Health & Wellness – are buildings the missing link?

Volume 1, Issue 2

It seems that many employers are now offering wellness programs in order to help reduce healthcare costs. Many employees are participating in these initiatives to maximize on the over-reaching benefits of these plans. So what would happen if the structures we inhabit integrated some of these initiatives and improved our health?

Health & Wellness . . .
First, we have to look at what exactly is health and wellness. The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Wellness initiatives focus more on preventative measures such as smoking cessation or weight loss to improve one’s overall condition. Sustainable buildings have been identified as part of this wellness equation but how effective are they in improving our well-being?

Lately it seems that “wellness” has become a sort of trendy topic which is currently being addressed under a variety of designations inclusive of various building rating systems. It would behoove us to consider how salutogenic design (a new term I just discovered) may affect our health since we spend 90% of our day indoors in some sort of structure.

It’s also been an on-going topic in regards to the correlation of communities and structures that promote healthy benefits. In 2008, I had the pleasure of attending a local lecture by Dr. Richard Jackson on ailing communities. His presentation appropriately titled: “Designing Healthy Communities” addressed how our built environment distresses our health – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, cancer and depression are all linked in part to this notion.

Recently, I also read an article about the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index which provides data as to what makes up healthy (and unhealthy) communities. The Healthways index measures outcomes based on five key well-being elements which include: purpose, social, financial, community and physical activities that keep people healthy. Clearly, it seems that we need to include our living/working structures as part of the equation. Will buildings be considered alternative medicine?

Buildings & Wellness . . .
There’s a variety of sustainable building ratings that address this topic but not entirely focusing on the health of the occupants. We’re most familiar with the USGBC’s LEED® rating system which has focused on encouraging energy and resource-efficient buildings reducing stress on the environment. It also promotes enhanced materials and better indoor air quality. The Living Building Challenge® (LBC), is a more rigorous performance standard that promotes a symbiotic relationship between people and all aspects of the built environment. It excludes materials that pose a health risk to humans as identified in its Red List. Interestingly enough, a recent article in Building Green touts how LBC embraces the concept of “Hygge” (a Danish term) which is about what’s optimal for our well-being. (Note to self: turn off phone and enjoy surroundings.)

Then, we have the International Well Building Institute’s (IWBI), WELL Building Standard® which was founded by Delos and officially launched at Greenbuild about a year ago. It’s touted as a complimentary rating to LEED. This rating is meant to bridge that disconnect between healthy buildings and healthy occupants. It’s based on seven concepts– air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind – focusing on the effects to the human element. Design professionals will be challenged in not just thinking about good indoor air quality but purified air that has contaminants removed, building elements that promote walking and social engagement and lighting design that takes into account the body’s circadian rhythms. Will the future provide “stay-well” structures that will improve our well-being?

It will be interesting to see how incorporating alternative health concepts into building design and construction will improve our lives and will it be a luxury for those that can afford it or wellness for all. The idea has been percolating for a while but it’ll be interesting to see the results.

“To keep the body in good health is a duty, otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear”.  – Buddha

Universal Design – for what purpose?

Volume 1, Issue 1
We decided to begin our first blog focusing on design for all.
Have you ever experienced an injury that causes you not to be able to function and perform your usual, daily routines? If you have, you’ll understand what this all about.

But I’m not disable. . .
Technically no, I’m not disabled but currently, I’m physically challenged as to the use of some of my limbs. I decided to try out for Cirque du Soleil and fell during the tryouts of an acrobatic stunt. Seriously, I miscalculated stepping off a ladder and fell off breaking my right hand and twisting my right knee which may be a torn meniscus. It’s been painful to say the least.
This is why I wanted to discuss Universal Design and why I think it’s an important component of sustainability. A technical definition for Universal Design is – “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design”.
The whole idea behind Universal Design is to make life as simple as possible for everyone. This is done by creating products, infrastructures, and working with the environment around us in more efficient ways to serve everyone at little or no extra cost. Universal design will help improve the lifestyle and welfare of our future needs but it’s not always discussed within the realm of what could be considered equitable and sustainable. What can be more sustainable than being able to function in your own home no matter what age, gender or disability you may experience?

We talk about energy efficiency and water efficiency but what about maneuvering efficiency? My injury has made me very aware of how difficult it is to navigate between floors and forget about using the standard bathroom accommodations. Everyday home gear is designed for those that can use their extremities but not if you hurt them (now I know). I’ve often wondered why more residential developers are not considering some simple modifications to current home designs that could be included or added on if requested.

Universal Design Features
Example of Universal Design Features

The architect, Michael Graves comes to mind since his personal experience with meningitis left him wheelchair bound and this led to the re-design of his own home, various products, and even hospitals. He developed some wonderful accessible designs for homes of Wounded Warrior vets. So why can’t we have some simple modifications that will help us function in our own homes as we age or experience some temporary physical challenges?
Before my accident, I had a slight interest in this topic because of my elderly parents and in-laws. My father in-law suffered from Parkinson’s disease and I modified a small bathroom in their home with a curbless shower to accommodate his wheelchair but, not too institutional so others in the home could use it. It was demanding to design something of this nature quite a few years ago. My dad got around with a walker and my mom suffered from Dementia so definitely there were challenges for them in their own home of 40 years which they did not want to leave.
So, in researching more and more about this topic, I found some wonderful information at the Center for Universal Design. I would recommend connecting to their website if you’re interested in this topic (the older I get, the more interesting it is). I’m only a student of this topic so I’ll share some of the basic information that resonated with me.

First, to understand what Universal Design is all about so, let’s begin by learning the Principles of Universal Design*:
• PRINCIPLE ONE: Equitable Use
The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
• PRINCIPLE TWO: Flexibility in Use
The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
• PRINCIPLE THREE: Simple and Intuitive Use
Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
• PRINCIPLE FOUR: Perceptible Information
The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
• PRINCIPLE FIVE: Tolerance for Error
The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
• PRINCIPLE SIX: Low Physical Effort
The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
• PRINCIPLE SEVEN: Size and Space for Approach and Use
Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

   Many of the universal design principles just make common sense and are easily incorporated into both new and existing homes. It’s not only about being disabled but about independent living in your humble abode. If you’re able to design some of these features into your home early on, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them.

This issue will definitely play an important role in how I incorporate sustainable principles and universal design into the living spaces of my clients and my own.
*Copyright © 1997 NC State University, The Center for Universal Design.

“Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.”
– Steve Jobs