In a newly opened office high-rise in downtown Beijing, most occupants were reportedly feeling uncomfortable everyday. It was a tight building of which the central ventilation system provided mechanic air supply but no natural exhaust. A survey was conducted, which included a questionnaire to occupants and detection of indoor air pollutants. Results of the questionnaire indicated that 98.7 % of occupants had sick building syndrome, and that their symptoms were more severe in the afternoon than in the morning. Results of pollutant detection showed that the concentration of carbon dioxide in some rooms was as high as 700 to 1000 ppm. In most rooms, carbon dioxide and radon levels were higher in the afternoon than in the morning. This data suggests that insufficient ventilation, likely as a result of the lack of an exhaust duct system, causes accumulation of indoor pollutants that are associated with sick building syndrome. (Wang, Li &Zao 2002)

In 1946 the definition of human health was adjusted by the World Health Organization  to encompass the entire spectrum of physical, mental and social well being as opposed to the conventional idea of freedom from infirmity or disease. This development led to investigations into the role of the built as well as natural environment on human health and well being. The study of human physiology is a well established field of inquiry with a large body of empirical, quantitative evidence to support many of its claims, however the analysis of relationships between physical and mental well being in the built environment now known as environmental psychology is relatively new. This area of inquiry is particularly relevant for architects and other professionals involved in the design of built forms in a rapidly urbanizing society that spends the majority of its time in indoors or in spaces created by the collaboration of architectural and urban design.  Poorly designed housing, workspaces, transportation and recreational spaces can at best stagnate and remain unused or in worst case scenarios – cause chronic physical and mental health issues for its inhabitants, contribute to the spread of disease, waste resources and diminish their overall sense of well being and efficiency.

“Whether people are healthy or not, is determined by their circumstances and environment. To a large extent, factors such as where we live, the state of our environment, genetics, our income and education level, and our relationships with friends and family all have considerable impacts on health …” World Health Organization: The determinants of health

Vitruvius in his model for the elements for a well designed building designated three which were essential for this purpose:

  • firmitas (strength)
  • utilitas (functionality)
  • venustas (beauty)

Strength in building design is manifested as its ability to withstand the elements of weather and provide shelter for its inhabitants .The concept of functionality in design has evolved from the building simply serving its purpose of housing its inhabitants and catering to the activities conducted within it- to one of providing a stimulating, enriching and comforting experience for the same inhabitants and activities. The idea of beauty on the other hand, is a complex concept intertwined with that of functionality to create the aforementioned space, providing a positive experience for every individual inhabiting it.

Physical Well Being In The Built Environment

Most people spend the majority of their time indoors, yet we are only informed about the effects of outdoor ambient environmental conditions on our well being.  Physical health and well being is typically quantified in the field of design in relation to the symptoms and causes of disease. Factors such as air quality and movement, day lighting and sanitation are generally used as indicators for the quality of a space and are also integral aspects of the design process. Sealed building envelopes, particularly those with large glass, metal or concrete  facades reflect excessive amounts of solar heat due to the high thermal reflectivity of modern building materials-this in turn heats up surrounding areas and contributes to the phenomenon known as ‘Urban Heat Islands’. 

The primary factors which contribute to physical well being in built spaces include:

  • Air Quality – The advent of sealed building envelopes to reduce air conditioning loads is another cause for concern due to stagnating air volumes in building interiors. A major cause for concern is the tendency for architects to design for the minimum standards required for ventilation and in doing so; they become suffocating boxes when there is a higher density of occupants. Optimizing ventilation to ideal standards during the design stage is the most cost effective method to ensure the well being of its inhabitants. We spend the vast majority of our time indoors, yet the air we breathe is filled with off gassing from toxic chemicals prevalent in flooring, furniture, paints, wall finishes etc. Researchers in Syracuse, New York found that doubling the ventilation capacity of a ventilation controlled building had positive effects on the cognitive function test scores of workers in the building. Cognitive functioning scores also improved by 5.4% when the conditions of temperature and humidity were kept at their optimum levels. Projecting  the value of this improvement over the course of a year increased their productivity by $ 6,500 per year  while doubling  the ventilation capacity only cost $14 to $40 per occupant per year. The exact mechanism by which ventilation improves cognitive function is still an area of active research and the role of volatile organic compounds found in furniture and floor and wall finishes is still yet to be understood in the realm of physical health.
  • Natural Light – Lighting is a major factor in its contribution to physical well being as responses to sunlight regulate daily bodily processes. However , improper lighting design in interior environments can lead to inhabitants working either in dimly lit “tombs” or bombarded by excess light and glare which can be extremely unsettling in closed environments. A lack of information regarding optimal lighting requirements and excessive  focus on the aesthetic properties of light have made the aforementioned situations reoccurring  issues in the built environment, particularly in the workplace. Designers are now focusing on optimizing the use of natural light, as it is more energy and cost effective while also proving beneficial to the overall well being of users. Researchers are now breaking  ground on the relationships between sunlight and the daily cycles of the body known as circadian rhythms. This also allows designers to utilize lighting that mimics daylight in places where it is scantily available in order to compensate and provide an enriching environment for its users.
  • Active Design – In antiquity staircases were generally used as decorative, inviting  elements in building design, however their modern counterparts are steadily being concealed and restricted in their use. The matter of encouraging users to make use of staircases and ramps for vertical circulation is a problem that has come to light in recent years as more buildings have mechanical circulation services such as elevators, escalators and travelators installed. Dark, dingy and closed off stairwells have taken a back seat in this scenario. A renewed focus on manual vertical circulation is gaining interest due to the potential health benefits it represents. Stairs and ramps in certain buildings are now being designed with an emphasis on inviting users to utilize them by including decorative elements or  views of the exterior to name a few. Large staircases also foster greater interaction among users and this observation is being harnessed by clustering amenities such as toilets, water coolers and dustbins in their vicinity. Incorporating vegetation in interior spaces is another means for implementing active design as it improves indoor air quality, is proven to provoke positive psychological responses from users and provide natural inviting views. Biomimicry, a method by which systems and solutions for common problems found in nature are implemented in design is also increasingly incorporated due to positive results. It can be manifested as cooling systems that mimic the natural air flow in termite mounds, high-efficiency fans based on the shape of whale flippers, and dirt-resistant paints and coatings modeled after lotus leaves.

Mental Well Being In The Built Environment

The design of visual stimuli in a built setting is the primary medium for the intervention of the architectural discipline into the process of managing stress and regulating mental well being. Human beings generally function better in the presence of a moderate degree of stimuli.Loud noise, bright light, unusual or strong smells, and colours, particularly at the red end of the spectrum, appear to increase stimulation (Berlyne, 1971 ;Mehrabian& Russell, 1974). On the other hand overtly repetitive, monotonous spaces that leave little to the imagination of the inhabitant while moving through them cause boredom and lethargy. Overabundant stimuli in the form of design elements, excessive complexity as well as incoherency and a lack of synergy in the design of said elements are proven to cause stress. Narrow, crowded or confined spaces without adequate daylight and ventilation also produce the same effect on its inhabitants. Extremes of loud noise or complete silence over extended periods of time can also be debilitating to those that experience it.  Stress due to poor design can be attributed to a number of factors such as :

  • Ambiguity – Where the space has no clear functional or morphological definition and creates confusion in the mind of the user in regards to the expected pattern of behaviour within it. Barriers within a space that do not explicitly conform to the spatial program can cause confusion or distress to users moreover, diverging  information from design features such as pathways and walls/partitions when incorrectly placed can contribute to the same.  Coherence in design can be achieved through the use of repeated textures, elements and colors as well as underlying thematic programs and features throughout a structure that convey the properties of each space to its user.
  • Legibility – The ease with which an individual can comprehend a space and its overall position with respect to its surroundings, allowing them to navigate it. A lack of visual connectivity to the exterior surroundings of a space can be disorienting for users as they have no external point of reference to estimate distances and track the passage of time. Spaces that offer no immediately discernible consequences for their navigation such as blind corners in corridors and single steps with identical finishes to their lower level  can cause significant distress to users due to the high potential for confusion, accidents  and injury. Legibility in interiors is enhanced by regular geometric building shapes (Weisman, 1982), distinctive interior markings (Evans, 1980) and views of the external environment (Garling et al., 1986). 
  • Control – An absence of the regulation of exterior elements such as light, heat, ventilation etc. as well as a lack of definitive boundaries/ excessive territoriality and hierarchy, privacy, crowding etc.  Physical barriers that restrict movement and behavior, inflexible arrangements of space, lack of lighting and thermal controls can all contribute to a sense of helplessness that can create or exacerbate stress in the mind of a user.  The privacy of a space governed by its size, ease of access, placement of stimuli and interconnectivity is an integral aspect of the factor of control as they determine the nature and frequency of the interactions occurring within the concerned space.

Building design plays an indispensible role in the emotional responses and patterns of behavior of its inhabitants although, there is still a deficiency in the amount of quantitative information about what factors contribute most to the stress experienced by individuals on a daily basis. The regular scrutiny of design elements in a space and the predicted responses they effect in users is an area that requires a great deal of study and implementation in order to design spaces that elevate the mental health and productivity of its users.  The incorporation of restorative elements to help relieve and dissipate stress, particularly in residential and commercial projects ,  allows individuals to relax and recharge their mental faculties after extended periods of forced concentration. Restorative elements are primarily areas free from excessive stimulation, with views of the external environment or an element that mimics it. They can include window ledges with seating, verandahs, balconies, water fountains with seating opportunities to name a few. They inspire and capture the attention of observers, thereby distracting them from their previous states of distress caused by under or overstimulation. 

Stress alone is not a definitive factor to assess the relationship between mental well being and built forms – it can also be attributed to lifestyle, behavioural variations and their degree of susceptibility to negative patterns of thought in adverse situations. The largest obstacle in understanding these relationships is the absence of empirical evidence correlating specific design elements to the perceived responses from individuals as well as the apparent lack of interest in obtaining it. There is a clear lack of comprehension among specialists about the role of the built environment in human well being in stark contrast to their understanding of biological and ambient environmental factors.

 Joseph  Allen and colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have defined nine foundations for healthier buildings, such as better water quality, reducing noise, regulating temperature, and maximizing light. This may well pave the way for  new standards and parameters for evaluating the quality of building design and its effects on users.

The green building movement which has steadily gained traction over the past few decades,  gradually shifted its ideal from water and energy conservation to a more all encompassing approach of understanding how people react to the buildings they inhabit and the measures to be taken to ensure their well being.

References

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