Interestingly, we have two different words for the place in which we live — house and home. The Oxford English Dictionaries define the former as “a building for human habitation” and the latter as “the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household.” That matches my own sense of the term: A house (or apartment) is a building, but when we add people, it becomes a home, a social setting, not simply a physical space.
Curiously, we don’t make this distinction for other important buildings in our lives such as schools or workplaces; I am unaware of a different word for these or any other buildings that distinguish the physical building from that same building as a social space. Which suggests that the home is seen as something different, something special.
Last week, I suggested we should aspire to more than housing that is not a threat to basic health; surely we want to create homes, places that improve our overall physical, mental and social well-being — and that do so without harming the natural environment. In the 1990s, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation suggested “a truly healthy house [is] one that is good for the people who live in it, good for the community and good for the Earth.”
But we should be careful not to be too environmentally deterministic. We might be able to design and build clean, green, healthy and beautiful houses, but that does not mean the people or family who live there will be healthy. There are lots of unhealthy and unhappy people living or working in seemingly healthy buildings.
Conversely, there can be happy and healthy people living in housing that is far from ideal — although meeting the basic needs I discussed last week is a vital prerequisite for good health.
Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider how the physical design of a house can improve mental well-being. Oddly, I cannot find much work from architects explicitly focused on the impacts of their design on the mental well-being of the inhabitants of houses. However, there is quite a bit about designing healthy workplaces, schools and hospitals, and much of that would carry over into designing healthy homes.
In an article in the winter 2016-17 edition of Sustainable Architecture & Building, a Canadian magazine, Kaitlyn Gillis and Michelle Biggar suggest that: “Architects and interior designers now face the challenge of embracing … an approach that puts people at the centre of the process” of design. They describe several aspects of this approach in a workplace context, but with some obvious implications for designing domestic interiors.
In addition to discussing the importance of natural light and “biophilic design,” which is about “integrating nature and natural forms and processes into the built environment,” they discuss esthetics and livability. While noting that the impact of esthetics on health needs more research, they note that “the use of wood … can enhance user experience when left exposed to view.” Others have noted the importance of colour in affecting our mood and behaviour.
There is now an interesting evidence-based process to assess and certify building features that “support and advance human health and wellness.” Launched in 2014, the WELL Building Standard, in its recently updated version, assesses 10 components of a building that are related to health and well-being: Air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind and community.
In the “mind” component, the design requirement is for both direct and indirect access to nature, with the former focused on using plants, water, light and views, and the latter involving the use of natural materials, patterns, colours or images. Both indoor and outdoor “restorative spaces” — often involving nature — are also part of the mind standard, using access to spaces that allow for contemplation and relaxation; in our homes, that might be the bedroom or a living room or a nook.
Another standard, but one that would clearly overlap with this, is controlling both internal and external noise.
It is good to see that architects are turning their attention to these issues. Now they must apply the lessons learned in workplace design to the places where we spend most of our time — our homes.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.