How Can Architecture Improve Health?
Architecture can have a huge influence on our physical and mental health, but how?
Whether we’re aware of the benefits or not, natural light, green spaces, enhanced ventilation and reduced noise pollution can all positively contribute to our wellbeing. But what, specifically, is it about those things that help us breathe easier and feel happier?
In this article, we will explore how incorporating these elements into your architectural projects can optimise well-being, whilst remaining practical and complementary to your architectural design.
Let’s start with a trip north.
Case Study: Norway
Have you ever visited the Bryggen district in Bergen, Norway?
If the answer to that question is yes, you will have seen the picturesque red, yellow and white clapboard houses and shops that line the waterfront.
Bryggen is a stunning example of the impact architectural choices can have on a community’s well-being. Observing the view of the architecture reflected in the bay serves as a reminder that the smallest things can bring us joy, and that our built environment doesn’t have to overshadow the natural one. In fact, Bryggen is an excellent example that the best builds are sympathetic to the environment already around them.
Despite many of the buildings in Bryggen being constructed over two hundred years ago, Norway’s more modern buildings, like the Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø – built in 1965, or the Oslo Opera House – built in 2008, have also been designed to inspire. The only difference is that the new ones place the physical and mental health of their visitors at their core. They do so by harnessing natural light, incorporating green spaces, improving ventilation, and focusing on sustainability.
It’s therefore understandable why, according to the 2023 World Population Review, Norway was voted as the sixth happiest place to live in the world – boasting the ninth healthiest population! Norway’s emphasis on natural light, green spaces, ventilation, and sustainability in its architectural style is a likely contributor to its high happiness and health rankings.
Light, airy, thoughtful and innovative architecture has been adopted everywhere, continually proving that certain architectural features or designs provide occupants with a multitude of tangible health benefits.
But how can we achieve those benefits, and what are they exactly?
Access to natural light
Unsurprisingly, this is the architectural element that the team at Cantifix are most passionate about.
We’re glazing specialists who, since our creation in 1986, have conducted research alongside professors at Oxford University, written extensively on the subject, and regularly practise what we preach when it comes to providing design support to our clients. In our (perhaps biased) opinion, access to light is of paramount importance when promoting the overall well-being of a building’s inhabitants. But don’t just take our word for it; there are plenty of studies that back us up on this claim.
Scientists at Cornell University, for example, showed that workers who were exposed to natural light experienced an 84% drop in health complaints such as headaches, eyestrain, and blurred vision. As a result, productivity can be boosted by as much as 40%.
Alongside alleviating physical health problems, exposure to natural light is also responsible for improving our mental health too. In a study that sought to pinpoint the superiority of natural light over artificial light, the National Institutes of Health found that depressive symptoms dropped by 50% when the participant was exposed to natural light.
It can seem strange that natural light, feeling so ephemeral and even intangible, can give us so many benefits, but that is down to several key things:
Vitamin D Exposure
Vitamin D is important for maintaining strong bones, regulating the immune system, and reducing the risk of certain diseases such as cancer and heart disease. While natural light doesn’t actually ‘give’ us Vitamin D in the way that many of us presume, it does stimulate the body’s ability to produce it naturally, which is absolutely essential to our overall well-being.
Our Circadian Rhythm
It might seem unbelievable, but a survey carried out on Brits reported that approximately 90% of our time is spent indoors. Our circadian rhythm is the natural biological clock that regulates our sleep, hormones and other physiological processes. Exposure to natural light is a key part of maintaining a regular sleeping pattern, and the premise behind it is a simple one: as the sun rises each day our biology switches from inactive to active – as long as we are there to see it. Too much artificial light and this cycle is interrupted. Cantifix has collaborated with scientists at Oxford University to delve deeper into this topic, and more information can be found here.
When our bodies are exposed to natural light they produce vitamin D, which in turn promotes serotonin production. Serotonin, colloquially known as the ‘happy hormone’, is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood; low levels are linked to disorders such as depression and anxiety. A good example of the effects that natural light has on our mood is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that occurs at a specific time of the year, typically during the fall and winter months.
As mentioned, depressive symptoms significantly decrease when we are exposed to natural light, so it’s no wonder SAD is more common in regions with limited daylight hours. SAD can lead to symptoms such as low energy, mood changes, sleep disturbances, and difficulty concentrating.
As well as ensuring a space has ample exposure to natural light, what other design elements can you implement for maximum physical and mental health benefits?
Improved Indoor Air Quality and Ventilation
Poor indoor air quality and ventilation can often be the cause of respiratory issues, infections, allergies, headaches and lethargy.
According to the World Health Organisation, approximately 86 million healthy life years are lost each year because of household air pollution. Far from being ‘nice to have’, ventilation in a building project is vital to ensure the health of its intended occupants. It is one of the biggest ways that architecture can positively impact health.
Airflow is a key component of any building because it helps to remove pollutants such as allergens, dust, and chemicals. It also removes moisture, which if left unchecked can result in mould (the cause of many health problems). You only have to look at one of the many worrying stories (and lawsuits) of poorly maintained accommodation and its impact on occupants’ health as proof.
Part O of the UK’s building regulations – concerned with overheating – states it is necessary for ventilation to be a key consideration for any new construction or substantial renovation.
Luckily, the innovative nature of Cantifix and its partners means the days of clunky ventilation grilles are no more! Intelligent and seamless design is in, and there are a plethora of sleek solutions to incorporate ventilation and air-quality management into your project. From Sky-Frame sliding systems and pivot doors that can open up a whole side of a room, to fully bespoke glass roofs (as seen at Battersea Power Station), Cantifix has a solution to fit any design brief.
If we don’t, we can certainly create one!
We believe that you shouldn’t have to compromise the aesthetics of your building in order to maximise the health benefits you receive – especially when it comes to ventilation.
A temperature range of between 18 and 24 degrees Celsius is considered to be comfortable. It is within these bounds that a building’s occupants are at their healthiest and happiest.
Above that threshold, you might start to experience fatigue, headaches and heatstroke; dipping below it may cause or exacerbate respiratory illnesses. With the UK regularly experiencing record-breaking temperatures in recent years, this is a phenomenon many of us will recognise.
To prevent significant temperature fluctuations, insulation should be sufficient to ensure heat is kept in through the winter months and kept out – as much as possible – in summer. While we might automatically think of cavity wall insulation, single-glazed windows and doors lose heat twice as quickly as their double-glazed counterparts.
Furthermore, developments in glass technologies, such as solar control glazing and the development of various interlayers, can make sizable contributions towards your thermal comfort. You can learn more about Cantifix’s cutting-edge glass technology here.
Remarkably, studies have shown that excessive noise can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. While that is admittedly an extreme consequence, listening to loud – or even just muffled – conversation through the wall can be really irritating.
Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to reduce unwanted noise through architectural design. Those might include the use of sound-absorbing acoustic panels and buffer zones to filter the noise out before it reaches the occupants.
For those living on bustling London streets, noise pollution from traffic is a common issue. Triple glazing adds a further barrier between your client and the hubbub of city life. Simplified, adding an extra pane to a glazing unit means you have more surfaces to apply various interlayers to, and you can also manipulate the thickness of each pane that makes up the unit. All of this is useful when controlling (and minimising) the sound waves travelling through a glazing system.
Integration of Biophilic Elements
“Bringing the outside in” is something we talk about a lot at Cantifix. While we usually mean creating a visual and practical connection between exterior and interior spaces, sometimes you can literally bring the outside in through biophilic design.
This doesn’t need to involve groundbreaking design or ceiling-to-floor ‘living walls’, but according to a study undertaken by NASA, the presence of house plants in a room can reduce air toxins by as much as 87% in 24 hours.
What that means is that the plants are filtering the air for things that could cause an allergic reaction and respiratory complaints, but their appearance also benefits our health. According to one horticultural study, the mere presence of plants in an office reduced stress levels significantly, sometimes by as much as 60%.
But even if your fingers aren’t green, you can always bring the outside in through glazing. Perhaps that’s a glass extension, or maybe an oriel window that frames the panorama beyond perfectly.
You don’t have to travel all the way to Norway to see architectural design that is beneficial to both our physical and mental health. Architects everywhere are focusing on projects that help to boost productivity, alleviate depression, reduce illness and correct our circadian rhythm.
As we continue to navigate geopolitically troubled waters and face existential challenges, ‘how can architecture improve our health?’ is going to be a question that is continually asked.
Are you looking for the answer?
Speak to one of Cantifix’s expert team members to see how you can create something that not only looks good but does good too!