How Does Design Improve Our Well-Being?

Bad lighting, windowless walls, low ceilings, and dull furniture are the hallmarks of many an office, hospital, care center, or any place aiming for cost-effective function over beauty. But good-looking environments matter. Before Zócalo presents next week’s panel on what healthy design does for us, we asked five architecture experts – writer Alain de Botton, KCRW’s Frances Anderton, interior designer Lynnette Tedder and architects Roger Sherman and Victor Regnier – whether good design improves our well-being. Their answers, drawing on everything from the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center to KCRW studios to offices and homes, follow.

Good buildings are like good people

Alain de BottonGood design has a huge role to play in altering our mood. When we call a chair or a house beautiful, really what we’re saying is that we like the way of life it’s suggesting to us. It has an attitude we’re attracted to: if it was magically turned into a person, we’d like who it was. It would be convenient if we could remain in much the same mood wherever we happened to be, in a cheap motel or a palace (think of how much money we’d save on redecorating our houses), but unfortunately we’re highly vulnerable to the coded messages that emanate from our surroundings. This helps to explain our passionate feelings towards matters of architecture and home decoration: these things help to decide who we are.

Of course, architecture can’t on its own always make us into contented people. Witness the dissatisfactions that can unfold even in idyllic surroundings. One might say that architecture suggests a mood to us, which we may be too internally troubled to be able to take up. Its effectiveness could be compared to the weather: a fine day can substantially change our state of mind – and people may be willing to make great sacrifices to be nearer a sunny climate. Then again, under the weight of sufficient problems (romantic or professional confusions, for example), no amount of blue sky, and not even the greatest building, will be able to make us smile. Hence the difficulty of trying to raise architecture into a political priority: it has none of the unambiguous advantages of clean drinking water or a safe food supply. And yet it remains vital.

Alain de Botton is the author of The Architecture of Happiness and more recently The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.


Design isn’t everything

Frances AndertonIf by good design we mean environments that provide fresh air, natural light, soothing natural materials and pleasing colors, with sounds and sights of nature outside, then I would say yes, absolutely, good design provides a sense of well-being, and might even actually improve health. Indeed, hospital design is moving in that direction, after several decades of highly functionalist buildings that have proven far from life-enhancing for the patient (hear more on this DnA). Furthermore, for the person who is highly sensitive to the aesthetics of their surroundings, an environment that is designed in a style that pleases the patient could also improve spirits.

However, there are other social contributors to well-being that have nothing to do with design, and may even counter the points made above. I speak from experience. When I first went to volunteer for KCRW, I visited the station in its famous basement and was horrified to find it had almost no natural light nor cross-ventilation, bright fluorescent strip lighting, and only the clatter of other people’s computers and phone conversations as background noise. But I was so keen to work at the station that I suppressed my desire for a more pleasant environment. The station, because of its staff and its goals, proved to be the most stimulating, interesting and fulfilling place I’ve ever worked, suggesting something that, as an advocate of the benefits of good design, I say with reluctance: good design is not all-important.

Having said that, I did get headaches in the basement and was relieved when our production team was given an above-ground office with natural light and air, meaning we could enjoy both a decent environment and KCRW’s social well-being.

Frances Anderton is host of KCRW’s DnA: Design and Architecture.


Healthier hospitals

Lynnette TedderAs a healthcare designer, I believe well-designed healthcare environments have a positive impact on patient experience and outcomes. Fundamental to this tenet is an understanding of the relationship between humans and the built environment. For every facility, healthcare designers study how staff interact, how services are delivered, what safety and maintenance requirements need to be met, and other critical issues that inform how facilities should be planned. We then implement design strategies with the goals of improving patient care and increasing user satisfaction.

One notable area where we can have an impact on patient care and safety is the design of caregiver zones. When these areas are well defined, with quick access to hand washing and to support items, the likelihood of infections can be reduced as well as the instance of medical errors. The selection of materials can also have an extreme impact on infection control and safety by reducing the transfer of airborne pathogens, growth of bacteria, and the presence of slipping hazards. How these materials affect the overall ambiance of a space through their color, texture and reflection also are important considerations. A designer’s ability to achieve a balance between aesthetics and high-tech materials, while specifying a sustainable solution, is one of the strongest influences design can have on health.

The Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center is a local example where we applied these design principles. Since the facility opened in 2008, the feedback from patients, staff, and administrators, has been very positive. We’re confident that this high level of patient and caregiver satisfaction will contribute to better outcomes.

Lynnette Tedder is a Senior Interior Designer at Perkins+Will.


Good for whom?

Roger Sherman on good designTaking the issue of “goodness” out of the equation for a moment, that there is a relationship between design and health is clear. What is perhaps less clearly understood – and most worth discussing – are the means of measuring and evaluating their connection, in order to better define what is indeed meant by “good” or “poor” when it comes to design.

Is it merely the aesthetic or visual impression a space or building makes? Or does it pertain more to what architects like to call performance, such as the provision of natural versus mechanical ventilation and lighting? Is it the quantity of unprogrammed common space that matters, or the quality of those spaces with more defined purposes? Is it the way in which a building encourages people to walk between destinations, as opposed to taking the elevator? While some might argue this is simply inefficient, convenience is not always synonymous with either the health of the city or its citizens. This was made clear recently in a local debate over whether County office buildings should house cafeterias or close them in an effort to get employees to walk and to use the new civic park.

These questions are not so easily parsed. Nor, for that matter, is the associated question – one of social justice – that asks whose health should benefit first or most from design. Is it urban residents at large, or only the building’s users? In a perfect world, good design is the rising tide that floats all boats, but in today’s economically- and politically-constrained environment, these are often choices, and difficult ones at that.

Roger Sherman is Principal of Roger Sherman Architecture and Urban Design Co-Director, cityLAB.


Making senior homes livable

Victor RegnierHaving nearly 40 years of experience evaluating housing with services for mentally and physically frail people, I am totally convinced that environment makes a huge difference in quality of life.

So many older people and their families take cues from the environment when assessing their ability to maintain independence. Environments affect staff as well – working in an institutional setting, like living in one, is depressing. Simple things like not having control over who enters or exits your room, or whether or not you can bring your own possessions with you, are very important.

The best northern European models have always responded to this by keeping people in residential environments and “ramping up” services for them as they need more assistance.

European service houses and what the Dutch call “Apartments for Life” are designed to connect housing and services rather than bundle them together and call them assisted living or nursing care. These settings operate in conventional communities. They deliver health and supportive services and any necessary home repairs, allowing residents to remain independent and live in their own homes.

Whether for appearance or function, environments make a huge difference in supporting the independence of older frail people.

Victor Regnier is a Professor of Architecture and Gerontology at the University of Southern California.

*Photos of Alain de Botton and Roger Sherman by Aaron Salcido. Photos courtesy Frances Anderton, Lynnette Tedder, Victor Regnier. Photo of dam courtesy Tim Caynes.


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