How living spaces can improve our health and wellbeing

Sensemaking / How living spaces can improve our health and wellbeing

We are constant inhabitants of designed space, but how much do we think about its impact on us? Ben Alcraft explores

By Futures Centre / 09 May 2014

Experience tells us the design of a space can affect our mood, mind-set and even our behaviour. Colour, materials, light and texture are all used by designers to communicate a certain atmosphere, and these choices can have both an immediate impact and a lasting one.

Take the bedroom, perhaps the most highly personalised and intimate space we create. Exploring the concept of ‘home’, Battersea Arts Centre commissioned six artists to create bedrooms in the Town Hall where it is housed. They worked to the concept of ‘playgrounding’, in which the artists and their audiences used the building as a performance space to experiment with its design and feel. Working with the architect Steve Tompkins, ideas are developed collaboratively and tested through a series of low-cost investments. For Artistic Director, David Jubb, it’s a way of “trying something out before it’s finished … essentially spending more money on research and development in order to spend less money on the final result”. The final designs have become permanent residency spaces for artists working at the Centre.

The Better Bedroom Initiative, launched by the Design in Mental Health Network (DIMHN), is looking at the bedroom from a mental health perspective, and challenging suppliers to come up with new designs for everything from furniture to flooring and lighting. Design in mental health is about making those environments healing, optimistic and effective places to be. It is “not about the best bedroom”, asserts Jenny Gill of the DIMHN: it is about “creating an alternative to the institutionalised settings of the past”.

As constant inhabitants of designed space, perhaps more of us need to enter into the dialogue ourselves and cast a critical eye over the spaces we move through, and their impact on how we live our lives. The challenge of efficiency in a resourceconstrained world offers a focal point. If behaviour is as important as recycling, and can be altered with simple, low-cost changes to the home, then we could look forward to a healthier, more productive and more sustainable future.

The complex relationship between design and behaviour was highlighted by a partnership study into recycling by Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) and the University of Exeter. Associate Professor Dr Stewart Barr asserts that the “design of a kitchen can provide the spatial architecture for managing waste in a very effective way, or it can be a real barrier … if you have a kitchen that allows you to separate waste properly, for example, then it’s more likely to happen”.

Participants suggested they weren’t prepared to compromise on aesthetics to accommodate a recycling bin. In rooms where only one bin is available, such as a bathroom, it is less likely items will end up being recycled, especially if waste is perceived as ‘dirty’.

It’s ideas such as this that CCE hopes to see through its recently launched recycling challenge, which uses the open innovation platform OpenIDEO. com, and invites individuals to submit ideas on ‘how to establish better recycling habits at home’.

The question is whether design should inform behaviour – or whether behaviour could, and should, inform design. Dr Barr believes, “You need to give people the opportunity to change their behaviour, and in certain instances that means changing the design and architecture of spaces.”

But what about spaces further beyond our control? Office design has changed considerably over the last century. The enclosed room has given way to open-plan, with the aim to value and facilitate unplanned encounters and conversations. Google attempts to “encourage casual collisions of the workforce”; others provide allotments for staff to grow their own vegetables.

However, a 2013 US and UK workplace survey conducted by the design and architecture firm Gensler found that offices have gone too far with the concept of open-plan, adversely affecting productivity. Janet Pogue, a principal at the firm, believes companies should “create work environments where workers can shift between various work modes”.

This flexibility is especially important in schools, where pupils need to be able to work privately and collaborate in equal measure. School design has come a long way since dimly-lit Victorian classrooms, where the windows were built deliberately above the line of sight to discourage daydreaming. A Salford University study, carried out by Professor Peter Barrett and his team for the architectural practice Nightingale Associates, found that the academic performance of a child in the best environment could be 25% better than an equivalent child in the worst classroom environment.

Caroline Paradise, Nightingale’s Head of Research and Development, said that “flexibility within the classroom, empowering teachers to utilise the space for various teaching methods has an impact on learning outcomes. It is important that the baseline designs allow for this flexibility of use within the classroom.” The interaction of performance art, research, architecture and design has the potential to move theories on effective spatial design forward. If anywhere can benefit from ‘playgrounding’ as a technique, schools surely can.

Ben Alcraft is a freelance writer, specialising in renewable energy and sustainability.

Photo credit: Rio Occupation BAC 2012. Design, styling and photography Jeannine Inglis Hall

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