Build It and They Shall Thrive

By Jen Heil | May 15, 2019

In our previous blog we explored the worrying trends in mental health and the key opportunities available for creating a built environment that cultivates wellbeing. There is a wealth of resources emerging to support those in the industry to seize these opportunities.

From Public Health England’s evidence review on spatial planning for health, to the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) publication Happy By Design, written by ‘The Mindful Architect’ Ben Channon. In addition, the continually developing WELL Building Standard™, delivered by The International WELL Building Institute™ (IWBI™), provides a global rating system “focused exclusively on the ways that buildings, and everything in them, can improve our comfort, drive better choices, and generally enhance, not compromise, our health and wellness”.

There are many design principles embodied within these resources which highlight key areas of opportunity. Some, such as the good provision of natural light and adequate acoustic insulation, are already set out in planning and building regulations. Others, however, rely on the initiative of designers and developers if they are to be integrated into our built environment.

Consider, for example, the introduction of green spaces, or the importance of providing visually pleasing or interesting building exteriors. This is not just about aesthetics, a building should also be considered for the potential influence on mental health. Long, unchanging stretches of grey materials that extend across city blocks can cause people’s minds to dwell on negative thoughts. Facilitating pro-social places and introducing an unusual, eye-catching colour, texture or design then, can help to encourage engagement with the surroundings, bringing people out of their own minds.

Similarly, the internal configuration of a building, carefully thought out for its proposed function, should also be designed to provide flexible spaces which will enable the future users to enjoy natural interactions and seek new environments within their work or living space. In this way, a building does more than house its occupants: it fosters a sense of community and belonging.

Planning and design that offers access to green spaces is also vital. Whether through the provision of safe, well-managed gardens or through careful orientation of buildings to facilitate visual access to greenery through office windows, enabling people to feel connected to nature during the course of their day, provides a direct, positive contribution to mental health and wellbeing.

Through all these key areas, sustainable building practices should run like a golden thread. The development of our built environment can – and should – protect and nurture our natural environment. We have already established that our own health is inextricably linked to connection and interaction with nature and so it must be recognised that caring for the natural world is self-care at its most fundamental level. How can we hope to be healthy if we don’t invest in the health of the planet that we call home?

Forethought not afterthought

Small, impactful changes in the way we think about and execute building development, from individual homes to office blocks and urban regeneration, may be vital in safeguarding the future health of the world and its people. It starts with being proactive not reactive. From designers to policymakers, planners to clients, there is a collective responsibility to recognise and utilise the benefits of building for wellbeing. Through a holistic understanding of the connections between people and places, and a commitment to improving and safeguarding the health of our planet and the people on it, we can begin to build a happier, healthier, and truly sustainable future.

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