We’ve all felt it before, that sense of serenity that envelops us as soon as we enter a structure where timber is the predominant material. We spend approximately 90 percent of our lives indoors; timber-lined exteriors and interiors somehow reconnect us to the natural vitality of the great outdoors.

A leader in environmental behavior change, the Planet Ark Environmental Foundation, established in 1992, is an Australian not-for-profit organisation. In its report, “Wood—Housing, Health, Humanity”—Planet Ark helps us understand how the feeling of wellness when we encounter timber is not merely an emotional, subjective response, but “has real and measurable health and well-being benefits.”

Scientific studies, the report states, have documented these health and well-being benefits extensively, including:

  • Increased happiness and self-esteem levels
  • Increased cognitive abilities
  • Decreased stress response, blood pressure, pulse rates, and cholesterol levels

Planet Ark also says, “Studies have demonstrated that simply having a view of nature from a window can have significant positive effects, such as shorter postoperative hospital stays, induced feelings of relaxation inpatients at rehabilitation centres, and improved comfort levels of employees in offices.”

Interior Timber Gym Area

Ronald Hicks, Principal and Head of Health + Research Sector at HDR | Rice Daubney, explains the benefits of the architectural use of timber in healthcare facilities: RH: “We tried to focus on non-clinical aesthetics, and I think that’s where timber really comes into its own. There’s no doubt that the traditional, conservative approach to using timber in healthcare services has changed. People are much more open now to the use of this product…

“In 2016, hospitals represent a synthesis. The hospital today as we know is a bit like a hotel and an airport; there’s some retail; it’s a mixed environment. Within the open spaces, that’s where timber comes into its own… There is proven evidence of improved healthcare outcomes with better environments for patients—faster response to medication, reduced length of stay, and discharged in a better condition.”

Bates Smart Director Kristen Whittle says this about the studio’s award-winning Dandenong Mental Health design: “There’s a huge future for using timber for its natural curative properties. It’s soothing, it’s reassuring, it’s tactile, and people relate to it just like they relate to having a garden. 

“If you put someone into a concrete box and asked them how they were feeling—or measured how they were feeling—and then put them into a garden courtyard with timber, plants and trees you’d get a completely different response. We all know that, because we all experience that feeling and we’re all human because we come from the same DNA, so basically it’s proven as an irrefutable fact. It becomes the natural material for use in healthcare, and is now the go-to material for similar projects.”

The Planet Ark report cites a Japanese study that compared the initial physiological response of 14 people sitting in rooms with either wooden or steel wall paneling: “The pulse and heart rate of each subject was measured every second for 20 seconds whilst facing the panelled wall covered by a curtain, followed by 90 seconds with the curtain removed and the wooden or steel panel visible. 

“The study found that exposure to wooden panels significantly decreased the blood pressure of subjects, whilst exposure to steel panels significantly increased it.”

This study and several others have influenced architects to incorporate timber into their designs even for spaces such as gyms and pools areas. “The studies examining the effects of wooden rooms and furnishings,” the Planet Ark report states, “clearly demonstrate that the presence of wood has positive physiological effects, lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and stress responses when compared to other material types.”