photograph of loft apartments in a red building

Is Comfort Killing Us?

Amsterdam’s Marc Koehler Architects and health mentor Enitor Joiner explore the role of physical and mental health in how we live at home.

“In recent years, we have been confined to our homes more and more,” says health mentor and entrepreneur, Enitor Joiner. “This has made us more aware of the (dis)comforts of our immediate living environment. For example, sitting still for long periods while working at home leads to physical complaints such as RSI. A poor living environment can also cause stress and and mental challenges. Loneliness is a growing problem in society, and a general lack of knowledge of healthy living patterns has led to an increase in disease. With this in mind, Marc Koehler Architects and I got to work by asking ourselves: how can we create a pleasant living environment that automatically contributes to a healthy lifestyle?” 

“Your living environment is a fundamental cornerstone of a healthy and happy life.” 

a photograph of an open plan home with a bedroom visible through glass partitions

Increasingly smart but going backwards  

“While homes are becoming increasingly smart, we are slowly going backwards,” Joiner continues. “We have single-floor homes with standard plans, a lift in the center of the design, and appliances that think for you. With home automation, we no longer need to get up to answer the door or operate the thermostat, lights, music, or curtains. Your digital home assistant even monitors the fridge and controls your robot vacuum cleaner. This has reversed the relationship between the home and the city: while before we still travelled to the city center for work, a film, a date, or a restaurant, your home has now become the center. This means we have to move less and less and that we rarely come into contact with spontaneous new experiences and people.”  

“We are facilitating our own decline”, adds Koehler. “Do you know why seniors in Lisbon can still climb all those steep alleys into their nineties? Because they move around a lot every day and meet each other on the street. They enjoy a healthy old age because their environment encourages them to exercise. In one way or another, I want to incorporate that idea into the design of neighborhoods and communities, and thus change the DNA of the city. Superlofts, for example, occupy several floors so you need to climb the stairs many times each day. The open areas offer space for sport, the large windows and glass interior partitions allow sunlight to enter, which helps your body produce vitamin D, and many large plants cleanse the air. Large balconies make it possible to work outside. A shared roof terrace invites you to meet one another outside and do yoga. Many investors do not want duplex apartments in the buildings we create for them. After all, a single-floor apartment is more suitable for all age ranges. I often ask them the question: how healthy is that, actually?”  

a rendering of an open plan multilevel home
Superlofts Rendering, Courtesy Marc Koehler Architects

Implementing new routines  

To make people more aware of healthy living patterns, we need to think about new routines in and around our homes, says Joiner. “I mean the way you sleep, work, move, eat, drink, meet, and take part in sport. From meditation to exercises at home, and from cycling to drinking more water: it’s the small things that really make a difference. It’s harder to avoid drinking water if water is visible everywhere in the home. If we want people to cycle more often, we should stop hiding bikes in dark basements.” 

“Cycling is an essential part of our social lives, which is why we give bikes an increasingly important place in our designs”, adds Koehler. “In our residential tower in the SPOT district in Amsterdam, we are creating a stacked bicycle garage at the heart of the building. Ramps and bicycle lifts encourage residents to cycle. A bike bar acts as a meeting place where residents can drink a cup of coffee and work on their bikes. As architects, we have the power to design new routines that encourage a healthy lifestyle.” 

a photograph of a person rolling out a yoga mat in a small open space within an apartment

Activation can encourage you 

“This is only possible by prioritizing mental and physical health during the conceptual phase,” Joiner says. 

Koehler adds, “By including this sort of thing in the design, we can activate residents. Use spaces multifunctionally. For example, you can use flexible workspaces as a yoga studio in the morning. Put the open kitchen on the first floor. Design a tap with an integrated planter for the balcony, and there’s a good chance people will fill it with plants and care for them by themselves. It has also been shown that green views have a therapeutic effect and that caring for plants makes you a happier person.”  

Koehler has a pull-up bar next to the open staircase in his home. “When I go downstairs from the kitchen, I always do a quick chin-up. I only do it because the pull-up bar is visible and isn’t hidden in a place I rarely go. Make it just as important as a beautiful kitchen and combine it with the other functions in your home. You really don’t need a separate home gym.” 

an image of an apartment building on a corner street
Robin Wood, IJburg, Amsterdam

Creating your own environment  

Giving residents more freedom to design their own homes also helps. Koehler explains that this can be done by working with an open building method. “By giving residents more say in the layout and facilities in the building, a feeling of ownership and connection with the place, with the home and with each other arises. Feeling at home somewhere contributes to your mental well-being. And this is possible regardless of space whether rented or owner occupied. We have already shown this with Superlofts. It is well known that moving homes has a very destabilising effect on your emotional state. So why don’t we create buildings where you can live for longer periods, that can expand and develop with you and that can shrink again when you need less space? Flexible buildings that meet our changing needs as we grow older are a potential solution.” 

“The remarkable thing about a flexible building method is that everyone designs their space differently. We notice that many residents think about how to combine the functions in their homes, so you don’t end up with rooms that are unused for three quarters of the day. For example, you can create a healthy home workspace using sliding doors and glass interior partitions without losing a bedroom. Design your bedroom or study to also be a gym or yoga space, and create a guest room with a built-in cupboard with a folding bed. We also increasingly see that people add a second front door, so you can use part of your home as an office, for family members with care needs, or as a guest apartment.” 

an image of an apartment building with multiple balconies
Superlofts, Groningen, Netherlands

Being part of a local community  

People are naturally social creatures, and spending time with others has a beneficial effect on your health. “This is in stark contrast with the growing problem of loneliness among older and younger people”, says Koehler. “As an architect, you have the capacity to contribute to solving this. However, this idea will only work if you facilitate shared facilities in the building or the immediate surroundings. Your home must be part of a small, local community on two levels. At building level, it must be a safe place where you make collective use of a shared lobby, flex-working space, a guest apartment, shared mobility, a shared garden or roof terrace, a workshop for DIY, and a playroom. At street level, it must be part of a “local area network” of functions in the neighborhood where you encounter a mixed public.We are increasingly asked to design entire districts or streets. We see major opportunities here for an integrated approach to community building.  

“We approach it from a holistic point of view: just a good design or just moving around more are not the solution to creating a healthier lifestyle. It starts with creating a fine living environment that focuses on well-being––where nature and people enjoy a symbiotic relationship by adding more green spaces, microclimates, and ecosystems to our cities. These reduce noise pollution and purify the air. Trees and green facades provide natural cooling in the summer, which means you can open a window to ventilate your home. Birdsong helps you relax after a tough Zoom session. With a social network and by sharing facilities, you can create the conditions that allow a for a feeling of safety and empowerment to develop. After all, you are not alone in a community. It is important to create a feeling of independence and self-reliance by giving residents a greater say in what their living environment looks like––now and in the future. Our Thamesmead project in London, Waldstadt Pforzheim in Germany and also MaMa Pioneers (Poppies & Robin Wood) in Amsterdam are prime examples of this mentality. By really paying attention to healthy living, we can really change behaviour with architecture.” 

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