Feeling good at home: when the built environment becomes a therapy


Feeling good at home: when the built environment becomes a therapy

  • Date:
  • Auteur:
    Catherine Fontaine-Lavallée

A year ago, we had no idea that our daily routine would be disrupted a few weeks later. The longevity of the crisis is also surprising. It will soon be twelve months that our routines, our careers and our social lives - in short, our lives - are keeping pace with a global pandemic. Mentally, winter is weighing more heavily than usual on the population, which has had to resolve to live within the same four walls. No leisure time, no outings, no face-to-face classes and work (for some people). Mind you, we are used to spending a lot of time indoors: before the pandemic, the average person was already spending 90% of their time indoors! 1] What is different in recent months is that we spend all our time in one place. In addition, 81% of the Canadian population lives in urban areas [2], which greatly affects the size of our homes and the availability of outdoor space. We now understand the importance of our "home", our environment, in our lives.
The changes brought by the virus will leave more profound traces in our society than it seems. On the bright side, the great health crises of the past have revolutionized urban planning in large cities. Sewers and sewage systems, the forerunners of sanitary networks, were introduced after the cholera pandemic from stagnant dirty water. The great European boulevards like the Champs Élysées in Paris were not always present in the urban landscape! These major thoroughfares were developed to air out cities and allow for a distancing of the inhabitants after the Black Death pandemic. What changes will the Covid bring? We can already think about the importance of air quality in buildings. Other growing needs are related to biophilia - the need to connect with nature, and outdoor living, such as the setting of heated terraces in downtowns and our yards.

The importance of our built environment on our health, both mental and physical, is not insignificant. Once our primary needs have been met (eating, drinking, sleeping, etc.), the need for a safe, stable and anxiety-free environment is the next most important. 4] This need for security is closely followed by our need to belong. This belonging, in architecture, translates into the emotional connection we develop towards our environment, but also the connections the built environment creates between people. Thus, the built environment contributes globally to our well-being and fulfilment. It's more than a question of wall color!

The built environment, beyond decoration and aesthetics

« We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us » - Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill put his finger on a fascinating aspect of architecture and design: the link between the built environment and our brain. Our senses are at the interface between our person and our external environment. The stimuli we perceive affect our way of being, our emotions and our gestures. Surprisingly, our perceptions are also shaped by the action of our bodies. 5] Our environment is not just a setting; it manipulates us. In Covid-19 times, it confines us! Light, air circulation, the ergonomics of our spaces and many other facets of architectural design can affect our cognition, our problem-solving ability and our mood. 6] For example, children perform better on exams in a classroom lit with natural light. Furthermore, the interplay of light and shadow in a room is said to be more than just aesthetic: the sensitivity of our eyes to changes in light influences our alertness. 7] Without realizing it, cognitive and behavioral neuroscience are intimately linked to our built environment. It is no wonder that so many households have decided to renovate their homes since the pandemic began! The outdoor courtyard was very important last summer - you had to live outside to meet each other. And since autumn, it is more about adjusting our environment to support our new lifestyle and reduce the irritating things we notice from spending all our time indoors.

Scientific knowledge about the link between our environment and our health is accumulating and providing the basis for designs that can now be based on the scientific method. John P. Eberhard writes in a 2006 scientific paper that neuroscience can be used to create classrooms that support children's cognitive activities, hospital rooms that improve patients' recovery, and more [4].

Beyond Covid-19: the built environment and human health

Covid-19 made us realize the importance of our environment's role in the dynamics of disease transmission. It was so difficult to distance ourselves from each other, from school or work, that businesses and schools had to be closed. The resumption of activities is taking place in stages, with a variety of complementary measures to the transformation of the built environment. Covid-19 will certainly leave permanent traces in the architectural world: Nicolas Labrie, architect and founder of LabNco, is interested in this. He is participating in the COVIDesign Montréal research project as an advisor. The effects of the environment on human and animal health go beyond the pandemic. Direct effects are those that affect the body's health, e.g., the facilitation of active circulation such as stairs and increased comfort. Indirect effects are those that affect mental health, e.g., the addition of a natural light source or the creation of a green wall to meet our need for nature. According to the WELL building standard, of which LabNco is accredited, improving human health and well-being through architecture is achieved through 10 categories of needs. These categories include obvious needs such as air and water quality, but also those related to the noise environment and contaminants to name but a few.

Image 1 - The 10 categories of the WELL building standard.

While the pandemic is topical, the preventive and therapeutic role of the built environment on health also affects chronic diseases [3]. Activating our bodies by promoting physical activity rather than inactivity is beneficial for both mental health and the immune system [8-9]. In addition, urban planning, the large-scale architectural design, has an important impact on the lifestyle of the population, e.g. the quality of the food supply in a city's neighborhoods. This indirectly affects the cardiovascular health of the population, which will create lifestyle habits around this offer. How easy is it to access a local grocery store compared to a fast-food restaurant? Humans are creatures of habit, and both urban planning and architecture have the power to change their behavior. The example of the food supply's quality is only one of several issues addressed by different currents such as healthy urbanism and the conscious city. This aspect will be developed further in future blog posts.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, mental health is as important as physical health. We know that urban dwellers suffer more from depression and anxiety than people living in the countryside. The management of traffic, pollution and noise, the creation of green or outdoor spaces, the regulation of pedestrian streets or the density of inhabitants in high-rise buildings are all examples of factors that can affect, in a positive or negative way, our mental health [5]. It is the responsibility of architects, urban planners and decision-makers to rethink our cities and living spaces by refocusing them on the human being and his needs.

The built environment is much more than a question of aesthetics!

Sources :
  1. Rapport Europe 2013 de l’OMS, Agence américaine de protection environnementale 
  2. Perspective Monde, Université de Sherbrooke. Chiffres de 2018. Consultation le 17 février 2021.
  3. N. P.-W., A. J. et N. M. W. (2018) The impact of the built environment on health behaviours and disease transmission in social systems. Philosophical Transactions B, 373(1753).
  4. Pyramide de Maslow, Wikipedia
  5. S.Gepshetin and J. Snider (2019) Neuroscience for architecture: The evolving science of perceptual meaning. PNAS, 116(29), pp14404-14406.
  6. E.M. Sternberg, M.A. Wilson. (2006) Neuroscience and Architecture: Seeking Common Ground. Cell, 127(2), p239-242.
  7. J.P. Eberhard. (2009) Applying Neuroscience to Architecture. Neuron, 62(6), p753-756.
  8. Scartoni FR, Sant'Ana LO, Murillo-Rodriguez E, et al. Physical Exercise and Immune System in the Elderly: Implications and Importance in COVID-19 Pandemic Period. Front Psychol. 2020;11:593903. Published 2020 Nov 19. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.593903.
  9. Khosravi M. COVID-19 quarantine: Tow-way interaction between physical activity and mental health. Eur J Transl Myol. 2021;30(4):9509.

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