The interaction of the built environment and human health has been a topic of great debate and much development lately. Between the Well Building Standard and the Living Building Challenge, we have new ways of thinking about and measuring our successes and failures in building healthy environments. I encourage everyone to go and read up on those standards, but today I wanted to bring my own angle to the topic. As a follower of the ancestral health movement, I’d like to look at environmental health from an evolutionary perspective, and through an architect’s eye.
First off, the obvious: to quote my favorite blogger Mark Sisson, “avoid poisonous things.” No species would survive long if it chose toxic environments. Yet, sadly, our building industry is chock full of poisons, and it is only with great diligence on the part of architect and builder that low toxicity can be ensured. On top of “clean” materials, it is important to ventilate well, which is a lesson that Passive House teaches. In a tipi or cave, there’s plenty of fresh air (well, smoke too, let’s not romanticize too much here); we need it in our buildings too!
Not doing harm is a necessary first step, but it’s only a start. We must provide positive, nurturing environments! This gets into a newer and more subtle field. When we spent most of our time as a species outdoors, we were tuned to the sights, sounds, textures, and smells of the environment; such sensory engagement, and with natural forces, is a far cry from most indoor environments. On top of that, we were moving, not still–not living a dangerously sedentary lifestyle. And finally, from Jay Appleton to Grant Hildebrand, there is a persistent notion that we as a species seek “prospect and refuge” in our landscapes and environments: we instinctively want a combination of safety and opportunity.
So here’s the big question: how do we design buildings that provide prospect and refuge while keeping people active and in tune with natural forces and sensory input? (Easy answer: send them outdoors! Well…OK, not into that parking lot there, but the woods 35 miles away…OK, not an easy answer after all.) There is a whole field of inquiry seeking to answer this question, that of Biophilic Design, but I’m going to take a shot at answering more simply:
- First, think of the building and site as habitat, not merely a functional package (machine) or fashion plate (trend). But design it beautifully, as an organic whole, an inspiring place.
- Second, as habitat, avoid all toxins in construction! Now to the psychological and design aspects:
- Provide vista: long views, even if only to sky, must be integral to the experience of place.
- Along with vista, balance natural light throughout the space, so that it comes from different directions, allowing one to sense the movement of the sun and appreciate the natural textures inside (see #8) as light reflects off of and rakes across them.
- Provide strong sense of shelter and “edges” (gateway, transitions) bounding the habitat. The demarcation of inside/outside should correspond not to the building walls, but to the boundary of habitat. Think of monasteries (cloisters), farmyards, garden walls–a sense that habitation is not just shut up inside a building, but designed to extend outdoors.
- Provide access to plants, animals, and moving water. A garden to cultivate, indoor plants, pets, birdhouses, livestock, a fountain or stream…the health benefits of these alone are manifold.
- Encourage outdoor experience by designing patios, screen porch, etc. into the flow of a building (a living habitat edge).
- Use natural materials as enclosure and finish, and if employing a decorative level of finish, use natural patterns–I know that’s vague, but it is a worthwhile avenue to pursue. There is a reason Wright’s stained glass windows have enduring appeal, and I think it’s the “nature-pattern” richness of the work more than anything else. Homage to Mother Nature.