Architects know how to boost wellbeing through good design – but the onus is on developers to encourage that, says Félicie Krikler

A widely acknowledged effect of the pandemic has been an increase in our awareness of our physical surroundings. Spending more time at home has emphasised the value we place on what surrounds us, leading to a rise in people seeking to move house in search of more space, greenery or a new life altogether. As we now start going back to all the places that have been unavailable to us throughout lockdown, we will undoubtedly have an increased consideration of how different environments make us feel.

Felicie Krikler_Assael

While most people can intuitively sense the atmosphere of a building, it can be challenging to pinpoint the exact design features that cause such emotional responses. The concept of feng shui – how the arrangement of furniture and layouts can create harmony – has existed for thousands of years. Yet buildings and environments have rarely been created with such consideration.

Now that many of us have an increased understanding of how our surroundings affect us, it’s up to architects to identify specific design characteristics that contribute to a positive feeling.

Neuroscientific research has shown that specialised cells in the hippocampal region of our brains are attuned to the geometry and arrangement of the spaces we inhabit. Today we have a much better idea of the kind of urban environments that people feel comfortable and calm in, or conversely, stimulated and inspired by.

At Assael, we’re constantly researching and engaging with the elements that affect wellbeing. Within interiors, we know that colour, light, the provision of space and layouts are the main contributors to our moods and behaviours. Encouraging choice, movement and relaxation, controlling temperature, noise levels and air quality, ergonomic furniture and plants all have a role to play.

We’re also increasingly designing buildings that are possibly more challenging to inhabit, such as those at greater densities or in constrained locations with environmental challenges, so balancing this out with exceptional design is vital.

The provision of private outdoor space in cities is a challenge, especially as we build more high-density developments to meet housing targets, yet such spaces are so important to our lives

However, it’s certainly not all about the interiors. We must think about what’s going on outdoors with equal importance: how buildings are placed within cities and their proximity to green spaces and parks all have equally impactful effects on the wellbeing of urban residents.

Physical aspects of buildings, such as their height, scale and positioning, also affect health. Lower structures often give a better sense of connection to their surroundings and allow for external spaces like gardens. This gives the feeling of being closer to trees and surrounding greenery, and the ability to look out on a busy streetscape provides a sense of safety compared with living in a taller building.

According to Public Health Living, green spaces are associated with better wellbeing outcomes, including reduced anxiety, depression and fatigue, and enhanced quality of life. They are spaces that help us build a community and feel less isolated.

The provision of private outdoor space in homes throughout cities is a challenge, especially as we build more high-density residential developments to meet housing targets, yet such spaces are so important to our lives. While terraces and balconies are an option, they don’t provide as much space or opportunity for greenery and biodiversity to flourish as a garden would. Creating green amenity spaces such as a variety of courtyards, roof terraces and landscaping, providing both visual amenity and external physical spaces for residents, should never be considered a luxury but rather an absolute necessity to urban life.

The green aspect of planting and biodiversity is also an essential element of these external spaces, not only providing space for insects and other wildlife and a view of nature that residents can enjoy from their homes, but also playing an important part in contributing to the urban greening of new development.

Residential, commercial and office spaces that have the ability to improve wellbeing will have a significant advantage in an already saturated market

Courtyards and roof terraces also provide communal respite for residents and encourage all age groups living in the development to meet. Some are designed to be informal play spaces, and others include community uses such as gardening or space for outdoor activities like group exercise classes.

To meet the needs of present and future residents, it is essential that developers look to architects to achieve happy places through design. Residential, commercial and office spaces that have the ability to improve wellbeing will have a significant advantage in an already saturated market. The features that contribute to the wellbeing of a building’s inhabitants are likely to be why they decide to stay in the buildings, which is key to the success of build-to-rent or co-living developments, for example.

In the case of offices, now that people know they can work remotely surrounded by home comforts, from plants to candles, and amid chosen colour selections, there is no reason they should be content with a poorly designed office space.

Our recent office designs emphasise the elements that will encourage people to choose office spaces over home-working. From the inclusion of pocket parks and external terraces, optimum window and light considerations, to soft and stimulating colour palettes, we’ve put the experience of employees at the forefront of our decision-making.

Engaging in regular physical activity is known to go hand in hand with lower rates of depression and anxiety across all age groups. Embedding the principles of healthy placemaking into practice through ensuring good connectivity to parks and green infrastructure from homes in our cities is essential. We must encourage people to step outside, creating a healthy habitat that works for everyone, and bicycle hubs, pedestrianised streets and public water fountains can all help with this.

While architects continue to research and develop the specific features that affect our wellbeing, it is ultimately up to developers to prioritise the health of future inhabitants. The implementation of just some of our suggested initiatives could make a real difference in improving mental health across the board.

Félicie Krikler is a director of Assael Architecture