Mak­ing homes truly healthy

Times Colonist - - Islander - TREVOR HAN­COCK Dr. Trevor Han­cock is a re­tired pro­fes­sor and se­nior scholar at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria’s School of Pub­lic Health and So­cial Pol­icy.

In­ter­est­ingly, we have two dif­fer­ent words for the place in which we live — house and home. The Ox­ford English Dic­tio­nar­ies de­fine the for­mer as “a build­ing for hu­man habi­ta­tion” and the lat­ter as “the place where one lives per­ma­nently, es­pe­cially as a mem­ber of a fam­ily or house­hold.” That matches my own sense of the term: A house (or apart­ment) is a build­ing, but when we add peo­ple, it be­comes a home, a so­cial set­ting, not sim­ply a phys­i­cal space.

Cu­ri­ously, we don’t make this dis­tinc­tion for other im­por­tant build­ings in our lives such as schools or work­places; I am un­aware of a dif­fer­ent word for these or any other build­ings that dis­tin­guish the phys­i­cal build­ing from that same build­ing as a so­cial space. Which sug­gests that the home is seen as some­thing dif­fer­ent, some­thing spe­cial.

Last week, I sug­gested we should as­pire to more than hous­ing that is not a threat to ba­sic health; surely we want to cre­ate homes, places that im­prove our over­all phys­i­cal, men­tal and so­cial well-be­ing — and that do so with­out harm­ing the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. In the 1990s, Canada Mort­gage and Hous­ing Cor­po­ra­tion sug­gested “a truly healthy house [is] one that is good for the peo­ple who live in it, good for the com­mu­nity and good for the Earth.”

But we should be care­ful not to be too en­vi­ron­men­tally de­ter­min­is­tic. We might be able to de­sign and build clean, green, healthy and beau­ti­ful houses, but that does not mean the peo­ple or fam­ily who live there will be healthy. There are lots of un­healthy and un­happy peo­ple liv­ing or work­ing in seem­ingly healthy build­ings.

Con­versely, there can be happy and healthy peo­ple liv­ing in hous­ing that is far from ideal — although meet­ing the ba­sic needs I dis­cussed last week is a vi­tal pre­req­ui­site for good health.

None­the­less, it is in­ter­est­ing to con­sider how the phys­i­cal de­sign of a house can im­prove men­tal well-be­ing. Oddly, I can­not find much work from ar­chi­tects ex­plic­itly fo­cused on the im­pacts of their de­sign on the men­tal well-be­ing of the in­hab­i­tants of houses. How­ever, there is quite a bit about de­sign­ing healthy work­places, schools and hos­pi­tals, and much of that would carry over into de­sign­ing healthy homes.

In an ar­ti­cle in the win­ter 2016-17 edi­tion of Sus­tain­able Ar­chi­tec­ture & Build­ing, a Cana­dian mag­a­zine, Kait­lyn Gil­lis and Michelle Big­gar sug­gest that: “Ar­chi­tects and in­te­rior de­sign­ers now face the chal­lenge of em­brac­ing … an ap­proach that puts peo­ple at the cen­tre of the process” of de­sign. They de­scribe sev­eral as­pects of this ap­proach in a work­place con­text, but with some ob­vi­ous im­pli­ca­tions for de­sign­ing do­mes­tic in­te­ri­ors.

In ad­di­tion to dis­cussing the im­por­tance of nat­u­ral light and “bio­philic de­sign,” which is about “in­te­grat­ing na­ture and nat­u­ral forms and pro­cesses into the built en­vi­ron­ment,” they dis­cuss es­thet­ics and liv­abil­ity. While not­ing that the im­pact of es­thet­ics on health needs more re­search, they note that “the use of wood … can en­hance user ex­pe­ri­ence when left ex­posed to view.” Oth­ers have noted the im­por­tance of colour in af­fect­ing our mood and be­hav­iour.

There is now an in­ter­est­ing ev­i­dence-based process to as­sess and cer­tify build­ing fea­tures that “sup­port and ad­vance hu­man health and well­ness.” Launched in 2014, the WELL Build­ing Stan­dard, in its re­cently up­dated ver­sion, as­sesses 10 com­po­nents of a build­ing that are re­lated to health and well­be­ing: Air, wa­ter, nour­ish­ment, light, move­ment, ther­mal com­fort, sound, ma­te­ri­als, mind and com­mu­nity.

In the “mind” com­po­nent, the de­sign re­quire­ment is for both di­rect and in­di­rect ac­cess to na­ture, with the for­mer fo­cused on us­ing plants, wa­ter, light and views, and the lat­ter in­volv­ing the use of nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als, pat­terns, colours or im­ages. Both in­door and out­door “restora­tive spa­ces” — of­ten in­volv­ing na­ture — are also part of the mind stan­dard, us­ing ac­cess to spa­ces that al­low for con­tem­pla­tion and re­lax­ation; in our homes, that might be the bed­room or a liv­ing room or a nook.

An­other stan­dard, but one that would clearly over­lap with this, is con­trol­ling both in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal noise.

It is good to see that ar­chi­tects are turn­ing their at­ten­tion to these is­sues. Now they must ap­ply the lessons learned in work­place de­sign to the places where we spend most of our time — our homes.

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