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Wellness by design: how your home can boost your health

As more people build their lives around the central tenet of their personal well-being, where you live has become as important as how you live to improve your mental and physical health. At the forefront of this next wave of wellness innovation is the humble home, with architects, designers and emerging new professions working together to combine comfort with cutting-edge technology to transform living spaces into sanctuaries of health and relaxation. From smart fitness equipment that integrates seamlessly into daily life to ambient environments designed to optimise mental wellbeing, Unfiltered investigates how these breakthroughs are not just transforming our homes, but revolutionising the very essence of living well.

Home is where the heart is. It’s also where your brain, lungs and every other organ, as well as 600-odd muscles and 206 bones, spend the overwhelming majority of their time too. And it’s the optimal performance and function of your circulatory, nervous and all of your other essential systems that’s now at the forefront of the latest and potentially most transformative health and fitness revolution: residential wellness.

From tranquil countryside retreats to innovative urban regeneration, architects, designers, and developers are increasingly working together to seamlessly integrate health and wellness principles into the very foundations of our homes and communities.

“We’ve probably got the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations to thank for the basic tenets of wellness real estate,” suggests Ben Channon, author of ‘Happy by Design: A Guide to Architecture and Mental Wellbeing’ and a director at EKKIST, the UK’s first health and well-being consultancy for the built environment. “When you look at what architects were doing back then, how they were thinking about the importance of light and ventilation, communal shared spaces, and encouraging activity and wellbeing, that’s what we’re looking at now too.”

Channon cites a recent living example of “wellness real estate” that he’s been working on: The Italian Building, in Bermondsey, south London. The Italian Building is a co-living concept of 28 apartments offering communal living areas, space to work, a home cinema system, a huge house kitchen, communal larder, laundry, library, gym, and a yoga/meditation studio.

For Channon, whose focus is on how where we live impacts upon our mental health, new urban co-living concepts are the future. The brief is to match the benefits of health-focused property design with the need to address social challenges, reduce loneliness, and create a sense of community.

Building wellness

The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) defines the concept of “wellness real estate” as the construction or redevelopment of residential, office, hospitality, mixed-use, medical, leisure properties to incorporate intentional wellness elements in their design. But it’s not simply a case of tacking a gym onto the side of a new development and scattering a few pot plants around the place.

Rooted in the idea that built environments can profoundly impact physical, mental, and emotional health, this design movement aims to promote features like abundant natural light, indoor air quality control, fitness amenities, green spaces, and stress-reducing architecture. Everything from the construction materials, décor, location (where possible), and access to local amenities and services forms part of the wellness checklist.

This drive for healthier homes gained momentum in the early 21st century as a response to the growing emphasis on holistic well-being and healthier lifestyles among the 55% of the world’s population now living in cities. “The Romans and Greeks certainly made health a priority in the design of their homes and workspaces,” says Channon. “But by the 19th and 20th centuries, with industrialisation and urbanisation, everything became about modularization and speed and how quickly things could be built.”

Channon says greater priority is still often given to budgets, deadlines, and legal requirements at the planning stage than consideration of the needs of those living and using dwellings. “But if we’re not creating buildings for human beings, then why are we creating them?”

Things are changing though in the provision of healthy homes. “The push for wellness and health in design has been supported by healthy living blueprints such as the WELL Building Standard. That’s a system used by architects, designers, and organizations to measure, certify, and monitor features of the built environment that impact human health and well-being.

There’s certainly a demand for it too. As part of their recent Happiness through Design campaign, The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) found that 70% of us believe that the design of our homes has affected our mental wellbeing during the pandemic.

Pandemic response

“The single most powerful game changer was the pandemic,” insists Jamie Gold, wellness design consultant and author of ‘Wellness by Design: A Room-by-Room Guide to Optimizing Your Home for Health, Fitness, and Happiness’.

“Before that, there was some interest among some people concerned with toxins in their home, allergies and sensitivities, and accessibility/aging challenges. But Covid-19 made it painfully clear that our home environments had a profound relationship to our health and safety.”

What also became clear is how ill-equipped much modern housing is when it comes to wellness factors such as air purification, water filtration, air quality monitoring, and lighting. Much to the detriment of our physical and mental health. “We in the UK have some of the smallest homes in Europe,” adds Channon. “We’re getting thousands of people dying each year through homes being too cold, too hot, or too polluted.”

Jamie Gold also believes that environmental factors – including the growing impact of climate change – are contributing to the convergence of wellness concepts with home design. “Here in the USA, the Flint water crisis [a 2014 public health emergency where drinking water was contaminated with lead], along with the powerful hurricanes and wildfires savaging our homes and lives have all had an impact on people’s attitudes to how they’re living.”

According to Gold, it’s a trend that’s only just beginning to pick up pace. “One recent industry study showed that 95% of those surveyed believe that a home impacts the health of its occupants, and 73% will consider health when choosing their next home,” she explains. “I’ve been covering this industry for almost 20 years and had never seen such figures pre-pandemic.”

A report into how much the wellness real estate industry is worth, published by Boston University, puts the figure at $275bn (£214bn) worldwide (North America at $118bn, Asia Pacific $98bn, and Europe $56bn). And despite wellness real estate purchases coming with sales premiums averaging 10%–25% over traditional real estate, the global industry is expected to increase at an annual growth rate of 16.1%, reaching a value of $580 billion in 2025.

Technical advances

Channon has contributed to the creation of a UK Healthy Home Checklist, created for assessing and addressing health and wellbeing interventions in residential developments. “It reviews projects against over 120 scientifically-supported recommendations, focusing on some of the key health issues arising in UK homes,” he explains.

Biophilia, the desire to commune with nature that so many of us grasped for during the pandemic, is a key component of the checklist. “Landscape design is a major element to consider when developing healthy homes,” says Channon. “Minimum outdoor space requirements for homes vary vastly and are often overlooked. But we know that high-quality external spaces strongly correlate with better well-being – especially our mental health.”

Other categories on the checklist – to be used as a precursor to building certifications and the basis of a design brief for health-focused residential development – include Circulation Design and Amenity Provision.

Builders are being asked to create ‘in-between spaces’ when developing residential blocks, which can improve usability and foster stronger communities. Amenity provision is aimed at ensuring new developments aren’t solely made-up of housing with no community hubs like shops, parks, and cafes.

Both Gold and Channon are keen to point out that healthier homes can’t become a perk for the privileged elite. “We’re lobbying politicians and pushing for local planning authorities to make sure that they’re weaving health and wellbeing into their design guidance,” says Channon. “We believe when you submit a planning application, there should have to be a section in there specifically addressing how a project is going to improve and enhance health and wellbeing.”

Jamie Gold suggests that the post-pandemic will of the people for healthier homes will be key to the success of the movement. “I think awareness of wellness design does have ripple effects too,” she insists. “You can see that in communities developed or rebuilt post-disaster. Resilience fits into wellness design, as does indoor air quality to address pollution, smoke, and ash. You also see it in communities choosing to electrify. While it’s being done for sustainability reasons, the benefits of switching from gas to induction cooktops, for example, include healthier air, reduced fire and burn risk, and faster cleanup.”

“People will become more interested in its potential and start focusing their priorities and purchases in that direction. They learn about the impacts and solutions and can make better choices.”

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