Healthy Interiors: A Conversation with Jessica Helps of Wolfe ID

Wolfe ID founder and leader Jessica Helps has been designing for over 14 years and has a unique take on health that incorporates interior design as a way to improve your daily living/wellness. She is inspired by neurobiological, sociocultural, and humanistic perspectives, and designs spaces based on three principles; art, science, and design. She takes into account nature, sound, light, air, water, and, of course, colour. Integrating science into room design can have an impact on your daily mood, productivity, and overall experiences within the space. We had a conversation with Jessica about designing with health and wellness in mind.

Helen Jacob: How long have you been doing interior design?

Jessica Helps: I think this is my 14th year!

HJ: Where did you go to school?

JH: OCAD U. I took environmental design, so it’s more like architecture, or, to dumb it down, how to come up with great concepts for design. The little technicalities and some of the lighter interior design stuff, they expect you to already know. It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, getting through that program alive, but it was great!

HJ: When did you first start integrating health and wellness into your designs?

JH: I guess I started researching it about a year and a half ago. I had a couple of clients whose decisions I didn’t agree with. I didn’t know how to tell them, other than giving them my opinion. I knew they were going to be making a mistake and the space wasn’t going to feel that great. They were doing an office layout and they wanted a lot of desks in the space but I knew the way the office would function wasn’t superior. I tried to direct them but I had really no way of telling them why I was right other than saying it was just my opinion. It wasn’t really sinking in with the client so I was kind of upset and afterwards, I thought well how can I prove this? There must be some science behind what I’m saying because I somewhat know it to be true. So I started researching it and I realized there was this whole field of environmental psychology (how people feel within a space and why, and the science behind why people interpret space and light and colour and volumes and also proximity and layout of furniture). So when I realized that, I got into biophilic design and then I realized there was a complete line of science behind interiors that we tend to avoid or not really understand. We don’t really direct our designs based on the science around them. So it’s pretty interesting.

HJ: Is it a new concept?

JH: It’s relatively new…well yes and no. Sometimes I think the colour theory — like how colours affect people — that’s not new. But research based design is pretty new. Let me give you an example. If you were designing a corridor for maybe an old folks home for the elderly, as an interior designer how would you design that space? I was thinking I’d pick light calm colours, tone on tone, just something really relaxing and simple and clean. Well, I learned that’s actually a really stressful environment for somebody who’s 75, because a 75-year-old has 1/8th of the contrast vision that a 25-year-old has. So if everything is the same colour, it might be all nice and light but they can’t distinguish the floor from the walls or see handrails or see doors. So it’s actually very stressful for them. They need the contrast to be able to properly navigate themselves through a space, you realize that (the science) should direct the design, not the fact that I want to do tone on tone grey.

HJ: What is biophilic design?

JH: Biophilic design is centered on the relationship humans have with nature. They say there is an innate relationship between nature and humans. We feel good around natural settings. What we’ve done is built these urban cities that are really hard. They’re concrete, glass, and metal. They’re very man-made, very hard. And they’ve actually created a separation from nature which actually leaves people feeling cold or distant or disconnected. So biophilic design focuses on bringing natural elements back into the environment.  Light greenery such as green walls or hanging plants, cactuses, and things of that nature are good. Natural finishes like woods or tiles or things that you can touch that have a natural texture are also good. Also focus on light as well, like getting natural light into a space. Those three things I find in biophilic design, really give back that connection with nature that makes us feel better.

HJ: What do you think about the minimalist interior trend?

JH: I think right now there is a Scandinavian trend so its really popular to be clean. You know there’s that documentary on Netflix called Minimalist. I fully like what they’re doing. It’s a very healthy design, it’s natural materials and simple design. It’s reducing visual complexity and simplifying everything and I think that really does make humans feel better and happier in spaces. So whether or not people are focused on what is the healthiest design, I think the trend is good.

HJ: What do you take into consideration when incorporating wellness and health?

JH: Well it depends on the function of the space. What I always do is go into a space and what I ask the client is how do you want to feel in the space? So if it’s an office or it’s a home, or a specific room, start with the feeling: How do you want to feel in here? Do they want to feel really relaxed or do they want a cozy room or do they want their living room to be a place where they can entertain their family and curl up and read a book? We would start with that feeling and then build out from there. The furniture and colours and textures that would give them that feeling. You might see a pretty picture on Pinterest and you just want that and then when you get it, it doesn’t make you feel quite the way you wanted. So I always start with the feeling first and the function.

HJ: Sound, light, air water, and colour. Could you speak to each of those?

JH: Well for sound, there’s lots of issues with acoustics. It causes hypertension in people and it’s one of those things that creeps up on you. You don’t realize it’s causing you unwanted stress. So if you have thins walls- maybe you live in a warehouse conversion so neighbours or people above you can be really disturbing. Also if you’re designing a restaurant and you have a lot of hard finishes, you get a lot of clash of noise that bounces around and it’s hard to hear the person you’re having dinner with. So you can do ceiling panels, or white noise machines. You can also add fabric underneath tables and chairs- you just want softer finishes to absorb the noise rather than have it bounce. Also be aware of mechanical systems or appliances or photocopiers that are generally really noisy because they can also lead you to feel really stressed out if they’re going off all the time. Put them in a closed space or arrange the furniture to be further away.

HJ: What about light?

JH: You just want to maximize the amount of natural light you’re getting. There’s some crazy statistic that a lot of offices don’t have natural light- like no windows. I guess you’re tucked away in a basement or something. It actually causes productivity to plummet when you don’t have natural light or plants or have an environment that’s inspiring you to even be there. Its important to control light. In the evenings, dim your lights one hour before going to bed. Everybody has circadium rhythm. That’s the body’s way of regulating sleep and alertness. Everyone has one and it’s usually timed with the sunset and sunrise. And so the most natural way to wake up is with the sunrise and go to bed with the sunset. Obviously we don’t do that living in the city because everything is rather artificial and our schedules do not follow that. So dimming your lights in the evening gets your body to release melatonin and melatonin helps you regulate sleep. Try to block out all the light when you’re sleeping. You want a perfectly dark cave to sleep in.

HJ: Air and water?

JH: Those are the two functional items in a space. We have standards and we have building code and that’s great, but it is a minimal. Air quality is actually better outdoors than it is indoors in the city. Our indoor air quality is terrible. So you can up the filter on your H-vac system. If you live in a condo, you have what’s called a fan coil, (a vertical mechanical unit and with a filter on it). If you live at home you have a furnace that will also have an air filter in it where the intake of the air is going through. So you can up the quality of that- (from 10-15 is optimal). MERV is the rating. Or HEPA filter is the best, you’ll find them in Tesla cars and some vacuums have them. Those will really help your air quality. For water quality, if you have the ability to add a filter right into your system, that’s great. Or you can add a reverse osmosis. You can also just get an on counter water filter that makes the water alkaline and also reduces the toxins in it as well.

HJ: How would you work with colour?

JH: Colour is interesting because I don’t think there’s an unhealthy colour. There’s unhealthy uses of colour or just ways to maximize your health using colour. So say I was designing a spa bathroom and I want it to be relaxing, the three things I would not do is paint it red, put super bright lights in it, or play the music super loud. Those are all things that are very invigorating and make you excitable. So you want lower lighting, have softer and more comfortable furniture, more warmer and natural colours so the body is relaxing on a biological level. Green, greys and white are more relaxing and restorative.

HJ: Do you have any tips to integrate this into a cubicle setting?

JH: Umm yeah, maybe get rid of your cubicle? It’s an interesting question. The Google office kind of set the precedent for how to blow the typical corporate office out. They got rid of board rooms and cubicles and did the complete opposite. They did ballpits for adults and beanbag chairs and a lounge. It was almost like a playground for adults. This caught on because it was fun and employees were happier. They’re excited to come to work and productivity goes up. And that’s true- for Google. Google is generally a bunch of creative people doing stuff on computers so that works really well. But what they’re starting to notice now is within every office, there are certain people that work really well in private spaces, semi private spaces, or communal spaces. Some people who are forced to work in a communal space who would rather work in a private space, suffer and their productivity goes down. So you really have to look at your office and decide which departments need what kind of space. If you do have a cubicle, and you do like the private space I would at least pick a fun cubicle. They have some really great systems right now. A lot of them have acoustic paneling within them so you get really good acoustics. Some of them have little benches that pull out so you can still invite people to come hang out at your desk and you still get that human connection for people who don’t like being isolated. Some offices will have little plants or cactuses so you have that biophilic element. Also, employees who get taken care of tend to be the most productive.

HJ: Is there a way to organize your space that’s good for you?

JH: Yes, reducing visual complexity is huge. If you have open shelves jammed with junk, and you’re looking at it all the time, it’s visually overpowering. Hiding your visual clutter creates a freeness. If it’s already clean, then you can do what you need to do in that space without worrying about cleaning up the mess. You don’t want anything see through, like acrylic boxes.

HJ: What are the main elements to consider when revamping your space in terms of health and wellness?

JH: I think its all about creating a space that feels good. I think you really have to touch on the biophilic design. Like what’s natural about the space? What makes you want to work there? Light quality is huge. If you have no natural light, it’s essentially a storage room. I think people need to stop worrying about specific fixtures or details and think how does this space make me feel? Then you look at ways to maximize the space.