What’s the Next Big Step in Building? Salutogenic Design

At a time when “wellness” has become an industry buzzword, designers need to think about the origins and causes of health.

The Robeson County Department of Social Services offers expansive exposure to natural daylight and incorporates natural materials.

All photographs courtesy Little

Our bodies respond to cues in the environment, and much of what is designed today is giving our systems the wrong message. As a design professional, I’ve spent the past six years studying and researching how the buildings I design impact the health of their inhabitants. As principal in a design firm, it seemed unacceptable to me to neglect the full extent of design’s role in human health. So I began to learn about the relationship between architecture and neuroscience to gain a more complete understanding of the human body, specifically the brain, and how it responds to the environments that surround it.

That led me to salutogenesis. Meaning “the origins of health,” this alternative model of care deals with the relationships between stress, wellness, and human health. Salutogenic design, as I’ve come to define it, focuses on the positive impact of design on human health. It’s a measurable aspect of design that can help a building’s inhabitants operate at their peak performance. Additionally, it can help them maintain physical and mental well-being, actually helping them lead healthier and potentially longer lives. It is the ultimate investment in people, in an architectural sense.

The interiors promote mental and physical well-being through a connecting stair and expansive natural daylight.

The unfortunate thing is that very few design professionals and even fewer organizations recognize the benefits of salutogenic design. Slowly however, progressive organizations competing for the brightest hires are beginning to see wellness as a significant benefit to the people they are seeking to recruit and retain. Salutogenic design is being endorsed in the design profession through vehicles like the Delos WELL Building Certification. This innovative initiative focuses not only on touchstone fairly common to the wellness industry, such as air, water, and light, but hones in on program elements associated with comfort, nourishment, fitness, and mind that will most likely be new concepts for people to associate with the built environment.

While wellness is now an industry buzzword, there’s much more to it than tossing in a yoga room or bike facilities into a building. Wellness and well-being are about having a positive impact on human health at the molecular level. On the most basic level, certain environmental factors are universal, like circadian rhythms. Morning light is blue spectrum light that cues our bodies to release cortisol and wakes us up; evening light, conversely, is red spectrum light that causes our bodies to release melatonin, preparing us for sleep and physical restoration. In other cases, these environmental factors are very personal and specific, based on our genetic wiring that sets the stage and the environment activates those genes in different ways. Our evolutionary memory responds to biophilic elements, like plants and natural materials.

A green wall at the Queens University of Charlotte Rogers Science & Health Building features plants native to the region.

Through the research of people like Rusty Gage at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences, we understand the connection between activity and enriched environments, and the growth of neurons in the region of the brain involved in memory formation, organization, and storage. We also know that physically active people score higher on memory and cognition tests. As my colleagues and I work on a headquarters project in Silicon Valley, CA, we’re designing spaces that encourage occupant activity in the building and across their campus. We’re creating outside work spaces, making internal stairs more engaging to encourage their use, and laying out enriched environments that provide the variety and novelty that humans seek.

This headquarters renovation prominently showcases biophilic elements in meeting spaces.

From the research done on types of building spaces that humans need, we understand the importance of designing restorative elements in buildings. These typically involve, as mentioned above, views to natural settings and biophilic elements that provide a sense of scale and a calming evolutionary memory which have been shown to reduce blood pressure and stress levels. These places provide a place for unconscious processing in the brain (that “Eureka” moment), and allow a renewal of attention and focus.

Our environment has an enormous impact on us, to an extent larger than we’re even aware. The Obama administration’s support for the BRAIN Initiative, which is mapping the human brain much like the Human Genome Project studied our genetic pairs, is continuing to unlock the staggeringly complex functions that the brain performs. The exciting thing is that all of this research and new findings can inform the way we design and program space to have a meaningfully beneficial effect on people.

Carolyn Rickard-Brideau, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Provisional WELL AP is the senior partner and office president for the Washington, D.C. office of Little, an international architecture and design firm. With over 30 years in practice, she is a leader in WELL certification and is one of only 80 Provisional WELL Accredited Professionals in the US.

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