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What is wellbeing, and can we design for it?

Is there really such a thing as the architecture of health and happiness, or is this just wishful thinking?

Wellbeing is fast becoming one of the hottest buzzwords in design. With the release of numerous reports and tools from groups such as the International Well Building Institute, World Green Building Council and Terrapin Bright Green, it’s been suggested that in 2016 buildings will go from being green to being good for you.

However, is this really the case? While it sounds like a worthy aspiration, can we truly design buildings and places that bring out the best in people? To answer this question, we need to understand wellbeing’s underlying nature, because it’s an elusive quality, one that is different for everyone. It’s in constant flux, rising and subsiding, and there is certainly no “one size fits all” solution.

Wellbeing is best thought of not as a “thing” that can be designed, but as an always adapting pattern of relationships. Wellbeing requires an ongoing partnership, something that happens in concert between people and place. Some of these partnerships are physical and ecological, such as access to healthy food and being in nature, while others are social and psychological, such as community and having positive emotions. Wellbeing depends on what happened yesterday, as much as it depends on what is happening in the moment, or could happen in the future. It’s a truly complex quality that can’t be dumbed down into a shopping list of design features that “make” us well.

The analogy I like to use to describe the rich complexity of wellbeing is that it’s like throwing a good party. You can have all the right bits, like a good DJ, good food and an awesome dancefloor, but this is no guarantee it will be a good party. What makes it a good party is not simply the bits and pieces, but the unique “concert” that occurs in the “space” between people and place.

Therefore, suggesting we can design physical buildings that make us well isn’t really telling the full story. It is more a matter of designing “space” – physically, psychologically, socially and ecologically – for the potential of wellbeing to emerge.

The four interwoven dimensions of wellbeing design

The following are four research-based dimensions building designers best draw on to create generous “space” for wellbeing on their projects.

Physical

A popular focus for wellbeing design consultants are the physical elements of health and wellbeing. There is now a rich variety of tools and references such as Well Building, Human Spaces and Happy City that help design teams consider how they can create better places for people. This includes guidelines for the design of interior and urban spaces that have the potential to transform the quality of our lives and enhance the richness of our workplaces and communities.

Psychological

In recent years there has been an explosion of research into the traits that constitute psychological flourishing in our inner lives of thoughts and feelings. As summarised by Martin Seligman in his book Flourish, much of this research points to five key human qualities – Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment – PERMA for short. Spaces that nurture these rich and deeply meaningful experiences open people up and help them show up more fully at work, and in life. In turn, this promotes psychological flourishing as well as a number of other desirable human qualities like creativity, productivity and vitality.

Social

In addition to our inner world of being, there is the often overlooked fact that we live in a profoundly interconnected world. We are both separate and connected to everything else in this universe. Therefore, our wellbeing is also a function of the diversity and quality of our interpersonal relationships. Spaces that promote culturally rich, diverse and connected communities are fundamental in elevating our collective potential and promoting long-term resilience and wellbeing. This includes creating spaces that resonate with their contexts, and express values that purposefully pull communities and organisations forward.

Ecological

Finally, there is the fact that for approximately 200,000 years, humans evolved living in the natural world. It’s only in the past few hundred years or so that we shifted from spending 90 per cent of our time outdoors to spending 90 per cent of our time indoors. While this shift has brought us many gifts, it has highlighted an important aspect of human wellbeing – we are wired to be in relationship with natural elements such as daylight, air, water, flora and fauna. There is now overwhelming evidence that a connection with nature improves our health, wellbeing and productivity, as well as enhancing human qualities like learning, empathy and compassion. Therefore, spaces that bring the best of the outdoors, indoors, play a key role in a holistic approach to health and wellbeing.

Taken together, this research implies that the potential for wellbeing is at its highest when the design of spaces is informed and uniquely enriched by all four of these dimensions.

In today’s reductionist culture, it can be said that designers often over-simplify wellbeing, only focusing on one or perhaps two of these dimensions. For example, architects and engineers tend to concentrate on the tangible aspects, psychologists overly focus on the things going on in our inner lives and nature lovers point to our ecological connection. But it’s the concert between all four of them that really matters.

Because the thing is, the beauty is in the unity. It’s in knowing how to create vital habitats that elevate the potential of our humanity in four dimensions simultaneously.

Wellbeing design in action

The Reichstag, the new German parliament building, is an inspiring example of a space based design response that interweaves the four-dimensions of wellbeing.

The Reichstag – Berlin, Germany

The Reichstag – Berlin, Germany

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the reunification of Germany, architect Norman Foster refurbished the Reichstag to tell a deeply meaningful and inspiring narrative. It’s a narrative that has played a potent role in the wellbeing of building users and the whole nation.

At the heart of the design is a glass dome (physical element) that collects daylight (ecological element) and shines it directly onto the political process (psychological element). The dome includes a 360-degree wall of mirrors, and a walkway that accommodates a steady flow of tourists who circulate the dome. When politicians look up, they can see the faces of people – from Germany and around the world – acting as a powerful reminder of the purpose of government and to whom they are in service (social element).

It’s a compelling, humanising and energising space that at its core, beautifully interweaves the four dimensions of wellbeing – the physical, psychological, social and ecological. It creates a unique space that genuinely moves people, creating a pulse of hope for the whole nation, and arguably the world. No rating tool or bolt-on wellbeing feature can create a unique and elevating space like this. It’s only possible by attending to, and unifying, the unique potential of people and place.

The beauty is in the unity

Therefore, can a physical building go from being green to being good for you? As we have shown, there is some truth in this statement, but it’s not the whole story. A richer way of appreciating wellbeing is possible – by considering how we can create “spaces” that unify human and place-based potential in four dimensions.

The fact these ideas are being explored implies we are entering an exciting new architectural paradigm, where we shift from designing “buildings” to thinking about how the design process can catalyse and elevate the potential for wellbeing.

Imagine what would be possible if more designers broadened the boundaries of design – physically, socially, psychologically and ecologically – for life to thrive. Imagine if more design projects put wellbeing at the heart of their development process. Imagine living and working in buildings that were a source of human flourishing.

That’s a world I’d like to live in.

Ash Buchanan is director of adaptive development at Cohere.

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