When you think about Health, you may think about nutrition and exercise, but that is not the whole picture. The environment we inhabit on a daily basis plays an important role in supporting our health and wellbeing.
There are obvious ways that our environment can harm our health, such as the presence of air and water pollution, or mold, pests, and toxic materials in our homes, but it is less obvious how our environment can actually improve our health and wellbeing.
The architecture of landscape, buildings, and interiors, and the planning of urban space are currently undergoing a design revolution. In this new era of big data, studies have emerged that allow the design community to use a process known as evidence-based design. This design strategy uses data from scientific studies and case studies to apply solutions that will more effectively support human health and wellbeing, and, therefore, a successful project, instead of relying on personal experience and intuition.
Many of these studies confirm what before was just a feeling about what makes a space feel good, but more importantly they help the Architect clearly communicate the importance of certain aspects of the design more clearly to the client, and can also identify to policymakers and those in the public sector where investments in infrastructure can have the most benefit.
We intuitively know that a space with abundant natural light feels better than a dim space with few windows, but why is that the case, and what are the tangible benefits? It turns out that one of the most important health benefits of any environment is to feel a direct connection to nature. The term “Biophilia” was coined by a biologist, E.O. Wilson, in 1984, to describe humanity’s need for a connection to other living things. His hypothesis posits that built into our DNA are pre-programmed responses to our physical surroundings, developed as we evolved in a natural environment.
Studies have confirmed that humans do have physiological responses to certain environmental stimuli. Having a connection to nature has been shown to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and speed healing. A famous study by Roger Ulrich in the same year that Wilson published his book on Biophilia, found that, all other things equal, hospital patients with a view to nature vs. a view to a brick wall had reduced hospital stays, needed less pain medication, and were more congenial with the nursing staff. A recent study by the University of Melbourne found that as little as a 40 second view of nature can significantly increase cognition and productivity.
Daylight, specifically, has a strong effect on our wellbeing. A noteworthy study by the Heschong Mahone Group found that classrooms with abundant natural daylight increase test scores. Our waking and sleeping cycles, known as Circadian Rhythms, are triggered by exposure to sunlight. You may be aware that, to get a good night sleep, you should limit exposure to bright lights or screens at night, but you may not know that your sleep is also affected by the amount of daylight you experience during the workday. Without a good dose of daylight, you may have trouble sleeping at night. According to the American Medical Association, disrupted circadian rhythms can have more long-term health effects, including increased risk of cancer.
Beyond daylight there are other less obvious ways environments make us feel good or bad. For instance one finding that may surprise some designers is that our eyes and brains are tuned to the fractal geometries that exist in nature, and we respond well to those patterns that evolutionarily provided protection and sustenance, such as the branches of an Acacia Tree from the cradle of humanity, the African Savannah. Stark settings such as those found in ultra-modern design actually have the negative effect of sensory deprivation. The satirical website “unhappy hipster” does a good job capturing how hard it is to feel comfortable in spaces that use a limited design palette.
There are many other similar lessons for how the built environment affects our wellbeing, and it really gets interesting when you start using health as a lens to understand and apply environmentally sustainable design, because the environment may by definition sound like something outside or separate from the human experience, but when you understand how much that environment directly affects your own personal and community wellbeing it becomes much more imperative.
That is why I am organizing a summit that explores health and wellbeing in the built environment in my role as Board Member of the Connecticut Green Building Council and Co-Facilitator of the Connecticut Living Building Challenge Collaborative. We have a packed schedule of high quality presentations from a variety of experts. It will be on April 28-29th in New Haven, CT, and you can find out more at this website, www.nessbe.net.