Book Review: Constructing Health

Constructing Health

Tye Farrow (University of Toronto Press, 2024)

Farrow Partners and Rubinstein Ofer Architects’ Helmsley Cancer Centre in Jerusalem, Israel, boasts a butterfly-like timber structure. Photo by Harel Gilboa

REVIEW Laure Nolte

For a moment, recall a memory of when you felt instantly at ease when you entered a building. You may have felt your heart rate slow down as you took a deep breath. Perhaps your nervous system regulated as the stress and noise of the outside world faded, and your senses gradually attuned to the space. A glimmer of light and shadow may have brought a moment of delight, a turn of a corner revealing a compelling materiality you began to trace with your fingers. 

Whether we are aware of it or not, the environments we inhabit have an impact on the mind and body; on our cognition and physiology. For over two decades, architect and urban designer Tye Farrow, founder of Farrow Partners, has asked how meaningful, health-generating person-to-place relationships can be nurtured through the medium of architecture. His new book, Constructing Health, offers a touchstone for designers, clients, and others embarking on a similar journey. 

Farrow invites readers to reframe their understanding of what buildings can do by posing a series of questions, such as: “How do buildings make us feel, and how can they make us feel better?” A guiding concept is salutogenesis, a term proposed by sociologist Aaron Antonovsky to describe the factors and conditions that promote health and well-being, rather than focusing solely on the causes and treatment of disease. Farrow suggests that for most of the past 5,000 years, health was valued as an asset to be maintained through a holistic understanding of the intricate connections between mind, body, environment and community. Recently, however, many aspects of the built environment have been constructed in ways that deviate from these values. Farrow’s solution is to actively construct environments that enhance optimal health.

Farrow Partners and Salter Pilon Architects’ Thunder Bay Regional Hospital maximized natural light in all parts of the building, from the atrium to the radiation treatment areas. Photo by Peter A Sellar

What exactly does this mean? Rather than offering prescriptive instructions, Constructing Health explores salutogenic possibilities in an open-ended way. The book’s first section is an overview of contributing theories, ideas and concepts that are part of the emerging field of salutogenic design, from thinking about environments as a source of enrichment to a deep dive into understanding beyond the five senses.

The next section offers case studies on themes of city-making, living places, educational spaces, and healthcare environments. These convincingly demonstrate how inhabited spaces can have a measurable impact on human health, performance, and experience. Take, for example, the radiation treatment rooms of Thunder Bay Regional Hospital (designed by Salter Farrow Pilon Architects, of which Farrow Partners is a successor firm), a space where natural light is rarely possible due to strict health and safety requirements. The design team delved into the dynamics of radiation energy dissipation, realizing that altering its trajectory could limit its spread. Taking cues from art galleries, where natural light is both ideal for viewing art and potentially damaging to it, they integrated a skylight into the treatment area, bathing an interior garden below in natural light. This resulting environment fosters a sense of hope and healing for patients and staff alike.

Tree-like structural columns convey shelter and protection at the Credit Valley Hospital, designed by Farrow Partners. Photo by Tom Arban

The final part of Constructing Health empowers designers with a reading list of fifty suggested books, as well as plans, sections, and perspective drawings of projects presented earlier in the book. 

The average Canadian spends 90% of their time indoors, and in the post-pandemic era anxiety, stress, and depression are at all-time highs. Now, more than ever, it is important to understand that as architects, designers and stewards of the built environment, we have an ethical responsibility to create environments that are restorative for the body and mind, activate optimal well-being, and are health-generating. As Farrow asserts, when it comes to whether a building causes health, the answer is either “yes” or “no,” never in-between—a building is never neutral. Comprehensive and compelling, this book is a guiding light towards design as a healing modality.

As appeared in the June 2024 issue of Canadian Architect magazine