed that the human physiology is genetically wired for a life outdoors.

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.

“Our peak productivity, mental alertness, and emotional balance function most harmoniously when we are surrounded by green spaces, views to nature, and abundant daylight,” says Witherspoon.

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.

Biophilic Illusion
Common areas like lobbies and hallways can create a sensation of comfort and relaxation by incorporating a perceived connection to a natural exterior. Photo credit: The Sky Factory

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.

Research has shown that 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 multisensory 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 property 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.

A building’s value is now measured in terms of whether it enhances or hinders occupant productivity.

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. “A building’s value is now measured in terms of whether it enhances or hinders occupant productivity,” says Witherspoon. “As our understanding about the built environment changes, so should our toolbox.”

Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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