How Do We Design Housing for Mental Health and Wellness?


November 8, 2023

A recent METROPOLIS Think Tank Panel hosted by KTGY considers the quality of interior and exterior spaces on human’s psyche.

“The warmth of the domestic fireside is the first boon of heaven,” said Thomas Jefferson. This is the romanticized image of the home as refuge, free from the problems of the outside world.

But in fact, the home is not always immune. The quality of the interior and exterior spaces can affect the psychological state, for good or ill. The design industry can have a profound effect on the home and the way it is used and perceived. In a Think Tank panel focusing on mental health and residential design, METROPOLIS editor-in-chief Avinash Rajagopal set the stage for the discussion.

“We mustn’t think that mental health is a problem that only the healthcare system is going to take care of,” he said. “The built environment, we know, is one biggest social determinants of health and can play a really critical role in supporting mental health.” The forum was hosted by KTGY and included Ben Seager, principal at the firm; Marissa Kasdan, director of design; Lezlie Murch, chief program officer at Exodus Recovery Inc; and Katherine Mazade, a design writer and editor.

Seager chose to focus first on senior living. “It was always drilled into me that an architect’s primary duty is the health, safety, and welfare of the public. In the past mental health was a thing, but it was not quite at the forefront as it is today.”

“Biophilic design helps support mental health, especially among the elderly,” he continued. “In senior care facilities we are really trying to design spaces to draw people out of their rooms. It’s a scary word, but it’s really trying to connect people to nature—natural light, plants, even animal life. There are tons of studies enforcing the importance of these in reducing stress and anxiety.”

Murch gave her perspective: “I love the things Ben said about biophilic design because we at Exodus Recovery are big about bringing the outside inside and spaces that foster connections. So many people have suffered by being unsheltered and homeless, and these are all conditions of isolation we are trying to deal with.”

Kasdan turned the conversation to student housing. “We’re really trying to balance the private spaces with the shared spaces. Putting more space into the shared areas prevents student isolation and helps draw out those who might otherwise be spending too much time in their own rooms.”

An audience member posed the question of design of outdoor spaces and their efficacy in improving mental health. “We’re talking about creating courtyards and common areas or green spaces. What can we do to make outdoor spaces work the way we intend them to?”

Taking on the question, Mazade said: “One thing that I’ve seen before is protecting an outdoor space internally, setting up a courtyard wherein you use the ‘man in the street’ or ‘eyes on the street’ strategy (reminiscent of Jane Jacobs) and let the residents of the building build an extra layer of security.”

Kasdan offered a concluding thought: “I think that designing for mental health maybe a few steps behind. Hopefully it will become something more of our developer clients will be incorporating into their projects in the future.”