British architect Ben Channon is on a mission to make architecture more mentally-friendly. He says our homes and offices are often designed with three mitigating factors in mind: cost, carbon emissions and safety. Important as they are, this strict mindset overlooks the driving force for designing a building in the first place: the people who utilise the space, and the “joy” they feel when doing so.
“By most estimations, we now spend more than 80 per cent of our time in buildings, and this can affect our mood both positively and negatively,” Channon writes in the introduction to his new book, Happy By Design: A Guide to Architecture and Mental Wellbeing.“Buildings affect us in largely similar ways. Of course, some people might prefer certain colours or materials, but there are many elements to building design that will universally affect how people feel within a space. The quality of the places where we live, work and study therefore impact our happiness significantly.”
Re-designing a space from scratch isn’t a viable option for most of us, but just one or two small changes can make a difference to how you feel – whether you work from home, hot desk or share a permanent pod. Here, Channon shares five of the fundamental elements he believes any space requires for peak productivity and mental wellbeing.
“Natural daylight is one of the most fundamental human needs,” Channon says. Not only do natural light levels impact on our mood, but they also affect how much quality sleep we enjoy at night – a key precursor in anxiety and depression. In fact, staff in offices with no source of natural daylight sleep around 45 minutes less than those who do… Spaces with no natural daylight provide us with no reference to the outside world, and can be disorienting and even distressing.”
Letting in more natural light can be as simple as rolling up the blinds, or taking a regular walk at lunchtime if that’s not possible, but what impact does artificial light have?
“Studies suggest that emotions are experienced more intensely under bright, harsh lighting, which can have a negative impact on our moods,” Channon says. He recommends uplighting and glare-free bulbs which have been shown to reduce headaches and improve productivity. Dimmer switches also help create a sense of calm, especially during stressful times. If overhauling the lighting is not an option, creating a softly-lit relaxation area to retreat to can still provide major benefits.
“This need for quiet escapism is vital to many people,” Channon says. Especially introverts who often struggle with over-stimulation.
Fresh, Clean Air
If ever there was a case for cracking open a window to let fresh air in, it’s a recent study that found doubling the rate of ventilation in offices reduced sick leave in staff by 35 per cent. And that’s not simply down to the recirculation of germs in the air.
“By opening a window, we get a direct connection to the outside world, which is key given the amount of time we now spend indoors, as it boosts energy levels,” Channon explains. “The sensation of a breeze against our skin is psychologically calming, and even a warm breeze will cool us, making us happier in hotter temperatures. Even better if it brings in the smells of flowers, grass, or rain on concrete, since these are also shown to be stress reducing.”
Sadly, increased worries about health and safety mean many office windows are sealed shut and, in some urban areas, air quality is too poor to provide any real benefit. Plants provide an affordable, all-natural alternative. NASA studies have found bamboo palms, peace lilies, spider plants and Boston ferns are all effective air purifiers, removing toxins while alleviating some symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Pops Of Colour
“We have recently discovered that colour can have a greater effect on our disposition than previously realised,” Channon says. “For example, blue streetlights are used in Tokyo, as it is believed they reduce crime and the rates of suicide by jumping in front of trains.” When it comes to office design however, colour is often overused or avoided all together. There’s a reason for the latter: too much colour can be overwhelming for the brain.
“Colour can be used to create a mood or an atmosphere at very little cost, and can even encourage socialising, evoke calmness or improve our focus. For example, yellow is a colour often associated with happiness and sunlight,” says Channon. “Green and blue are generally considered more calming, and are better suited to bedrooms or quieter spaces.” He recommends choosing one shade and using it sparingly, perhaps on individual walls or to pick out individual details. A yellow mouse mat or mug can even do the trick.
We’ve all drifted off into a daydream when working on a particularly challenging project, but something as simple as breaking up bare walls with artwork can make all the difference to our concentration and stress levels. Channon says mindfulness is all about living in the here and now, and distractions from visual monotony help us stay calm and focused on the task in hand.
“Mindfulness teaches that we should instead try to engage in the present moment and focus on our surroundings. Research supports this theory, showing that too much daydreaming can actually make us unhappy,” he says. “Internally, features such as shutters and tiles can add pattern to intrigue us, while prints and paintings can help to break up bland walls and create visual interest.”
Celebrating The Simple And Imperfect
Stripping back our interiors can have a similar transformative effect to decluttering our minds through meditation.
“Places should be straightforward to understand and use, so a balance needs to be struck between the beautiful and the practical,” Channon says. “We like to own things, and we especially like to buy new things. However, this obsession with material objects may not in fact be beneficial for our happiness, as we can never realistically satisfy that yearning for the next ‘thing’.”
Wabi sabi is a Japanese philosophy based around enjoying life as it happens, and appreciating what we have in the moment. “It argues that happiness is achieved internally, not externally, and that it can be gained from an appreciation of ‘a beauty of things modest and humble’, and your ability to be happy with what you have now,” Channon says. “Wabi sabi celebrates imperfection, which can make objects seem more ‘human’ and less manufactured, and support a sense of homeliness, helping us to feel safer and more at ease.” This means buying less when you’re shopping for your home or desk space, and seeking out one-off items with their own little quirks – rather than mass-produced items – to help ground you.
Happy By Design: A Guide to Architecture and Mental Wellbeing by Ben Channon is available to buy through the RIBA website.
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