The Architecture of Wellness

As architects, we seek to inspire those who move through the environments we create.  It’s also our job to understand how the space will be used and create elements that support that use.  The last leg of the stool, a part we often overlook, is the need to make buildings that support wellness.  Even architects who design healthcare buildings often forget about this one as they work to meet many other challenges related to budget, program, operational  and code requirements.  Maybe it’s because wellness is such a slippery term.  Much like the term “green,” “wellness” is often bandied about, a buzzword that makes some aspect of a product, design or organization sound like it’s good for us. So how do we know if it really is- much less translate that into design elements?  I have been thinking about this issue for a while and even found an interesting website devoted to defining wellness complete with helpful questionnaires. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that true wellness is multidimensional and positively impacts our physical, mental and social state of being.  With that in mind, I have also observed that, as a profession, we kind of, sort of, dip our toe in the waters of designing for wellness.  We embrace sustainable building standards, evidence-based design, lean design, even socially conscious strategies.  However, these are just quantifiers.  Building blocks of the wellness leg of the architecture stool, but not enough as stand-alones.  True architecture of wellness must incorporate all of these measures, but spring from a much deeper intent.  I have listed below some additional more global considerations:
Design for the whole person

I have been in some buildings that gave me a headache.  Not in sick building syndrome terms but in the quality of lighting, colors used and claustrophobic environment.  Some work spaces are so dreary, my heart goes out to those who have to toil there daily.  It might not seem like an obvious connection, but many studies across various industries confirm that the way someone feels in a space, can affect their performance.  Quality of life should never have to be suspended by any building user.  I like to ask  myself as I work on a design: ”how will this make people better?”  Thinking about small details that contribute to wellness like the degree of control someone has over their physical environment, ease of wayfinding, ergonomics and proximities that facilitate their activities pays rich dividends.

Wellness is a journey not a destination
We never stop having to actively cultivate wellness.  As architects, we need to respect the fact that wellness is a process and support through behavioral cues things that will help those who live work and play in our buildings to make life-enhancing choices.  What if there were walking paths and outdoor areas of respite?  Stairs could be prominently located while elevators are tucked away.  Interior finishes could provide a marker of distances traveled during the day, break or relaxation rooms could feature relaxing color and material choices and subdued lighting.  Nature could be introduced through atria, patios, roof gardens or outdoor landscaping.  Acoustics could be appropriate to the setting and activities.  These al seem pretty obvious, I’m sure you’ve read countless articles on the subjects, but what have you done to actively introduce these issues as design concepts in the predesign phase of your project?

Design for diversity
We all know that building types have different types of users, but within each user group, there is also diversity.  Create a profile of likely building occupant and work with your clients and colleagues to “test run” your design ideas using  a scenario based on each profile.  For example, how is the experience of your building different for a 30 year old nurse vs. a 55 year old nurse?  What do different demographic groups need from the spaces?  You might be surprised at what you learn.


  1. As a Color Designer and Interior Decorator I totally agree that our spaces have a huge impact on how we feel and function. As visual beings what we see in particular is very important and color and lighting are two areas that can make or break a space for the individual as they affect us physically (think energetic red), emotionally (think yellow walls) and psychologically (think blank white walls). When designing I believe our first responsibility is to the people who will be using it and how we can improve their lives as a result.
    Thanks for posting this. I look forward to reading more on this topic from you.

  2. Susan, Thanks for your insights. I especially like that you mentioned color, an often overlooked aspect of design.

  3. I like your comment that wellness is multidimensional and I would like to add multidisciplinary. I believe all the legs of wellness you mentioned can be better achieved when disciplines work together, architects, landscape architects, engineers, interior designers. As you stated, the research is out there to guide us, but it takes more than the architect to bring about the change.

  4. Great discussion and questions. "Planetree" has developed over 30 years a measuring system comparing hospitals with each other in patient satisfaction utilizing hospital design to allow patients the quickest cure and satisfaction rates. Our goal at VerticalVisionsbiz is to create the "Patient Space". These are areas above, to the side of and in front of patients featuring expansive nature images to allow them to float away from the procedure at hand or the boredom of being confined to a hospital bed or MRI machine.

  5. "ageless workplace" needs to come to healthcare

  6. Kathleen,
    Thank you for bringing up the subject of a multi-discipline approach. Absolutely, all design/construction professionals as well as the owner need to have common goals for the project and work collaboratively to achieve them at every phase of the project. This takes a very high level of engagement and commitment, as well as leadership, to achieve.

  7. My profession looks at wellness and architecture from the perspective of safety, crime and the fear of crime. As an urban planner specializing in safer neighborhoods I often see design details ignoring safety. Lately I've noticed the inattention to safety/crime on urban paths, wayfinding, and bike trails - design features that lend themselves very well to new strategies in safe design. I wonder if we need to approach our architecture, planning, and landscape architecture schools and demand more education on these topics.

    Thus far the most I've seen is 1970s style defensible space theories, aka Oscar Newman. Or worse, municipalities adopt Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design "checklists" in their codes - as though one size fits all. That is a disaster.

    So much more has evolved since then - the creation of 2nd Generation CPTED and the emergence of SafeGrowth along with the Smart Growth movement for example (see We simply must do better for wellness in our built environment!

  8. Gregory,
    Thanks for adding the dimension of feeling safe to the mix. Most of the time, when we think about that in interiors, it's about having a relaxing, calming environment where the user feels they have control. When we get to the scale of a large building complex or a neighborhood, wellness has to mean that you feel safe in the community and are therefore willing to walk/bike/skate the streets for recreational and fitness purposes as well as to shop in neighborhood stores and build a social connection.

  9. Thank you Kathleen for mentioning multi-disciplinary work. Though usually represented by a firm name, good environmental design is collaborative work of many design professionals and consultants that work in concert to understand environmental constrains and challenges, user needs, user behavior and the environmental psychology of the project.

  10. I liked all of your comments on wellness and agree that all the various arms in the design process need to work together to achieve this. As a current grad student and former practitioner doing my thesis research on well-being and the living environment, I am trying to understand how those with elevated overall well-being live differently than others. Wellness in design is so often thought of in terms of commercial spaces and time at work or in public spaces, but what about when people go home? Should our responsibility end when they walk in their front door?

  11. Absolutely not! You bring up a great point Sabrina. Wellness needs to be not just a design strategy but a lifestyle that is uncompromised where we live work or play. I think we need to do a better job of educating not just our clients but the general public on how much the environment they surround themselves with impacts them.


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