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Tania Barney

Estimated reading time: 5 min

At RMJM, the quest to make better buildings never stops. Our architects are constantly required to come up with new ideas, embrace innovation and push boundaries to meet the ever-changing needs of our clients. This month, we’ve spoken to Tania Barney, Director at Sensory Intelligence Consulting, who discusses the importance of ‘Designing for Wellbeing’ and how humans can benefit from a more holistic approach to design. 

The World Health Organization has called stress the ‘health epidemic of the 21st century’ and something that has a substantial negative impact on our wellbeing. A recent global survey of 1,000 corporations across 15 countries, commissioned found that levels of workplace stress have risen over the last two years, with China experiencing the greatest increase. The survey found 6 in 10 workers in significant global economies experienced increased workplace stress. Chronic stress is linked to the leading causes of death, including heart disease, strokes and cancer. Statistics suggest that 110 million people die every year as a direct result of stress, that’s 7 people every 2 seconds!

An often overlooked factor when considering stress is the impact of the built environment. We are bombarded by millions of sensory messages every second from the world around us. We take action based on the processing and integration of the sensory information we receive. Everyone is genetically programmed as to how much intensity and/or frequency of sensory information their brains need to work optimally. This is commonly known as a threshold. Individuals have different thresholds for each of their senses, and sit somewhere along a continuum ranging from over-responsivity to under-responsivity. Individuals with a low threshold over-respond to the sensory signals they receive and therefore need less sensory input. Conversely, those with a high threshold under-respond and instinctively need more.

Sensory overload occurs when one or more of the body’s senses experiences over-stimulation from the environment.  When this happens, it can trigger the stress, or fight-flight-fright response. In a sensory overload state, individuals find it difficult to function and perform adequately, which further adds to their levels of stress. Sensory overload can occur in environments with high sensory inputs, regardless of individual thresholds.

Most of us live within a fast-paced, hectic society. We are constantly juggling competing demands and being bombarded with mass media, technology, and the explosive growth of information. This within itself can create stress. Added to this are the many environmental elements that impact upon individuals. Examples of these elements are urbanization, crowding, noise, strong aromas and fluorescent lighting. Throw these into the melting pot of other stressors, and stress begins to accumulate and negatively impacts our wellbeing.

The WELL Building Standard™ (WELL) combines best practices in design and construction with evidence-based medical and scientific research, harnessing the built environment as a vehicle to support the health and wellness of building occupants. The standard is based on seven categories that impact human health and well-being:

  • Air – medically validated performance-based thresholds for healthy indoor air quality;
  • Water – optimal water quality for all internal water uses;
  • Nourishment – implementation of strategies to encourage healthy eating habits for building inhabitants;
  • Light – to provide room illumination that minimizes disruption to the body’s circadian rhythm and provides appropriate illumination for all tasks;
  • Fitness  to provide building occupants with numerous opportunities for physical activity;
  • Comfort  to create an environment that enables occupants to experience comfort, both physically and mentally; and
  • Mind  to implement design, technology and treatment strategies in order to provide a built environment in which mental and emotional wellbeing is enriched.

Comfort is a key consideration when it comes to wellbeing.  The term “comfort” derives from the Latin “confortare” which means “become strong, comfort or encourage.” In a linguistic dictionary, the term is a synonym of “well-being”. What we perceive as comfortable varies from one person to another, and is linked to individual thresholds as described earlier in the article. When designing for public spaces, such as office, medical or educational buildings it is important to avoid sensory overload. To do this, we need to be sensitive to the accumluated sensory signals within the environment and aim to provide spaces with lower sensory inputs.

Further, within our busy, hectic lives we all need time for restorative rest and relaxation. Spaces that encourage us to pause, to ponder and take a breather. Due to how the brain is wired, there are some general rules about the types of sensory inputs that are calming and relaxing. For example:

  • Low lighting levels and minimal visual stimulation
  • Plain walls, muted colours and low contrast
  • Soft, familiar sounds and low noise levels
  • Rhythmical, slow music (40 – 60 beats per minute) such as classical or baroque music
  • Low amount of verbal input

Clearly a wide range of factors contribute to individual wellbeing, including behavioural and lifestyle choices. Daily life and the commonly associated stressors are another important consideration. However, the build environment also impacts on the individual and can have either a positive or negative influence on wellbeing. When it comes to design, it is import to consider the overall sensory experience of the environment, and not just what it looks like, to avoid sensory overload. Consideration should also be given to design that encourages rest and relaxation as an antidote to our modern lifestyles.

This was a guest blog by Tania Barney, Director of Sensory Intelligence™ Consulting, UK Branch. 

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