Healthy Building Syndrome
Canadians spend over 90 percent of their time indoors—either in buildings or in transit between them. While that’s been acknowledged by the design sector for some time, the health impact of spending so much time indoors has been relatively neglected. An emerging design trend is taking a hard look at how the built environment informs the health and wellbeing of building occupants. As a large and culturally diverse country with an emphasis on social justice, Canada has the potential to become a global leader in this health and wellbeing movement.
Numerous colleges and universities, including the University of Victoria, are developing graduate level programs that specifically focus on human health as part of the design process. Coinciding with these educational programs is the establishment of the WELL building standard in 2014. The WELL building standard follows USGBC designations and credentialing processes established for sustainability, but a different organization, the International WELL Building Institute, administers it. Designers can seek the WELL Accredited Professional credential (WELL AP), and buildings can achieve various levels of certification—from Silver to Platinum.
The certification criteria focus on human biology and psychology, and the effect of the built environment in facilitating healthy experiences. The standard is presented through seven categories: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. Points are assigned for over a hundred features that can have a positive impact on 11 bodily networks, from the endocrine to the muscular system. For example, achieving the requirements of effective ventilation design would benefit the cardiovascular, nervous and respiratory systems.
The WELL standard is premised on the World Health Organization’s definition of health as the optimal physical, psychological and sociological state of an individual—and not simply as the absence of disease or infirmity. This comprehensive definition has been around since 1948, but our practical conceptualization of health often remains centered on illness and injury. In every moment of life, humans are in an environment, whether it is natural or built. At all of these moments, there’s an opportunity to positively impact people’s health through design.
Just as LEED is a starting point for thinking about environmentally progressive buildings, WELL is a first tool towards a more nuanced understanding of how architectural design can influence health. Flip through a university course catalogue, and you may see subjects such as Architectural and Design Psychology as sub-specializations within the greater field of Environmental Psychology—one of the key areas underlying WELL design. As an area of applied research, environmental psychology focuses on how individuals are influenced by (and in turn influence) their environment. Environmental psychologists test strategies to positively affect interactions with the environment, such as increasing connections with nature through biophilic design.
One branch of research focuses on the relationship between neurotransmitters and full spectrum sunlight, as well as the relationship between the hormone melatonin and one’s sleep-wake cycles. The inclusion of extensive glazing in the built environment is a catch-all expectation—most designers will champion as many windows as a budget can afford while meeting performance targets. Environmental psychologists have delved deeper, finding that since natural light facilitates the absorption of melatonin, an environment with natural lighting will help employees remain more alert and avoid drowsiness that often occurs in the late afternoon. Moreover, natural light is essential for preventing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). On the flip side, they’ve also found that there are some negatives that can result from too much filtered natural lighting: from “washed out” spaces that cause visual distortions, to optical illusions generated from the juxtaposition of streaming light on shadows. The principle of providing natural light, in other words, should be applied in a manner that accounts for the particularities of context.
For designers looking to delve beyond WELL, environmental psychology research has generated a wealth of practical insights (one resource for accessing these is the InformeDesign portal, informedesign.org). For example, by understanding mood and sleep patterns in relation to artificial light, one can better design bedrooms and hospital rooms that encourage restfulness and restoration. Including nature in built environments has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, decrease levels of aggression, and augment creativity and performance. Much research has revolved around the ideal office environment, striving to identify the right balance between an open office layout that provides daylight and views to the outdoors, and sheltered areas that allow workers to focus without acoustic distractions, or the underlying stress of having one’s back exposed to an open area. Another important tenet of environmental psychology, which comes intuitively to some architects, is the planned development of environments that entice people to engage in positive behaviors—for instance, designing wide, well-lit staircases, or providing active workstation options.
Environmental Psychology and Canada
The diversity of Canada’s environments—from its different climate zones to the size of its settlements, to its multicultural communities—gives it the potential to be at the vanguard of healthy design, particularly as it relates to the insights of environmental psychology. Unlike a field such as public health that focuses on universals, environmental psychology emphasizes diversity among populations. While all people on the planet are virtually the same in terms of biology, there are many factors related to topography, climate and social evolution that influence and affect behaviour, perceptions and methods of coping. This means that there is much opportunity for architects to specialize within their own region, becoming local authorities in designing for health and wellbeing.
As greater awareness arises on the impact of healthy environments, designers have an important opportunity to include qualified health and wellbeing initiatives in their practices. Those that do so stand to benefit in multiple ways: by broadening their service offerings, distinguishing themselves from their competitors, and producing better, healthier places for their clients.
Kaitlyn Gills is a project manager at the Light House Sustainable Building Centre in Vancouver.
Dak Kopec is Director of the Master of Design Studies in Design for Human Health program at Boston Architectural College.