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Energy & Environment
On the second Tuesday of every month at 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m., we hear from our contributors in the field. Susan Knight and Gretchen Gerrish both work for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Limnology at Trout Lake Station. Scott Bowe is the Director of Kemp Natural Resources Station.You can keep track of Field Notes and all of WXPR's local features on the WXPR Local Features podcast, wherever you get your podcasts.

Health Benefits of Wood

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Scott Bowe
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Many of us have wood interiors in our homes. It is the norm rather than the exception. My home has wood doors, wood floors, wood cabinets, and wood base and window trim. It is a beautiful material, and I really enjoy living with and working with wood.

Today, I would like to talk about the health benefits of wood. You might be thinking that wood is renewable, stores carbon, and uses far less energy to manufacture than non-renewable materials. It is true that using wood makes for a heathier planet when compared to using plastic, metals, or concrete. But the health of the planet is not what I mean. Using wood in our indoor spaces make our physical health better by reducing stress, blood pressure, and more.

Architects call it biophilic design. Biophilic design increases occupant connectivity to the natural environment using natural materials including light, air, water, plants, and of course wood. Speaking with no authority in anthropology or evolutionary biology, humans have evolved with the natural environment, so it stands to reason that we would draw comfort from having some of that environment in our modern buildings, less the mosquitos and deer flies.

The stress reducing effects of outdoor nature are well documented from a scientific perspective. Exposure to nature has been shown lower blood pressure, heart rate, and aggression. Clearly these studies were conducted in the absence of deer flies. Nature also increases the ability to focus attention and perform concentration and creative tasks. The positive benefits of outside nature are highly desirable; however, the average person spends only 6% of their time outdoors. They spend an additional 6% in their cars and the remaining 88% of their time indoors. Spending 88% of our time indoors is a good reason to bring nature and wood into our homes and workplaces.

A recent study to our north in British Columbia constructed identical office spaces. One office was fitted with natural wood furniture and wood window blinds. The other was fitted white non-wood furniture and white plastic window blinds. Test subjects were brought into the rooms with no explanation about the furnishings. They were given a math test, which would increase stress levels in most of us. Their EKG and skin conductivity, sympathetic nervous system tests, were measured in each subject before, during, and after the math test. Stress measures were statistically lower in the wood room vs. the white plastic room in all periods of the study. This study is part of the growing architectural interest in evidence-based design, a growing field that seeks to promote health and optimize outcomes based on scientifically credible evidence.

One study of hospital patients recovering from abdominal surgery found that patients in rooms with a view to nature and wood design elements in their rooms had shorter post-operative hospital stays and required fewer pain medications than patients without these views.

Healthcare environments have been the top priority with respect to evidence-based design to date. However, school and office environments are now being considered as the amount of time spent in these environments is great and can influence our overall health. The application of wood in hospitals, schools, and offices should be a priority as we consider occupant health and building sustainability.

Studies continue to show us that designing with wood has health and environmental benefits. The bonus is that heathier people with better concentration and attention spans are more productive resulting in economic benefits for all.

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