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Stepping off the plane and into the Pacific Passage after a busy work trip has to be one of my favourite things in the world. The Passage connects arrivals from US destinations to Canada Customs at the Vancouver Airport. Designed by Aldrich Pears, entry into the hall grounds me immediately with a blow of cool air, the sound of the sea, and the sight of salt-bleached cedar and fern-rich forests. As I step under the sheltering wings of a towering Thunderbird I settle into the calm happiness that is home.
The space is typically in dramatic contrast from where I’ve just come: the drab, concrete grey of an exhibit hall, or the tired anywhere-ness of a hotel ballroom. Striking me how much we have to gain when we bring nature into our event spaces and consider the benefits of biophilic design.
Benefits of Nature-Based Event Spaces
Proponents of “biophilic design” propose that humans are hard-wired to want to connect with nature. And that time spent in natural spaces can help reduce stress and improve health and cognitive function. TerraPin Bright Green LLC puts forward strong economic and social arguments for integrating nature-based design into a variety of buildings, including:
- Offices: Creating biophilic work environments for many of New York City’s office workers would result in over $470 million in recouped productivity value.
- Retail: Customers judge businesses surrounded by nature and natural features to be worthy of prices up to 25% higher than businesses with no access to nature.
- Schools: A study of daylighting in schools showed children learn 20-26% faster in natural daylight.
- Hospitals: Patients with a view to nature, instead of a nondescript wall, are more likely to experience hospital stays that are 8.5% shorter.
But what about events?
In the report Human Spaces, Professor Sir Cary Cooper indicates biophilic design helps:
- Increase well-being
- Improve productivity
- Enhance creativity
- Increase the likelihood of positive emotions
All helpful to event managers seeking to create happy attendees!
Naturally-designed spaces can also provide a sense of place, connecting event participants to the host destination in a more physical way, reminding them of the unique location they are in. This is particularly profound if native vegetation and authentic indigenous elements can be integrated.
The Challenge of Nature-Based Event Spaces
It all sounds great in theory, but the reality can be a different story. After all, a venue is not about to knock out a wall beside your meeting room so you can re-invigorate attendees with a dose of natural light following afternoon break. And physically taking your group outdoors presents a whole new set of challenges from safety to weather, added transport cost, access to technology and heck, maybe bugs!
Another thing to keep in mind: while LEED®-certified green building spaces may operate efficiently and sustainably, it does not guarantee the building will stimulate the human responses promoted by biophilic design. A venue space that does both might be considered a holy grail of “green” event venue design.
Making Nature-Based Event Space a Reality
Assuming you aren’t prepared to move outdoors entirely, you might approach nature-scaping your event in two ways: seeking out ready-built indoor spaces that have biophilic features, or attempting to transform a space through temporary décor.
Ready-Built Natural Spaces:
Ask your CVB or site selection company to identify venues and hotels that have done a good job of nature-based design. Specific things to look for include:
- Outdoor terraces and balconies that can be used for function space
- Views of the water, such as the ocean, lakes or ponds
- Abundant natural light through skylights and large windows
- Green walls and water features
- Gardens and outdoor greenspace
- Décor that uses natural materials, like wood and stone
When designing a temporary event space with natural elements, it pays to think in patterns and senses. Terrapin Bright Green LLC provides a great primer on 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design. Translated for event managers their approach might call for:
Seeing nature: If lacking in the venue design, this might be achieved through digital signage and walls, backdrops, artwork and murals that include elements of nature. Weaving in live (or quality artificial) greenery can also help, whether that includes live herbal centerpieces instead of cut floral, hedge rows instead of stanchions or something as ambitious as an indoor garden, forest or water feature. Colour can also impact experience, and lead to different biophilic responses. For example, blue and white colours were found to instill motivation in office workers in EMEA, according to Terrapin Bright Green. While green, blue and white added a sense of happiness.
Hearing nature: This can be pretty tough in a bustling event environment. Which highlights the real opportunity: provision of a respite area where attendees can find something lacking at most events – peace and quiet! Perhaps in the form of a sponsored “zen” lounge, meditation space or personal recharge room. Try to select a location that is a quiet as possible, and perhaps includes headsets with natural sounds of running water, ocean waves or bird song.
Feeling nature: Textures such as stone, wood, sand, water and grass stimulate biophilic responses, attracting us to explore and touch. So think of these materials as you design onsite hubs, lounges and exhibit booths. If you’re looking to create an intimate and relaxing conversation space, get inspired by a campground theme, complete with a cozy fire. Wanting to stimulate reflection? Consider a tabletop sand garden.
On the wooden walls at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
Patterns of nature: From seashells to rings on a tree, the patterns of nature rarely take straight edges and 90-degree corners. Curved pathways, circular lounge spaces and wave-like backdrops align with patterns found in nature, so consider them as an inspiration for staging and exhibit designs. Draped fabric that can billow and move can provide contrasts of light and shadow and lend an airy and creative feel to your space. Be careful, though, to not allow curved designs and superfluous materials to increase costs and waste.
Rhythms of nature: There is nothing that blinds the senses to a day passing quite like spending it in a windowless exhibit hall. Yet this is the reality for many tradeshows. Think about how indoor lighting or digital signs can be adapted to help convey the passing of the day. Perhaps by moving from dawn to dusk through a series of transitioning colours. And don’t forget about energy rhythms, which (if you’re like me) zero out at mid-afternoon break. This again highlights the opportunity to create places of refuge at your event where participants can seek some respite (where, yes, there may even be napping pods).
Indigenous elements of (human) nature: An aspect of nature-based design stresses connection with things indigenous to the land, including its people. Adding indigenous elements to your event design can be a powerful way to ground your attendees not only in the place they are in, but the people who live there, too. Event design elements might come through authentic interactions with First Peoples at welcoming ceremonies, for example. Or perhaps inclusion of their culture and artifacts in your event in respectful ways.
While it’s not for every event, integrating principles of biophilic design into event space can help relax, restore and stimulate attendees. Countering the emotional impact of traditional concrete and boxed-in meeting environments that can leave us feeling deprived and depleted. What’s the best of nature-inspired space you’ve experienced at an event?