The Connection Between Space and Wellness

As living beings, we are our environment.  Design plays a significant role in human health, and the way that we configure and manipulate elements in a space can mean more to its inhabitants than whether they like the color of the walls, or the texture of the carpet.  On the most basic level certain environmental factors have universal effects on all of us – i.e. daylight & circadian rhythm.  In other cases these environmental factors are very personal and specific, based on our genetic wiring.  Genetics set the stage and the environment activates those genes in different ways. 

Our bodies respond to queues in our environment – as our evolutionary responses developed – and much of what is designed today is giving our systems the wrong message.  The most unfortunate thing is that very few organizations and even design professionals recognize the benefits of salutogenic design (designing for wellness).

Salutogenic design isn’t something that’s “cool” or “good for PR”.  It’s a measurable aspect of design that can help a building’s inhabitants operate at their peak of effectiveness, maintaining physical and mental well-bring, actually helping them to lead healthier, and therefore longer lives.  It is the ultimate investment in people, in an architectural sense.

The way that we design space has a direct impact on physical and mental fatigue, awareness, memory cognition, depression, cardiovascular & musculoskeletal health.  Not enough emphasis is put on designing wellness into a space, generally speaking.  We are just entering a phase when awareness about space & wellness is about to explode onto the scene through vehicles like Delos’ Well Building Certification.  Organizations, competing for the brightest hires need to see wellness as a significant benefit to the people they are seeking to recruit and retain.

Stresses or challenges – which can be either physical or psychological – in and of themselves, are not bad things.  In fact Dr. Robert Rosen wrote a book called Just Enough Anxiety: The Hidden Driver of Business Success, with the founding thesis being that humans can benefit from forces causing them to act – any student can tell you that many times pen doesn’t hit paper until a deadline is established (btw do we still use pens?). When an individual feels as if they can have an effect on a force causing them stress or anxiety we see it as a challenge, something that is possible to overcome.  When that same individual cannot effect change then that force becomes a stress.

Downward Spiral
This stress in the built environment has important repercussions, many of which seem to be are completely overlooked, or accepted as something to live with.  Northwestern National Life did a survey in which 40% of workers report that their job is very or extremely stressful.  In another study conducted by Princeton Research Associates, 75% of respondents said that they think that the worker has more on the job stress than a generation ago.  The issue of environmental stress isn’t confined just to the workplace.  Just about any place where people spend significant periods of time can initiate stress in the User.

Stresses have many different categorizations: organizational (ineffective processes), environmental (noise, temperature), social, physical, biological & chemical (outgassing, VOC’s).  These stresses also have varying intensities, from Ambient which is perceptible but limited, to Acute which is sudden and intense but short-lived, to Chronic which is on-going and pervasive.  Although each of them present issues, chronic stress shows a direct correlation to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, heart, stomach and blood pressure issues, impaired cognitive function, lowered immunity, musculoskeletal and bone density issues, depression and certain cancers.

The Journal of Occupational Medicine states that healthcare expenditures for workers who report high levels of stress are 50% higher than for those who don’t experience such high levels of stress.  In fact, organizations where people report these environmental stressors see increased absenteeism, chronic lateness, and higher incidences of workers quitting.  When one considers the cost of backfilling an open position the cost exceeds just the salary of the new person.  It also includes the loss of productivity while the position is empty (not to mention the time that the person leaving isn’t productive as they make their decision to leave), the cost of recruiting, training and the loss of intellectual capital.  These costs add up to 1-5 times the annual salary of the position.

Healthy Spaces = Healthy Organizations
On the flip side, organizations with healthy spaces show lower rates of illness and disability.  They are competitive in the marketplace because of the value they put on the individual, and in an organizational understanding of their gaps.

These organizations look to tailor space to the processes being performed in the space so that the space acts as an extension of those processes, not as a roadblock to accomplishing the tasks at hand.  Frequently people make things work in spite of their space, rather than having their space as an active part of a successful process.  Thinking not only about the spatial experience, but also about lighting, and the auditory needs of the people using the space maximizes the effectiveness of any space for the user.

They incorporate sustainable measures – which not only present benefits for the immediate Users, but also for the larger Community at Large.  Issues like indoor air quality and daylighting have an immediate positive impact on their inhabitants, even if attention is not called to them directly.  Direct access to daylight and views reduces blood pressure, lowers the incidence of headaches, and in healthcare setting results in the need for less pain medication and shorter stays in the hospital.  Exposure to daylight has also been shown to deliver higher accuracy in work product and test scores.

They seek to create environments which are physically legible.  Stress is minimized when a building User understands how to use a space intuitively, based on how spaces are sequenced, & materials, way finding, lighting and other design elements are used to help people make sense of a space.  Stress is increased when a person is confused and doesn’t understand how to navigate a space to effectively get what they need.

They build in social interaction, allowing people to participate or just be exposed to the activity others.  Disengagement and lack of connection is one of the four biggest issues in the Workplace today (the other three being Recruiting, Retention and Succession).  Creating spaces that allow opportunities for interaction deepen the relationship between a person, their space and the other occupants.

They incorporate natural and biophilic elements like courtyards, plants, natural materials which still have a place in our evolutionary memory.  Using natural materials can present a sense of scale, texture, color and materiality that have a naturally calming effect on people on both biological and neurological levels, reducing stress hormones, and physical fatigue.  Even large-scale images, where connection to the outdoors isn’t possible, make a difference on human stress levels.

Every person involved in design needs to recognize and embrace the call to incorporate elements of wellness into the spaces that they create wherever possible.  The concepts and responses are frequently simple, yet the simplest of ideas can yield meaningful results for the human organism.   As long as we remain aware of the impact that our designs have on people – at a biological & neurological level – we can make a significant difference for people coming in contact with our spaces & buildings.

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