How can we create environmental, physical, mental, and sociological health where we live, play, work, learn and heal? How can the elements of our physical space encourage “activated optimal health”? Evidence shows that space is not neutral. Where we heal and work is effectively a “prescription” which can improve our health, or limit our ability to thrive.
Design and Total Health
Over the last decade, we have come to realize, and measure, how design can impact total health. “Environmental health” is affected by the demise of the natural ecosystem, often as a result of what and how we build. “Physical health” can be disrupted by design, triggering a tsunami of chronic disease, particularly for adults working in hospital environments.
The design community has responded by adopting a variety of rating systems, rules, checklists and standards. A few examples: the LEED Building Certification, the Living Building Challenge: the Delos WELL Building Standard, and the Fitwel Rating System. These standards and systems focus importantly on quantitative assessments of the physiological impacts of indoor or outdoor environmental aspects, and how qualities like air, water and light affect health and physical fitness.
Measurable Aspects of Design
Are there measurable, qualitative aspects of design that can affect psychological health and as a result physiological and sociological health? Can design affect our ability to heal, learn, collaborate and work together as an organization? Can we create, through design, a measurable dimension of “comprehensibility, manageability and meaningfulness” of our physical spaces, that reduces stress, creates peace of mind, and comfort. And, most importantly, can we create the “sense of purpose”, that is a predictor of strong health, wellness outcomes, user satisfaction and employee retention in progressive organizations?
Neuroscience and Architecture
Emerging research in neuroscience on architecture indicates the answer is yes. This research reveals a third element that supports optimal health. The final leg of the “health stool”, you might say, of environmental and physical health. That is, the “mind health” that is caused through place-making in the places we live, work, learn, heal and play.
Connecting the Dots Through Design
We can connect the dots between psychological cognitive and pre-cognitive reactions that have physiological responses. These responses fundamentally affect human performance through complex neurological procedures. We can create “enriched” environments that enhance human performance through specific spatial fundamentals, both cultural and causal, and thus support optimal health.
Architecture Is Like Food
In many ways, architecture is like food: it can enrich the mind, body and soul or it can starve them; it can encourage collaboration and engagement, or create a sense of disconnect, through the way we make and consume our nutrients. For many, the buildings we engage with are “empty calories”. They are sensory-deprived and mentally unfulfilling. Neuroscientists have confirmed that our built environments can alter and enhance our performance: they can either heighten, or suppress our emotions and behaviour.
Elements of Enriched Environments — Research has discovered seven elements of enriched environments – intrinsic components – that simulate our brains’ biological and chemical operating systems. These are like architectural “super vitamins”. They are known to improve health, as measured through neurological, physiological, psychological and sociological feedback. These elements include:
Nature: Places inspired by natural shapes, light & materials
Variety: Spaces that offers a range of experiences & a sense of discovery
Vitality: Settings that are energetic & restorative
Authenticity: Spots that are valued for their realness and rootedness
Optimism: Environments that radiate a positive abundance
Sense of occurrence: Venues where you feel engaged and stimulated, and
Legacy: Surroundings that communicate purpose and a sense of something bigger