The Garden School, Hackney

Oliver Heath Biophilic design, colour, Education, Fabrics, Furniture, Healthy spaces, Lighting, Materials, Schools, Uncategorized

There is a wealth of evidence that Biophilic Design can improve wellbeing when incorporated into the built environment. Biophilic Design applies the principles that humans have an innate attraction to nature and that increasing our connection with natural elements through the spaces in which we inhabit, work or relax, can improve our physiological and psychological health. Imagine what benefits it could have on students and staff in an educational setting when a study of office workers found that those with views of vegetation performed 10-25% better in mental function and memory recall tests[1].

Although trials have demonstrated that having plants in classrooms can lead to improved performance of 10-14%[2] and to reduce the impact of ADHD[3] it is not always possible to incorporate them. For The Garden School – an outstanding school for 4-16 year old students with special educational needs (in particular autism) in Hackney – this is certainly the case, as plants don’t always withstand physical interactions with the students.

Research demonstrates that attentional capacity (which is essential for cognitive functioning) is restored when children/students engage with nature; this means they are less easily distracted and are more able to manage daily tasks[4]. Yet Richard Louv author of ‘Last Child in the Woods’ asserts that children are suffering from a ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, so how can these benefits be attained in an urban setting like London, at a school where plants aren’t an option?


There is evidence that where a primary experience of natural elements is not available mimicking nature and using natural analogues (such as natural textures, patterns, colours and images in floor and wall coverings) can positively impact perceptual and physiological stress responses[5].

Oliver Heath Design were asked to give the former gym at The Garden School (which had become unloved storage space) a makeover. The new space is inspired by references to nature and is somewhere children can retreat to from the adjacent playground; allowing them safe recuperative spaces, a sense of prospect over the chaotic playground activity – it is a space where children can play, relax and feel safe.

The space can be divided into 3 key areas:

  • a soft carpeted window seat providing a safe sense of prospect over the playground
  • a series of hexagons that the children can climb into for quiet retreat
  • a sensory interactive space where the children can touch naturally inspired surfaces to create sounds and gentle lights

The window seat offers safe views onto the playground with an abundance of natural light. This is an important consideration as optimising exposure to daylight alone in main stream schools can increase the speed of learning by 20-26%[6]. It can also improve attendance by an average of 3.5 days/year and test scores by 5-14% [7]. It could therefore have a positive impact on staff and students at The Garden.

The playful built-in hexagonal seating provides somewhere for children to relax and restore their physical and mental energy. This can improve students’ concentration, attention and perception of safety[8].


Textured carpets with varying pile heights, wallpaper with images of a woodland scene, and furniture made from high grain Douglas Fir plywood provide tactile and visual references to nature. Visual references to natural forms and patterns are usually preferred[9] and tactile stimulation can be used to reduce stress, to energize or to relax[10]. This is particularly important for students with Special Educational Needs.

At one end of the space is a multi-sensory feature which children can interact with. When each of the natural surfaces are touched natural sounds (e.g. leaves in the wind, or the sound of water) will be triggered; touching two surfaces will cause overlapping sounds. The hexagonal plinths vary in height and are made from the Douglas Fir plywood-  creating a material connection with nature that can decrease blood pressure[11] and improve creative performance[12].



Many people associate Biophilic Design with the addition of plants to interiors, however this space, rich in sensory stimuli, with opportunities for both prospect and retreat has been achieved without any plants. The design features many natural textures and colours, which aim to strengthen a connection with nature, helping to calm and soothe the users whilst meeting the various demands on this small space.


[1] Heschong, Lisa. Heschong Mahone Group. “Windows and Offices: A Study of Office Worker Performance and the Indoor Environment.” California Energy Commission: Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Fair Oaks, California. 2003a.]

[2] Plants in the Classroom can improve student performance Daly, Burchett & Torpy, 2010

[3] Developmental Psychology and the Biophilia Hypothesis: Children’s Affiliation with Nature Peter H. Kahn, Jr

[4] Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children  Wells and Evans, 2003

[5] Salingaros, 2012; Joye, 2007; Taylor, 2006; Kaplan,S.,1988

[6] Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children  Wells and Evans, 2003

[7] Student Performance in Daylit Schools Nicklas & Bailey, 1996

[8] Grahn & Stigsdotter, 2010; Wang & Taylor, 2006; Petherick, 2000; Ulrich et al., 1993

[9] Vessel, 2012; Joye, 2007

[10] Spence, 2010

[11] Tsunetsugu, Miyazaki & Sato, 2007

[12] Lichtenfeld et al., 2012