Reset by Design

Mind, Body, Soul…and Earth: Health is the New Wealth

May 12, 2020

Written By: Matthias A. Olt, Design Director, Architecture, B+H

Everyone wants it: a swift systems’ restart to save our economy, our sanity and to assure the well-being of our societies in our construct of the ‘pursuit of happiness’. Restart, they say, will be gradual, and it is going to take time to get things up and running again, partly, because reliable technology for mass testing, contact tracing, and vaccination are not yet available.

Any upset in life is an invitation to stop and pause, and an opportunity to adjust or redefine our trajectory and reset our value system. Mother Nature’s patience ran out, she sent us a reminder of the laws: only the most adaptive will survive, and only those who play by the rules of biology, chemistry and physics will succeed. Thriving, rather than simply surviving, in this post-industrial century will depend our willingness to work with science and interpret scientific analysis in the pursuit of a sustainable, environmentally resilient post-pandemic world.

Scientists agree that the origin of the virus can be linked to continuing decimation of wildlife habitat and the consequential increase of contact between humans and wildlife. The evidence is clear; human-caused environmental degradation is detrimental to human health. The global response to containing and defeating the virus has been swift and unanimous (for the most part.) However, as Thomas Friedman points out, “unlike a pandemic, climate change does neither peak nor reach herd immunity”. The pandemic is a symptom of planet Earth’s sickness. Humans are capable of swift and effective responses to immediate manifestations of a problem; they are far less able or willing to invest in understanding and addressing the root cause. Unlike other warning signs such as rising temperatures or deforestation, our immediate plight triggers a rapid response because the thread to personal health is clear and, well, personal. Nature has delivered a big, flashing warning sign, “Human Health depends upon Environmental Health.” Now is the time to invest in sustainable design practices instead of returning to the status quo that caused, and exacerbated, the problem.

What should we seek when we emerge from the dark?

Changing Expectations

Our built environment will be under scrutiny for how it impacts our health. Real estate investors and developers will need to consider how buildings can be designed to promote human health, safety and comfort. Biophilia used to be a philosophical construct; in a post-COVID-19 world, biophilic design principles can guide design relevancy and resilience. Recent physiological research demonstrated direct correlations between the lower stress indicators in the body and increased tactile experience with natural materials, visual access to nature and non-rhythmic sensory stimuli, such as hearing the wind or observing changing light patterns. In recent Japanese studies, the touch and sight of wood was found to induce significant physiological and psychological relaxation, as compared to control materials of tile, steel, resin and marble. Understanding the link between health and natural materials, combined considerations of acoustic and view privacy, social distancing requirements and new hygiene standards allow us to thoughtfully and intentionally plan for healing spaces.

Health is the new wealth. There are many existing standards, such as the WELL Building standard, and design strategies, such as operable windows, that have experienced a slow but gradual adoption. We can quickly accelerate their integration to improve our indoor environments.

Access to fresh air:  via operable windows, balconies and outdoor spaces combined with standards that improve indoor-air quality.

Improved air hygiene: short and easy to maintain mechanical air distribution and displacement ventilation systems are available and affordable options.

Indoor greenery: exposure to plants has not only proven to lower the release of oxyhemoglobin, a stress protein that affects the brain, but their intentional use in interior design can also mitigate the indoor air migration of aerosols. For example, foliage between work areas create micro-eddies and can limit the flow of air contaminants.

Biophilic principles can guide a new generation of design that is not only healthy and low-impact but beautiful and inspiring.

Changing Behaviour

“Arriving anywhere, the first thing I want to do is wash my hands.” In our daily existence, in public spaces and at work, we all have a different comfort level with risk, but we are also subject to social norms, laws and tribal habits. It is likely that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), sanitation protocols and spatial demarcation will regulate our future interactions. More people will be working from home regularly in the future, and actual in-office time might be defined by newly emerging workplace philosophies and design principles that are centered on in-person teamwork, group meetings and access to studio technology.

Budget is always a key consideration in any real estate investment. As companies and individuals adopt and adapt to work-from-home programs that enable social distancing, dedicated personal and family time and accommodate the desire for more flexible, personalized work conditions, our priorities are changing. We are realizing physical and mental health benefits, productivity gains, healthier urban air quality and many other benefits that have associated cost savings.  We can re-evaluate where we invest our limited budgets, informed by new evidence of what works – and what doesn’t!

Changing Organizations

In the service sector, shifts in workplace locations, flexible work times and more familiarity with collaborative technology platforms have demonstrated beyond doubt that work can be done from anywhere, at any time, and across global boundaries. A Gartner Inc. survey from April 2020 revealed that while 30% of employees surveyed worked remotely at least part of the time before the pandemic, 41% of employees are likely to work remotely at least some of the time, post-pandemic. A Gallup study conducted at the same time found that 59% of people currently working remotely wish to continue to do so as much as possible.

Management is experimenting with new utilization and productivity methods, for example by moving away from directing work to coaching staff to more self-directed success. Organizations are retooling: the entrenched legacy processes and policies of the industrial era are giving way to a focus on results and outputs. In creative fields such as architecture and design this development is significant. Even the best designed processes are not a guarantor for great design and can lead to poor design results. A more fluid design dynamic and flexible work culture might lead to higher levels of liberation and consistency of creative output.

Changing Buildings

For the past decade we have increasingly seen the trend towards more mixed-use programming in urban design. As we gaze out of our windows at our Downtown Ghost Towns, we can’t help but wonder at the current inadequacy and looming obsoletion of many workplace, residential, hospitality, retail and entertainment environments. All future design must anticipate changing demands and uses so that buildings can adapt easily and elegantly over time. Before designing anything, we need to ask how things can be pulled apart, reused after their initial intended use and how they can become part of a circular economy. Blockchain technology will help in this context and architecture can rise to the occasion by ensuring that buildings are designed for universal use. Design can anticipate user changes over time, conversions into emergency shelters, schools, markets or other uses. Inner-city, below-grade parking structures can transition to underground UV-hydroponic farming floors. The only constant in life is change, and change seems to come at accelerated levels lately. Modular design and hybrid building technology are rapidly developing and constantly improving, there are tremendous opportunities for scaling their application. We are already seeing modular design play an important role in the pandemic response and there are some great existing examples in large scale affordable housing developments in Silicon Valley.

Another innovation in modularity and prefabrication is mass timber design and technology which is poised to move further into the arena of real estate development. As a response to the needs for environmental performance, biophilia and user appeal, mass timber products provide a wealth of healthy, beautiful and affordable solutions.  In North America, locally produced mass timber products are cost-competitive compared to other materials such as concrete and steel and have the added advantage of secure delivery chains and a gentler environmental footprint. Sustainable Forest Management practices provide the guidelines for mass timber sourcing in the United States and offer a path to rebooting and reinvigorating a strong local economy.

Big ideas, big thinking and taking a long view on life will be essential for success. In the meantime, changes to the existing spaces we inhabit will be gradual and experimental, like the blue tape on the floor of a seven-eleven.

The Opportunity

The pandemic has exposed the fragility and brittleness of so many of the systems that underpin our societal, environmental and economic engines. COVID-19 has shown us that our world is out of balance we have bent the laws of the natural world for too long and the bill has now come due.  As our lives changed around us we received a sharp reminder of the things that matter – food, shelter, health, work and education. And we’ve had time re-examine our values. When the basics are taken care of what most of us miss above all is each other.

The act of resetting is a monumental responsibility; we have an opportunity to move forward with new thinking and new approaches or fall back to status quo through conventional wisdom. At B+H we believe that status quo is inherently risky when the only constant is change.  Our opportunity is as much societal as it is environmental and economic. We can shift our trajectory to a circular economy defined by resilient stewardship, a transition to renewable resources and a peaceful, adaptable coexistence with other living systems. There are many architectural and design solutions, aided by technology and informed by science, that can facilitate and indeed accelerate our progress towards a new balance. In combination they will create a new design aesthetic that embodies and reflects our newfound values. As we fill our lungs with our newly clean city air, let’s remember how it feels – and not look back!

The act of resetting is a monumental responsibility; we have an opportunity to move forward with new thinking and new approaches or fall back to status quo through conventional wisdom.