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Creating Architectural Intrusions with Nature and Light

It’s the atmosphere that matters

What is good architecture? What makes a good design? For me, it does not mean inclusion in architectural magazines and publications or be rewarded by certain judges. A well-designed build is a space that manages to move me—and, more importantly, moves my client.

It is a challenge to make nothing into something. It’s another matter entirely to create a space that welcomes and connects with people. Clients, people, humans are part of every project. It’s a never-ending search to find design elements that marry together to make the perfect space. It’s not about a cookie-cutter approach to aesthetics but how a combination of elements creates an atmosphere that you can feel.

Atmosphere is probably one of the vaguest terms in the design world, so what is it? In many ways, atmosphere is a collection of feelings. It can be extravagant like delight and astonishment or as subtle as the warmth and comfort of home. When I start a project, it is a quest to find the right feelings that fit the space because there’s genuinely no equation or methodology for building up an atmosphere that has yet to exist.

There is often a reservoir of memories, images that I seek to incorporate into my work as inspirations. I often find myself in lucid dreams reconstructing the environs from my past to recreate that specific atmosphere. Sometimes, within a space, you suddenly realise and appreciate the beauty of everyday life. It could be that mundane moment of hearing the nebulous conversations had at coffee shops, or the subtle sound of birds migrating to a new home, or it could be the warmth you feel when the morning sun hits that stone wall just right. 

Inspirations from childhood memories 

The skill to design a welcoming dwelling comes from training and work experience, an understanding of theory, the ability to interpret building standards and develop plans, and creativity. To honour my design signature, I often connect with my inner child and likewise understand the memories my clients hold dear.

I grew up in Belgium. In many ways, these experiences were so powerful and so deeply felt that I forever carry them with me no matter where I might be. My childhood was lived with nature and filled with natural light. During the warm summers, my friends and I would often make tree huts and shelters from straw bales to pass away the day. That moment when the sunlight filtered through the leaves would make everything so much more special. So special that every time these memories came to mind, I feel ‘yellow’ and ‘green’ and a bit of that bittersweet ‘blue.’ 

One of the first moments that made me realise that light and nature can be manipulated to create an atmosphere was playing with a torchlight. I was at camp, and there was that unique scent of the smoke combined with the spotlight’s movement on the tiny unburnt particles that made the entire space so enchanting, enough to make a child believe that he was creating a pathway to the stars.

Learning from these experiences, I grew up with a strong belief that nature, coupled with light, plays a crucial role in creating an atmosphere. After all, it is the light that let materials speak, and it is nature that represents the connection we share as humankind. I believe a space that feels pleasant, soulful and at one with nature, with subtle changes through the seasons, is a good quality design and what I strive to achieve in architecture. 

Nature in the City 

Nowadays, as our society becoming more attached to civilisation and its by-products, it is common for adults to forget their connection to nature. However, as an architect and designer, I must be responsible for doing my part and bringing nature into our daily lives. I have dedicated myself to learning, researching and truly understanding the interrelation between architecture, design and nature. And thankfully, I’m not in this alone. We see many cities worldwide incorporating more green urban spaces and designating parkland due to the significant benefits for the area and their inhabitants.

Greenery incorporated into a building can turn urban spaces back into something natural and beautiful while increasing air quality and health benefits. Scientists have found that simply viewing natural settings contributes to reducing emotional stress and mental fatigue. According to the well-known 10-year study by Robert Ulrich, published in 1984, patients recovering in hospitals with a view of trees, mountains and grasslands recovered faster than those exposed to a view of a brick wall.

Urban street canons (the gap between large buildings) are hotspots for harmful pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter (the sum of all hazardous solid and liquid, organic and inorganic particles suspended in the air). Adding natural elements to the exterior of buildings, such as vertical living gardens, allows the city to breathe. It has been proven that vertical green organisms can reduce nitrogen dioxide by 40% and particulate matter by 60%. Now, with the World Health Organisation recommending 10-15 m2 of green space per inhabitant for a healthy urban area, the only way is up.

My home is now Vietnam — half a world away from the land of my birth. What attracts me to this place is not only the people and the rich culture, but also, Vietnam is a beautiful place to incorporate nature into architecture. Anything is possible and celebrated here, leaving lots of room for my growth and experiments as an architect and designer. With the warm year-round climate, there is a certainty and comfort that the environment will support the architectural intent that allows me to design with nature, ensuring wellbeing elements both inside and out.

Bringing nature into the build 

In every project, we respect the relationship between architecture, interior and landscape. The transitions must be subtle with meticulous attention to detail and focus on function with sensory comfort in mind. The finished spaces should connect deeply with those who occupy them.

All too often, modern architecture takes a ‘square box’ approach. The walls block out the outside world, and the designer creates an internal space to replicate the latest trends. I suggest flipping that approach on its head. Let us create a space that welcomes the ‘intrusion’ of the outside world and creates a space filled with a unique atmosphere. One of my personal architectural touches is finding a comfortable place for the green elements to flourish within the human-made walls. What are the benefits and influences that indoor green spaces have on the environment and the people?

A Dutch study at the University of Delft found that people now spend an average of 80% of their time indoors. There is much discussion about outdoor air pollution when, in reality, indoor air pollution may put us at greater risk. By bringing plants, greenery, vertical gardens, and the like inside, we can create an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere that reduces emotional stress and mental fatigue and contributes to the overall health of the indoor environment.

While air pollution is one factor, humidity is another aspect of wellbeing that indoor green spaces significantly improve. Of course, we receive rich oxygen critical to our existence through photosynthesis, but why is the humidity generation beneficial? Low humidity increases our susceptibility to colds and respiratory illness and can allow viruses and germs to thrive. Even before COVID-19, this was important. Humidity provides an additional line of defence to diseases that should be employed to maintain a healthy indoor environment and a healthy future.

More than the increased oxygen and humidity, indoor green spaces also contribute to the decrease in temperature. A study at the University of Seville documented an internal living wall’s influences on the School of Agricultural Engineering’s temperature. On average, the living wall reduced room temperature 4C degrees with a maximum of 6C in warmer conditions. Let us also consider the benefits of reducing the need for air conditioners that contribute to raising the planet’s surface temperature. 

Supporting intrusions from the outside world – with light 

Upon designing a project, especially for an office, I often seek to bring about this calm and simplicity into the workplace. My approach is to revive the past to create an environment that represents the remit of creators of artifacts. The ultimate goal isn’t to abandon our childhood memories and establishments but rather build on them and add continuations to their history.

While working on an office project in Vietnam, one unnegotiable design element was incorporating nature into an office space. Where will we house the greenery? How do we ensure that the outside transitions seamlessly inside?

As I reminisced on my memories with the glitter of raindrops on freshly-cut fields, I contemplated recreating this effect without horizontal space. Through my research, I developed a technique to support internal hanging gardens. This unique method can add a depth of greens to the space while delivering health and environmental benefits. Nature and plants throughout provide a place of tranquillity where inhabitants can sit in harmony to release stress, which is critically important in the heart of the city.

Lighting plays a crucial role here, especially with green architecture — that’s undeniable. For greenery to photosynthesise, there must be light. However, not every office has enough natural light to support life and stimulate growth for nature and green organisms. That’s where horticulture technologies play a significant role. With the constant development in the lighting industry, we can now have horticulture lights that replicate the life-giving sun in the vast depths of office space.

Not only supporting life, but architectural lighting also allows the materials to speak. When used well, lighting can bring atmosphere and artistic features to a conventionally confined space, like the office. Advances in lighting technology alongside the horticulture lights have added an entirely new dimension. The multitude of variants in lighting, like beam angles, fixtures and colour temperatures, and LED technology’s proliferation – RGB colours, have expanded the horizon for architects and designers to experiment in their creative process. It’s not the intent to have a space feel like a disco, but to bring subtlety and inspire our moods using colour psychology and nature.

A box within a box approach

Traditionally, the office was divided and hierarchical. While modern office designs are more egalitarian and collaborative, the essence and purpose of the space remain. In an office, there is still a need for quiet areas for meetings and deep work. There is also a demand for places where occupants can connect with others. When incorporating natural components into a design along with all the ‘business’ requirements, the most exciting challenges often arise. “When the clients are in meeting rooms, working from their personal space, how do I, as the designer, keep that vital green element constant as they go about their busy day?”

Structurally, one of the best solutions we employ was to use a box within a box approach, which creates a working environment that optimises connection yet minimises distraction. With glass walls, the space is free from auditory distraction but still connected to the interworking of the office. Inhabitants can still see their colleagues and the hanging gardens in the distance while getting on to the business at hand.

In the end, we know that well-considered design improves our reality and our lives. I’ve come to explain my approach and personal views to make that possible within the bounds of my experiences and learnings in the field of architecture and design. Of course, my way is not the only way. It is still a quest for the industry as a whole to discover the many methods to creatively approach a build and create the right atmosphere for its occupants. Perhaps it’s a good start to ask ourselves, what makes the people around us sparkle? What brings them comfort? And what it is that they truly appreciate in their intrinsic world?

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