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.