Wellness: The Series

I'm very excited to announce that I am an author for Urban Times, an "optimistic, forward thinking online magazine," as they call it.  I call it a worldwide forum for very forward thinking articles and love that they share my interest in changing the world.  Today was published the first in what will be a monthly series I am writing for them on wellness in the built environment.  Please visit Urban Times and view the article.  Below is the full text to "Building Well-ness":

      Do you believe that the physical environment affects quality of life?  Many studies across various industries confirm that the way someone feels in a space can affect their performance. Consider research that indicates the following; the level of stress, and therefore pain, you experience in a hospital setting can be reduced through changes to your physical surroundings alone; your productivity and likeliness to make mistakes or injure yourself can be a direct result of the lighting quality and acoustics of your workspace; behavioral issues such as anger (which leads to bullying and abuse) or ADHD can be modulated by environment. I am an architect, but I don’t think that you have to be a design professional to take a proactive approach to shaping the built environment. This is my first article in a series on wellness and the built environment that will share strategies to help you see your world a little differently and be a catalyst for positive environmental change.
Many of us accept the world around us as a given.  While we may be able to cite spaces or places that we do or don’t like, we can seldom pinpoint just why we feel that way.  This makes us reactionary citizens and putty in the hands of developers who define our design values for us, then construct projects that evoke those images.  Couple this with well-intentioned zoning codes that are all about prescribing what can’t be done, and you basically ensure a new building has little or no distinctive character and lots of walls to shield its activity from its surroundings.  We are all guilty of not caring about what gets built until somebody proposes building something (or tearing something down) that offends us.  Then we organize en masse writing letters, making phone calls and storming public meetings demanding to be heard.  What if we looked at our spaces and places through a different lens?  What if we viewed all design as an investment in our community and in our own well-being?

All design needs to consider three elements: client needs (schedule, financial and functional), user requirements, and wellness.  Sustainability is just the tip of the wellness iceberg. Wellness is a multi-dimensional attribute that encompasses our physical, mental and social state of being.  It affects what it feels like to inhabit a room, a building, a neighborhood. Forgetting all of the edicts and manifestos out there on design, which are neither accessible or particularly meaningful to most people, I propose the following criteria to test whether an environment supports well being:

Is it Restorative?

Restorative design helps us to replenish ourselves.  Does a space encourage its inhabitants to make life enhancing choices, like walking or climbing stairs, or spending time in natural environments? Be an advocate for walking paths, gardens, appropriate lighting and acoustics.  Author and expert on the link between design, humans and nature  Stephen Kellert identified some specific ingredients essential to a restorative space:
  1. Prospect- a vista or view
  2. Refuge- the safe place from which to take in the view
  3. Water-actual water or design elements that provide glimmer, movement or symbolic images representing water
  4. Biodiversity- a rich palette of natural materials supplied through both interactive spaces (gardens, planters) and views.
  5. Sensory Variability- response to the changing times of day and seasons
  6. Biomimicry-natural materials, natural forms and structures
  7. Sense of playfulness-things that delight, surprise and amuse
  8. Enticement-complexity that encourages exploration

Is it Supportive?

Supportive design addresses the way the people that use a space need to operate.  Supportive environments do not provide barriers to completing tasks or activities.  How many times have you observed users engaged in work-arounds for design elements?  A good design understands multiple points of view and is meaningful for everyone from a child to teenagers and senior citizens. By thinking about what different demographic groups need from a space, and providing it the space, can actually make people better, in terms of their performance, health and state of mind.

Is it Enriching?

Environments that inspire us in some way leave a lasting impression. Yet, we so often settle for the mediocre.  Did you ever walk into a space and feel sorry for the people who had to live or work in it?  Did you ever enter an office building and get a headache from the bad lighting and dreary environment? Did a space ever make you feel uneasy or unsafe?  These visceral reactions are real responses to design or lack of it in a space. Just as design is the cause, it can be the antidote. We all have to start demanding better, from our city planners, developers, building owners, and ourselves. Whether through your donations, tax dollars, patronage or consumer activity, you fund the environment around you and you deserve to inhabit spaces that truly enrich your life.

Whether you are reviewing your own surroundings, working as part of a user team on an upcoming project, or proactively approaching your city with a plan for improvement or court a developer, I hope you will consider wellness as part of the way that you evaluate the space.  While certainly there are meta scale impacts on our wellness caused by global issues such as pollution, or chemical ingredients, an even greater impact on our well-being happens a lot closer to home, in our homes, and offices, and schools, neighborhoods, streets and public places.
How is your environment shaping you?