The COVID-19 pandemic has caused monumental changes to the way people live and interact. It has also increased awareness of the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. As design professionals, we have a unique opportunity to positively impact the health of the occupants of our buildings through design and sustainability. In the past, the conversation about health and sustainability has primarily involved the physical health of the occupant. Today, however, the focus on mental and emotional health has been pushed to the forefront of people’s minds. The key to making a difference in a person’s mental health is through the ability to form connections – to our physical body, our natural rhythms, to other people, nature and our senses.
Connecting to Our Body: Active Design
Studies show that the physical and mental health of an occupant can be enhanced subconsciously through design. For example, creating an active stair that is easily accessible (and the elevator less accessible) can encourage the use of the stairs over the elevator. Often, the stairs are tucked in a back corner of the building and thus hard to find, plus they can feel dark and uninviting. The location can be driven by the building code that dictates that the stairs need to be closed off and not exposed (for fire safety reasons). However, encouraging the use of the stairs equals increased physical health that leads to better mental health. The Center for Active Design recommends creating a focus on the stairs over the elevator by placing the stairs in a location that is accessible to the public areas. The center suggests locating the stairs near the building’s entry, using firerated glass and visually appealing finishes, designing them wide enough for travel in two directions, as well as making risers comfortable and safe. HelpGuide.org says, “People who exercise regularly tend to do so because it gives them an enormous sense of well-being. They feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, have sharper memories, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. It’s also a powerful medicine for many common mental health challenges.” Using our bodies to get us from A to Z is also good for the environment by saving on energy usage and reducing our ecological footprint.
Photographer: Jeff Amram
Connecting to Our Natural Rhythms: Light
One of the main criteria that determines human comfort in a building is related to lighting levels. It can be difficult to achieve levels that satisfy all of the tenants as some may think that the spaces are too dim and others complain about it being too bright. USAI Lighting says, “Today, we know that the color and the amount of light we use, the length and time of day we are exposed to it, and even the direction within the field of view that light enters our eyes are important considerations. It is widely accepted that daylight, as the first and most natural light source, serves as the benchmark that electric lighting needs to mimic in order to optimize circadian health and well-being.” The design industry has been making strides to understand more about lighting and using it to support the natural circadian rhythm of the occupants. For example, changing the color of the light to have more blue during the day more closely replicates daylight. This type of adjustment can help improve productivity and happiness as well as help with sleep cycles. The International WELL Building Institute provides circadian lighting standards that can assist designers in finding the appropriate light levels and colors for a space. The placement of the building on the site can also positively affect the building design and the comfort level of its occupants by allowing for natural light to filter in. When the orientation of the building is ideal, designers can use natural light to enhance the comfort of occupants as well as their experience within the building. By using natural light and LEDs, we will also decrease the building’s lighting load. As technology evolves, it has become easier and easier to reduce energy loads while also enhancing the user’s experience and mood.
Connecting to Other People: Social Space
As designers, we create spaces that bring people together. In traditional and dense-housing design, creating a sense of community can be a challenge. According to the BBC article, “The Hidden Ways that Architecture Affects How You Feel,” studies have shown that growing up in a city doubles a person’s risk of developing schizophrenia and increases the risk of having depression and anxiety. The BBC also states, “The main trigger appears to be what researchers call ‘social stress’ – the lack of social bonding and cohesion in neighborhoods.” The sociologist William Whyte believes the solution is to create spaces that encourage people to physically be closer to encourage more communication. He calls this “triangulation.” A flexible amenity space provides the key to creating triangulation and building community, plus focusing on sustainability. Some amenities that focus on community building are a communal dining area, bike maintenance shop, a sky lounge on the roof, garden space, as well as a co-working space. Younger renters tend to be more interested in experiences within their community than what is in the unit itself. The COVID-19 pandemic has also reminded us of the importance of human connections on mental health. By designing these spaces to be flexible, we can create a more dynamic and interactive space. Since the spaces can adapt and change over time, the need to be remodeled or demolished is avoided helping to lessen the environmental impact.
Photographer: Kaltenbach Photography
Connecting to Nature: Views, Open Space and Biophilic Design
Humans have always had a special bond with nature. Creating views that connect to nature and make it visible from within a building can improve the mood and well-being of occupants. A clear sight line to the outdoors and our natural environment can reduce stress, produce more positive feelings and emotions, and improve concentration. Views can be achieved with glazing placed at strategic locations throughout the building. Designs that allow for a seamless transition from indoor space to the outdoors can help strengthen our connection to nature. Another way to strengthen this feeling is through biophilic design. According to Oliver Heath Design, “The World Health Organization expects stress-related illness, such as mental health disorders and cardiovascular disease, to be the two largest contributors to disease by 2020. With a diminished connection to nature, the increasing pressure on urban space and the ubiquitous technological presence, we have less opportunity to recuperate our mental and physical energy.” Designers can also help the building occupants connect to nature with the use of parks and open space. Even on an urban site, access to a small park space, garden plots, or a rooftop amenity is key to allowing residents to connect with nature. Designers can also encourage the use of bikes or walking to help strengthen this relationship. By blending indoor and outdoor space, we can use more natural ventilation and reduce utility costs. We can also reduce heating and cooling costs while improving the comfort of the building’s occupants. This is good for the environment as well and the physical and mental well-being of the people using the space.
Connecting to the Senses: More Than Just Sight
A building’s design can affect people’s moods through the senses. One of the most obvious senses is sight. However, successful design also addresses other senses. Good sound insulation is essential to help maintain concentration while someone is trying to work as well as create a more peaceful environment. Noise can cause stress because it triggers the sympathetic nervous system to react. According to VeryWellMind.com, “Noise pollution can negatively impact the body in significant ways, including elevated blood pressure, impaired cognitive functioning, and other effects of chronic stress.” We can also improve the comfort of occupants by creating the right indoor temperature. Passive solar design is one way to achieve this as are building management and monitoring systems. The Green Education Foundation states, “A lack of thermal comfort causes stress among building occupants. When they are too warm, people can feel tired; when too cold, they will be restless and distracted.” Thermal comfort can be achieved when temperature, humidity and air movement are all controlled and balanced. The use of double-glazed windows and radiant heat can help achieve this. We can also use passive solar design to help establish solar orientation, incorporate sunshades, study solar energy transmittance, thermal mass and air leakage. We can also connect to the senses by using natural materials that are locally sourced. Materials that connect us to nature by emphasizing natural light, fresh air, plants, natural colors and materials can help create a calm and peaceful indoor environment. By creating spaces that enhance the mental health of the occupant, we can also design buildings that improve the health of the environment.
As the global pandemic follows its course, designers can contribute to push further the norms of building design and reinforce the connections that we have with ourselves, our built environment and nature. The integration of such attributes will certainly help to prevent and mitigate issues associated to mental health. By paying more attention to the relationships and interactions between our surroundings, bodies, natural rhythms, senses and our Earth, we truly can have an impact on improving the holistic comfort of the humans inhabiting the space. Healthy buildings create healthy people as it directly relates to physical and psychological wellbeing.