Oliver Heath will be familiar to many from his stint on the first mainstream interiors show Changing Rooms in the 1990s, but while the other designers have continued to makeover rooms and design various products for the high street, he has gone in a different direction turning towards eco design, sustainability and biophilia and has built a global practice teaching and researching ways to make our houses support our lives while not taking resources from the planet.
I first interviewed him about 12 years ago, the week before he moved into this Brighton house which he planned to turn into an eco-house. Last month Sophie Robinson and I visited to record an episode of the podcast in his home and to learn how he has put what he preaches into practice. You can listen to the full episode while below are pictures of his house, useful links and the interview in full.
It’s a fairly classic 1960s house with large windows and low-ish ceilings in a quiet Brighton street. Ten years ago this style of building was very unfashionable, particularly in Brighton where there are a lot of period properties. But Oliver knew what he wanted.
“It had plastic windows and boxy rooms but it was a blank canvas and there was no notion of having to restore period features because there weren’t any.”
Eighty per cent of the houses that will exist in 2050 have already been built so most of them will have to have eco features retro-fitted rather than them being included from the start.
With that as his starting point, the house was stripped back to brick and fully insulated from the roof down, the floors came up and underfloor heating was installed, the windows were replaced and draught-proofed and a ventilation system that takes out moist air and circulates clean dry air was installed.
“It was about creating a home that supports the well-being of the family to make them happier and healthier,” he said.
Most of us live in houses that aren’t well ventilated nor do we open the windows enough. Did you know that if you have sash windows (which are a British invention and unique to the UK) that you should open both top and bottom at the same time as that creates a natural ventilation system? The cold air comes in at the bottom, warms up in the room and exits through the top.
“We are heading towards our houses being powered just by electricity so in 10 years we won’t need to find space for big boilers,” he added.
The house is fairly open plan, with a study at the front for his wife Katie’s jewellery and award design business, and a small snug at the back (more of which later). There is a large kitchen dining space that takes up most of the downstairs with space for a small sofa and seating area. The first thing you notice is the wooden clad wall. A strange choice for such an urban setting?
But wood, it turns out, is hugely important material when it comes to supporting how we live. Just seeing natural wood makes us feel better and studies have found that it reduces heart rates enormously when it’s in a classroom.
Oliver’s Larch wood came from the great hurricane of 1987 when thousands of trees blew down. It was salvaged from Kew Gardens and he later sourced it from a local timber supply merchants. There was enough to cover not just this wall but to make the kitchen cabinets and a sliding door into the tv room as well.
Discussing how materials and design can have an impact on us is a subject Oliver is clearly passionate about. Dismissing many classic design heroes such as Mies Van der Rohe as people with “a strong opinion and access to the public” he says there is no research to demonstrate that their work was actually better than anyone else’s. “But now we are looking at studies by environmental psychologists that can look at the impact of materials on us and transfer those findings into design.
“One study that looked at men over a 76-year period (yes just men, it started a long time ago) found that the key to happiness was not jobs, status or money but the formation of strong bonds with friends and family.
“So as designers we need to think about how to bring people together in the house to increase their happiness and that is where the dining table becomes the most important piece of furniture in the house.
“It’s for eating and homework and crafting and chatting and in our house it is literally in the middle of the house and facilitates those relationships.”
Those relationships are further fostered by the woodburning stove which, like the wooden clad walls, works to create an atmosphere that helps the family relax.
“It’s called non-rhythmic sensory stimulation and it can be flickering flames, or ripples on water, or the wind rustling through the leaves and it’s very non-threatening and safe and makes everyone feel relaxed and comfortable which, in turn, facilitates discussions and good conversations and the sharing of bonds.”
For this reason there is no television in this room although there is one in the snug next door. And this room has a completely different feel. Dark emerald green walls hug the large velvet sofa (“big enough for the whole family”) while a single black wall is a focal point with a bookshelf in the middle and the television mounted in the corner making it practically invisible.
But the black wall is wooden. And there are plants everywhere. It’s not enough just to have plants, they must, according to Oliver be different plants at different heights. So they hang from the ceilings, trail from the shelves and reach up from the floor.
The bookshelves are a good trick if you live in a modern building with no central fireplace as a focal point. Rather than sticking the TV in the middle put it to one side, as if it was in an alcove, and make a shelving unit full of books and your favourite things the first thing you see.
Moving upstairs – past the stair runner than is the same as mine but in a different colour – and we reach the main bedroom. Another area where Oliver’s love of biophilia and desire to create a supportive home come together.
The four-poster bed is shaped like a house and the headboard is wood – a Japanese called Sho Sugi Ban. This means the wood is scorched and wire brushed back to enhance the grain and the tactility of it.
Oliver takes sleep very seriously and is, you won’t be surprised to learn, concerned about the effect of our mobile phones’ blue light on Circadian rhythms – our natural sleep/wake cycle.
The blue light from our phones suppresses production of melatonin, the sleep hormone, and resets our internal clocks thus disturbing our natural sleep patterns.
First up no phones in the bedrooms. And, incidentally, no screens in his daughters’ bedrooms. However, since they are 11 and 13 I suspect this is a battle he hasn’t yet had.
“Poor sleep is catastrophic on our lives affecting our relationships and our health. When we are tired we crave fatty food for example. Getting the bedroom right is fundamental to our mental health and our physical well-being.”
Oliver’s tips for a well-designed bedroom that supports good sleep include (as well as the wooden headboard):
* Lots of natural light – in the bedroom but also getting out and about during the day.
* Open windows to allow fresh air in and ventilate the room.
* Plants to remove toxins from the air
* Getting the electric light right.
* An alarm clock designed to support Circadian rhythms
To this end he has hung two vintage chandeliers either side of the bed but each one contains a colour changing Phillips Hue bulb. Controlled by an app on the phone (done before he goes in there to sleep) Oliver has set his to a soft orangey glow reminiscent of dusk and a million miles from the harsh blue daylight that, he suggests, you can use if you have one of these at your desk and find yourself flagging on a dark winter’s day.
The clock is a Lumie and is set to come on gradually about half an hour before you need to get up to mimic the gradual dawning of the day. By the time you need to get up it’s playing birdsong and is on full daylight. The birdsong is optional but the idea is that you are brought slowly and gently to wakefulness without, as is currently the case in my house, the literal rude awakening by politicians shouting at each other on the Today programme on Radio 4.
When it comes to plants you need to check their air filtering properties. Some absorb oxygen in the day and release CO2 at night and some do it the other way round.
Here is a list of plants that are good for the bedroom.
It was fascinating talking to Oliver and I definitely felt there were lots of tips about creating a healthy happy home to take away. Sophie has already bought a Lumie Clock and I may be close behind her.
To find out more about Oliver’s work you can visit OliverHeath.com
It just remains to thank Topps Tiles for sponsoring the podcast