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Adapt your surroundings to boost your mood

Many of us spend up to 90% of our lives inside buildings, according to European Union research. With some much time cooped up indoors, it’s little wonder that the design and flow of our artificial surroundings have such a seismic mpact on our health and happiness, explains “Happy by Design” author Ben Channon
Ben Channon
Ben Channon

Ben Channon is an associate and mental wellbeing ambassador at Assael Architecture, chair of the Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Forum, and author of “Happy by Design: A Guide to Architecture and Mental Wellbeing”. He studied architecture at Cardiff University from 2007-2012. Follow him on Instagram. Visit benchannon.com.

Can good design truly make us happier? Given that we spend over 90% of our time in buildings, shouldn’t we have a better understanding of how they make us feel? What if, by making a few small changes to our homes, schools and workplaces, we could improve mental health around the world?

One expert addressing these issues head-on is Ben Channon, author of Happy by Design. In the book Ben, whose own mental health was affected by environmental experiences, explains how buildings affect our mood in ways that you might find surprising. Unfiltered caught up with him to discover more about the increasing move to make homes and workspaces healthier a priority.

As a term “wellness real estate” suggests its origins lie in the USA, but what’s its actual back story?

“It’s a really interesting one. It’s something people have been talking about for a long time – at least since the 1960s but the principles of create health-focused domains go back much further. I wrote a piece a few years ago that got a few architects’ backs up because I said the original principles date back to classic Roman and Greek architects. 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.”

But that knowledge and approach was lost over time so that by the 20th century it was all about urbanisation and trying to achieve maximum density. Everything became much more about modularisation and speed, and how quickly it could constantly be made on a production line.”

You could make the argument that some of those human elements got put to one side. Certainly, when you look at the list of priorities on a modern-day construction project, while a lot of people might not admit it, the actual health and wellbeing and even experience of the final building user is not the top priority, and I really think it should be.”

So proponents of wellness real estate like yourself face a challenge to make our homes healthier?

“Absolutely. If you’ve ever sat in any design team meeting it’s often more about the budget, the program, those sorts of things, a lot of legal issues etc. They are important things, but at the end of the day, if we’re not creating buildings for human beings, then why are we creating them?”

Fortunately, there was a realisation in the early 21st century that maybe we lost sight of this. That shift in thinking is borne out in the creation of things like the Well Building Standard and certifications that have sprung up to address the need for healthier housing.

You will have noticed in the UK press lately a lot of issues around low-quality housing. There’s a lot of interesting research about what percentage of our UK housing is a healthy living environment. We’ve some of the smallest homes in Europe where you have tens of thousands of people every year die from things like homes being too cold being too hot or through air pollution, all those issues.”

Did the COVID-19 pandemic influence the way people started thinking about health in the home?

“Hugely. There had been a gradual realisation that we need to address the health of our homes that really gathered momentum over the last five or six years – when COVID happened that really has been a real catalyst.”

Five years ago when I did my TEDx Talk about how the places we live in affect our mental health. Back then a few people would maybe raise an eyebrow. Then we hit a point where, suddenly, people were essentially locked in their homes for two years.

The psychological impact of living in a poor-quality environment became apparent to so many. COVID has definitely helped to accelerate and make more aware of the impact of their environment on the health.”

I saw in that TEDx Talk – you did highlight how we spend almost all of our time indoors and yet so little regard is given to the impact a place can have on our mental and physical health.

“Yeah, to be honest, it’s more like 90% of our time now. With 55% of the world’s population is now living in cities where, obviously, there are loads of buildings – so even when we’re not in buildings, they’re around us all the time.

I’d found that the environment I’d lived in, as a student, negatively impacted upon my own mental health so I came at this from a mental health side of things, moving sideways out of the traditional architecture I’d studied. It led me to focus full time on creating healthy buildings.

We know that the quality of the environment you’re in can make it more likely that you’ll have a heart attack. We know the impact of things like indoor air pollution, which can be many factors higher than outdoor air pollution. It’s a vitally important health issue.”

It is, but is it something we’re able to address? How do you put your wellness theory into practice when it comes to designing houses?

“So we at EKKIST are a consultancy firm that steps in and supports developers or architects and their teams in creating healthy buildings.Very often developers have plans in the works for an office space or a big residential project and when setting out their project goals they’ll agree that they want to take a human-centric, person-first approach.”

But there are a lot of designers out there who just don’t know what is the healthiest decision to make is when they’re looking at a material data sheet and deciding what the healthiest components are.

It might claim it’s a healthy or sustainable building material, but we’re constantly bombarded with loads of products that are supposedly good for the planet. It’s only until you start to dig down into it that you see they’re not always what they seem. So, we’ll do the research and tell them whether something – a product, a concept, a plan etc – genuinely will or won’t have a kind of positive impact on someone’s health.”
 
Do you have specific examples of how we can make our homes healthier based on the works you’ve done?

“It’s a question I get asked all the time if I’m on panels or doing talks; ‘What are your favourite interventions – what things can we add to our projects to make them healthier?

But the response I tend to give is that it’s not necessarily adding on a really expensive green wall or some sort of super expensive air purifying material to a project. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great and they can make a difference. But the key thing is getting the basics right; getting good air quality, good water quality, excellent access to natural daylight, getting the acoustics right and encouraging people to be more active.

They’re not necessarily that expensive to do either. For me it’s a case of actually making sure they are done. That’s we’ve given ourselves this title of ‘custodians of health and wellbeing’ on a lot of our projects. It’s just about having someone there to make sure the basics are being done well and to keep reminding people of why we’re making certain decisions around the build.”

You’re also trying to make people more active by providing facilities within housing developments for exercise and health eating, how does that work?

“We talk quite a lot about how the design of a building can have a huge impact on human behaviour and the kind of decisions we make.

A great example of this is where you design a building which encourages you to take the stairs every day rather than use the lift. So, if you work on the third floor and you’ve got a really grotty staircase that’s hidden at the back of the building, you’re not going to want to use those stairs.

But if it goes through the centre of the building, where there’s a big atrium and there’s nature and greenery and all this amazing stuff there then you’re going to take the stairs. Over the course of a year can have a huge impact on how many steps you’re taking how many calories you’re burning.

It’s the same when we look at things like nourishment and healthy food choices. You know, if you’ve got a McDonald’s at the bottom of the building instead of a fresh grocery store it’s going to have an impact on the people that live there.

So, all of these decisions about the built environment have an effect for sure. We created a healthy home checklist on which you’ll see that we’ve got a big section on amenities and how we need to encourage a sense of community. We advise developers to do this by adding a meeting place or communal eating area – things that can impact people’s health in maybe a less obvious way.”

Can you give me an example of how that kind of mindset and an approach to design is, is being put into practice?

“Absolutely. We worked on a project called The Italian Building, helping its developers to target their Well Certification. That project is a co-living scheme and the whole thing was about creating this sense of community.

A lot of the focus, in terms of design and budget, has been on creating communal spaces. So, you’ve got a fantastic shared kitchen area, really lovely eating area with a kind of sunken courtyard outside people can go and eat in as well.

The idea is that they want people to be spending less time hidden away in their own rooms and more time in these amazing communal areas so you’re meeting your neighbours, getting to know people and reaping the health benefits of being part of the community.

Again, it’s something that we actually have lost over the last few hundred years because people now we live in these isolated homes. It’s very interesting when you see things like life expectancy and even improved diet, if you if you’re more social, and less isolated*.

Other aspects to that project involved having high quality bedding materials and fabrics throughout the whole complex. What we’re seeing there now is people who’ve had issues during their life with things like asthma and eczema are reporting vastly improved symptoms.

Is there any way of ensuring that this access to healthy homes isn’t solely down to those who can afford it?

“We firmly believe that it should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status. The notion of creating healthy homes and workplaces should not be confined to the elite or privileged few living in their ivory towers.

In fact, we are actively advocating against this misconception and striving to bring wellness into the lives of as many people as possible, not only in our community but globally.

We’re taking proactive steps, such as engaging with politicians and collaborating with various government bodies. Our aim is to encourage changes in building standards and local planning guidelines, emphasising the integration of health and well-being into the very fabric of our communities. When developers are submitting a planning application, we’re pushing for a mandatory section addressing how the project will enhance health and well-being.

OK, it’s true that Health Impact Assessments are currently part of the process – but we’re advocating for a more comprehensive approach that explicitly outlines how a development will create a healthier place and environment. Our goal is to ensure that this aspect becomes an integral part of every project’s planning and design, regardless of its scale or budget.

We recognise the need for the industry, as a whole, to work diligently to ensure that wellness is not a privilege reserved only for the elite, and that includes focusing on social housing projects with the same care, attention, and dedication to health as we do for more upscale developments.”

Photography Meric Dagli

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