Why Home Design Should Focus on Health and Happiness
The Liveable City conference explored how housing impacts physical and mental wellbeing – and what we can do about it
This was the focus of one session of the Liveable City conference (London, 28-29 June, 2022), organised by the Royal Danish Embassy as part of the London Festival of Architecture. Speaker Deborah Nagan, Head of Placemaking and Nature at the Future Homes Hub, perhaps best summarised the conference’s approach to the happy home: “I rather equate happy with healthy … this covers health, wellbeing, and being mentally secure and sound in the place you are [in].”
A certain physical baseline is key to achieving happiness. Neil Freshwater, Public Affairs Manager at window and rooflight manufacturer Velux, identified four health dangers lurking in substandard housing stock: excess cold, excess noise, lack of daylight, and damp and mould.
According to Velux’s Healthy Homes Barometer, which the company produces every year in collaboration with research institute Rand Europe, one in three Europeans report at least one of these dangers – a figure that translates to 163 million households across the EU. The effects are sobering: according to the study, those who report all four hazards are four times more likely also to report poor health.
The flipside of the equation is that improving these basic physical needs translates into improvements in mental health. The same study uses a wellbeing value assessment to estimate the knock-on benefits of improving these basic physical needs, accounting for factors such as the increased economic productivity of workers who get a good night’s sleep. It estimates this can translate to a gain of €600 billion in cumulative benefits to the economies of the EU and UK by 2050.
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From theory to practice. The impact of physical housing conditions on mental wellbeing also underpins public health policy from the Department of Health and Social Care in the UK. Programme Manager Michael Chang spoke about the fact that adequate housing is key to achieving a variety of mental health outcomes, particularly for vulnerable populations.
It’s a fact that was embodied in the NHS Healthy New Towns programme, launched in 2015, which saw the National Health Service work with towns with the aim of creating environments and new housing developments that encourage exercise and adapt to the needs of vulnerable populations, such as the elderly.
Home is where we create memories. The physical structure is not everything, however. Dr Gesche Huebner, Senior Research Associate, The Bartlett School of Environment, Energy & Resources at UCL, warned, “We need to be careful to consider homes not just as physical structures, but as home, as places that have emotional significance to us. … Home is not just a physical structure; it’s where we create memories, where we have feelings of security and shelter.”
A lot of that comes down to making homes that are adapted to their inhabitants, their communities and their surroundings. Deborah Nagan talked about how the design of a space can help or hinder its inhabitants’ or users’ sense of belonging and ownership.
She gave the example of Superkilen (pictured), a public park in a multicultural neighbourhood in Copenhagen, Denmark, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) architects, artists from the collective, Superflex, and landscape designers from Topotek1. The project asked members of the community to nominate features from their home countries to be incorporated into the design. In this way, not only was the development deeply integrated into the community from the start, it also helped these public spaces to embody the local community’s memories of home. While Nagan spoke primarily about public spaces, this approach is adaptable to design at all scales.
Making room for nature. Another factor stressed by all of the speakers is likewise significant for a broad variety of projects: access to green space. Jeremy Smalley, Deputy Director of Regeneration and Property for the Royal Borough of Greenwich (UK), talked about the borough’s emphasis on green space, sustainability and accessibility in the homes constructed for its social housing programme.
A Greenwich public housing beneficiary, Joe, testified to the impact of green space in a video created by the borough. Praising the fully wheelchair-compatible public housing nestled in one of London’s greenest neighbourhoods, he said, “Now, when [his wife, Vivian] gets down, when she can’t walk or she’s in agony, I can put her in the wheelchair and go to Greenwich Park; it’s so near and so beautiful.”
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Retrofitting for happiness
Most of the speakers took it as a given that sustainable building must be the default mode for any future health-orientated projects. “Carbon neutral is expensive …but it’s just a no-brainer. Why would you build anything else at the moment?” Smalley said.
Indeed, building for happiness and building for sustainability are in many ways aligned. After all, green space is good for the planet, and insulating for energy efficiency also makes homes warm, dry (and therefore free from mould), and quiet – eliminating three of the four basic hazards Freshwater highlighted in his talk.
This means focusing on zero-carbon new-builds, but even more importantly, retrofitting existing homes – ensuring subpar housing is made suitable for its inhabitants, and making the bulk of existing housing stock more sustainable.
Finally, as Nagan pointed out, the most sustainable homes are the ones we stay in and return to, generation after generation. And that means ensuring homes are suitable for the needs of their inhabitants – making sure that homes are happy.
The tricky economics of happy, sustainable homes
So happy homes are sustainable homes – it sounds like a match made in heaven. So why don’t we just build more sustainably? That’s where things get tricky, particularly in the economically and politically precarious post-pandemic world.
As Smalley pointed out, sustainable (and happy) homes are also expensive to make, and this is particularly pressing during the current cost of living crisis. “It’s a challenge when people are having issues paying their bills to convince them that funding needs to be diverted into long-term initiatives,” he said.
While he was speaking at the scale of larger developments, the same is true of private homes. With materials costs skyrocketing as a result of crumbling global supply chains, it’s easy for sustainability aims to take a back seat in a residential construction project.
The same goes for our ability to incorporate green space into housing projects. The speakers and audience members discussed the inherent tension between providing or creating enough adequate housing, especially given the current affordable housing squeeze in many countries, and the green space we need for both mental health and biodiversity.
One answer to the former would be increasing building density, but that leaves little room for greenery. And of course, as noted above, both sides of that equation impact mental and physical health. So which do we prioritise?
There’s no easy answer to that question. In the case of the Greenwich social housing developments Smalley represented, this involved a case-by-case reckoning: in some places, conservation regulations ruled out high-occupancy housing; in others, the borough was able to build more densely while leaving room for green surroundings.
On the other hand, as much as expenditure is a mounting concern when it comes to investing in large-scale projects, Smalley points out that tenants moving into Greenwich’s zero-carbon properties have, until now, reported a monthly energy bill of just £30 – far below the national average. That’s a huge win at a time when, according to Velux’s report, 50 million Europeans are living in energy poverty.
How do we value wellbeing? The fundamental issue, when it comes to the economics of healthy, happy, sustainable homes, is this: “It comes to the heart of so much of it that housing is seen as a commercial commodity,” Smalley said. As many of the speakers pointed out, profit is naturally part of the calculation in any construction project, and both health and sustainability outcomes are notoriously difficult to quantify. How do we put a figure on the comfort of a dry home? Or the value of green space to someone in pain?
There are some nascent attempts at demonstrating the intangible benefits of healthy homes in economic terms. The Velux study cited above, which quantifies the potential economic benefits of healthy homes, is one, but it leverages a relatively new methodology, according to the study’s authors.
In one-off residential projects, that’s a much simpler, if not necessarily easier, calculation: What is the value of a happy home to you?
What are your thoughts on this issue? Let us know in the Comments.