Connected to Nature by Design

Thoughtful design can mitigate the effect of human encroachment on urban habitats and foster new ways for flora and fauna to peacefully coexist and even thrive alongside humans, a harmony that deeply benefits the health and wellness of people.

A recent trend in architecture and interior design has been the integration of nature into projects. The application of these biophilic design endeavours range from the mere display of natural images in space to more comprehensive strategies integrating nature into designs through the use of plants, gardens, access to light and fresh air, all in an effort to further connect humans to the natural world.

South facing opening with second floor Japanese Maple. South Kingsway Ravine, Toronto. Project Completion: 2019 (Photo: Art in Flight)

While a step in the right direction, I believe these tactics do not go far enough and too often remain merely aesthetic. My goal is to enhance the urban ecology rather than just implementing biophilic tactics. Biophilia takes a human-centric approach to nature, while an ecological mindset seeks biodiversity where humans are only one of many species within an urban environment. Where nature is concerned, we may not find a direct human justification for a design choice.

Ecology suggests that the choice, when it favours nature, will have indirect benefits to our species. But first we should accept that interior design is not restricted to enclosed conditioned volumes but extends to the adjacent exterior spaces. Our influence there should engage our aesthetic minds and ecological consciousness.

As a residential architect deeply concerned with the quality of urban life, my journey in design has led me to focus on crafting buildings and interiors that transcend the traditional indoor/outdoor boundary and create spaces that take advantage of strategies and tactics aimed at enhancing our connection to the natural world.

Second floor suite living dinning room looking into porch and ravine. Two-unit Toronto
ravine house. Project Completion: 2015 (Photo: Revelateur Studio)

I typically begin by creating experiences that are focused on location-specific natural features. It’s not merely about isolated moments but the experience of a multitude of moments that constantly shift with the time of day and year. [image 1 and 2]. Working from the inside out, I carve out wall and roof openings that capture the changes in natural light. These changing light conditions suggest which species of flora can be added to increase the diversity of the fauna, and vice-versa, to enhance the interior experience. The resulting material palette includes more than traditional building materials but also plants like lavender and juniper, among others.

Second Floor Suite Kitchen looking into Terrace with Reddendum. Two-unit Toronto
ravine house. Project Completion: 2015 (Photo: Revelateur Studio)

Colour is not just “painted onto walls” but also appears in the foreground of the view just outside openings, more than a mere image seen through a picture window. A rhododendron will speak of spring when pink flowers appear and welcome pollinators [image 3]; a morning shower underlines the slight daily variations of changing seasons [image 4 and 5]; a tall window opens onto a ravine. Summer sun and green leaves become a distant memory when viewing the same space now covered in snow and silent. Making use of a spectacular landscape is an easy, if not obvious, design choice.

Ensuite bathroom contemporary arts & craft house looking into a Toronto ravine. Completed: 2021 (Photo: Art in Flight)

Unfortunately, many urban environments do not come with readymade landscapes, but they can be created to enhance the spatial experience. For example, with the mid-rise condo The Ritchie completed in 2010, I was given an industrial warehouse site to work with and transformed it to a residential enclave amidst other adjacent industrial uses. The process began by considering the century old oak trees that resided in the yards of neighbouring properties.

From the outset I planned to make the courtyard an outdoor room, that all the suite interiors could look onto, and some directly access. I added large growing trees to this courtyard, giving the local fauna, specifically birds, access to an unbroken habitat, accounting for the vegetation of adjacent properties. This approach isn’t merely visual trickery, it is experiential. I crafted indoor and outdoor spaces to invite inhabitants to engage with the landscape. The benefits of changing light conditions and the sound of water created a social space that functioned as an extension of the interior spaces [image 6]. Increasingly, urban inhabitants are aware that these biophilic environments enhance their well-being.

Ensuite bathroom looking into a Toronto ravine. Project Completion: 2019 (Photo: Art in Flight)

The time has come for architects and designers alike to take advantage of this increased awareness of the benefits of a biophilic approach to design and push the boundaries even further and embrace an ecology-focused mindset, where humans are one of the many species that architecture and design can serve. If my experience is any indication, a less human-centric approach is ironically more beneficial to us. It is an approach which offers a myriad of delightful moments and supports our well-being and the natural world.

David Anand Peterson is the principal of his eponymous Toronto-based architecture and interior design studio, and a professor in the Faculty of Animation, Arts, and Design at Sheridan College in Toronto.

Courtyard adjacent to Suites of The Ritchie Courtyard Residences in Roncesvalles Village, Toronto. Project Completion: 2012 (Photo: Art in Flight. Landscape Architect: Vern Reed Olson Landscape Architect)