Ben Channon, Head of Wellbeing at Assael Architecture and author of Happy by Design explains what the current research can tell us about what makes a healthy home.

Ben Channon

The stress of adapting to the Covid-19 lockdown has undoubtedly had an impact on many people’s mental health and wellbeing.

It has also brought into sharp focus how the design of our homes can directly shape our happiness, with many of us cooped up in the same space for living, working and playing for several months. I have personally been surprised by how many people have said to me in the past few weeks something akin to “if I wasn’t interested in the link between wellbeing and buildings, I certainly am now”.

This has shown through in the data too. A few months ago, Assael carried out a survey in which we found that two thirds of homeworkers said lockdown was harming their mental health, with 65 percent working from inappropriate spaces such as their kitchen, bedroom or living room.

But until recently, this connection between the built environment and our health and wellbeing has largely gone unnoticed. In 2018, I decided to address this by researching and writing Happy by Design: A Guide to Architecture and Mental Wellbeing, to help architects, homeowners and renters to improve the spaces around us.

I took a research-driven approach, as I believe it’s important that as creators of the built environment we understand why certain decisions are important, what potential impact they can have on people, and that there should be evidence to support such decision- making.

As I delved deeper into the subject, I discovered a swathe of research and studies from neuroscience and environmental psychology about how we as humans are affected by the world around us. This ranged from the effect of colour on Japanese commuters, to the impact water can have on our mental health – with people living within 1km of the ocean reporting up to 40 percent fewer issues with mental health than those living further than 50 km.

Yet some of the most fascinating findings proved that simple changes to the design of our homes can have a very real impact on our mental health and wellbeing, through the curation of light, control, comfort, nature, aesthetics, exercise, and social interaction and identity.

Light affects our circadian rhythm, which regulates the periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day. Artificial light can cause changes in that rhythm that can be detrimental to mental and physical health. Meanwhile nature, including natural light and biophilia, can reduce stress, improve memory, and increase kindness, happiness and creativity.

Control (or even perceived control) and comfort are crucial. Having the autonomy to decorate, personalise, organise, and regulate our environment engenders comfort and ease

in our own lives – and, more well known, studies have found that messy homes can stimulate the release of cortisol, a hormone that makes us more stressed.

How we decorate our homes can also have a significant effect. A study from the Journal of Marketing found that people tend to favour gifts with a handmade appearance because of their sentimental value, which can inform how we consider materiality and furniture selection. Colour, proportion and individuality need to be considered carefully in design to evoke similar emotions of comfort and familiarity.

And of course, we are all well aware of the benefit of endorphin-inducing physical activity.

Some of these findings can be easily applied by anyone in their own home – it’s amazing what a pot of paint, some personal furniture choices, and finding better storage solutions can do to a space. Other findings require architects and designers to consider how their larger-scale building plans or even masterplans will impact mental health and wellbeing.

Buildings need to be oriented, for example, to take maximum advantage of natural light to draw the outside world in. Incorporating natural and tactile materials into façades or interiors can encourage users to engage directly with their physical surroundings – an often overlooked aspect of our wellbeing, most notably explored by Juhani Pallasmaa in his book The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses.

Knowing the mental health impacts of decisions like these can make all the difference between specifying a reclaimed timber wall and a white plasterboard one. The former will engage the senses and has been shown to lower heart rate, the latter (as far as I’m aware) hasn’t.

It’s important to state that design alone will not fix or eradicate mental health issues. However, attention to detail and the curation of spaces that reduce stress and encourage wellbeing are simple solutions that architects and designers can and should look to implement if we want to create better places for people to live and work.

Fortunately, wellbeing is quickly rising up the agenda in architecture and design. In the build-to-rent sector it’s a key consideration as developers and operators become ever-more interested in creating happier, healthier spaces that are directly tailored to the needs of the customer. As we move into a post-Covid world, the conversation around wellbeing and design will undeniably continue to grow, and I fully expect this to be one of the biggest considerations in architecture within the next five years.