Architecture and Health

July 29, 2015

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Second, as habitat, avoid all toxins in construction! Now to the psychological and design aspects:
  3. Provide vista: long views, even if only to sky, must be integral to the experience of place.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Encourage outdoor experience by designing patios, screen porch, etc. into the flow of a building (a living habitat edge).
  8. 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.
As I limit myself to 8 points, I know I’ll be adding to or editing these in the future! But I think it’s a good start. In coming weeks, I will show some examples of work embodying these 8 design fundamentals. Obviously these are for smaller buildings, not high rises, but they are broadly applicable. The result is a natural, nourishing, lovable environment in harmony with its place. Why should we accept anything less?

Manifesto: the new American dwelling

May 1, 2014

The single-family home is a great American dream, one that so many of us have been fortunate to share; but as our attitudes and awareness grow and shift, so do the definitions of that dream. It’s time to redefine, to clarify what we’re after. It’s time to let go of the meaningless habits of over-consumption, artificiality, and toxicity that have become accepted in the past 50 years, and to embrace a new attitude toward the home in this country. It’s time for a manifesto.

The new dwelling:

Shall be just big enough. No wasteful spaces, no unnecessary basements, no duplication of function (multiple dining areas, extra bathrooms, empty “formal” living rooms, towering foyers…). A small house means more family togetherness and more outdoor space: garden, play and discovery spaces, porches. The small house encourages you to go outside. But, to quote a client of mine, privacy and quiet are part of comfort too, so the definition of “small” will vary by family.

Shall be efficient. Small is a good start in this regard, but it also must have proper window orientation and shading, a compact form, a superinsulated, airtight thermal envelope, and efficient lighting, appliances, and mechanical systems. This is not how it’s been done in the US, but it’s easy, actually, once you know how. It starts with a plan that flows well; storage is cleverly worked in throughout the house, and wherever possible, is moved outside the conditioned envelope; structure and cladding is considered from the outset to optimize material use. Energy modeling is done early in the design process so that the energy implications of design decisions can be understood.

Shall promote health. No more toxic materials!– Natural materials with minimal finishes predominate. The house shall be mechanically ventilated with heat- or energy-recovery, ensuring filtered fresh air throughout and managed humidity. That’s the baseline of “do no harm,” but we must actually do good–see next.

Shall promote nature-connections. No more sterile boxes that cut people off from the environment! Harmony with Nature is the foundation of health, arguably is the definition of health. Delightful use of sunlight, views to vistas, sky, and gardens enliven the interior. Enclosed outdoor spaces adjacent to the house promote indoor-outdoor flow and frequent use. Planters for vegetables, herbs, and flowers inside and out provide texture, fragrance, and food. Water is not seen as a problem to push away from the house, but an opportunity to create pools, rain gardens, even wetlands. The garden supports habitat. And the kitchen is an inspiring place to prepare good food!

Shall be durable. No more throwaway finishes! The skin should not require frequent maintenance, but should stand up to its climate, rugged and long-lasting. Structure, finishes, and especially moving parts like windows shall be strong; and the materials within reach and at eye level on the exterior should be inviting.

Shall be lovable. This is not about design dogma, a “look” or “style”–just authenticity. Some love a box, some love a gable; the new dwelling has a purpose and intrinsic character due to all the foregoing principles. As long as it meets these and resonates with its owners and surroundings, there is much room for expression and personalization–it needs to be loved.

Now go forth and build it.

Manifesto follow-up: three designs

April 24, 2014

So what does this new dwelling look like? Well, of course, it could take endless form; but to provide a prototypical starting point, I created a series of designs using American housing typologies. By starting with the familiar, we can appreciate both the timeless and the contemporary–you can easily see what’s new because the typical expression is well-known. These prototypes were designed to be broadly applicable, with suburban Chicago in mind–for lots slightly bigger than the Chicago 25×125.

The starting point for passive design  is orientation to the sun, so there are several types here: a Bungalow which can have east or west street frontage, a Cape Cod with south frontage, and a Georgian with north. In all cases, there is emphasis on indoor-outdoor flow (porches and raised bed gardens are consistent features), interesting spatial experience inside, and great natural lighting.

 Here’s the bungalow type–traditional front porch with contemporary detailing and a green roof; traditional 2 bedrooms plus bath downstairs (back bedroom could be a family room or study open to the kitchen/dining), contemporary living and dining flow; traditional under-the-eaves second floor with contemporary master bedroom, laundry, and fourth bedroom or study. The roof lifts up to the south to let sunlight in, and the stairs and kitchen capitalize on the spatial opportunity: there would be a strong connection to the sky, but shading to keep sun out in the summer. The roof is durable metal, the siding stained cedar–warm and inviting. The walls are thick–comforting and super-efficient. Although it’s just over 1,800s.f., the rooms are generous and the space and flow would be great. As with all these examples, it is designed to Passive House efficiency, which means it’s comfortable and affordable to run, a truly sustainable prototype.
 And here’s the Passive Cape Cod, sporting similar materials to the Bungalow. This type of house was common in 50’s tracts, and it was during a visit to my cousin’s house in St. Louis that made me see why: it’s a simple, compact form that allows a lot of variation within an efficient shell…but the 50’s ones are pretty stiff and self-contained. As a south-facing font door house, this one captures the sun in a dynamic entry space, and light is borrowed from that space into the central rooms (upstairs bath and downstairs hall). Like the bungalow, it has two bedrooms down and up–though again, bedrooms could be family/den/study rooms as well, so there is flexibility of use. And at about 1,500s.f., it’s incredibly efficient and affordable.

 Finally, here is a house based on a Georgian 3-bay organization grid, but loosened up with corner windows and porches. The front door and porch are low-key to the north, while the living spaces and bedrooms open up to the south, and a screened porch to the west. Like the other two, it has laundry up by the bedrooms, metal roof, borrowed light to the interior; unlike the other two, this has a cement-board panel with cedar siding exterior palette and a full height second story with a vented attic (above R-90 to 100 insulation!). It’s just under 1,800s.f., and again, would have a great feeling of spaciousness and indoor-outdoor flow.

So that’s a start on the road to the attainable, healthy, efficient house. I hope to build a lot of these.

Tom Bassett-Dilley Architects | Contact