healthy design

The Many Benefits of Healthy Campus Design

Design quality is something that we recognise when we see it, but how do we value it and are there unseen benefits to certain types of design?

In recent years, a light has been shone on the benefits that good design can bring to supporting collaboration and encouraging researchers, industry, and clinicians to work more closely.  We can even start to put numbers on this in terms of investment by industry partners or success in winning grants from research institutes.

The value of good design also extends to the health and wellbeing of the physical environment around us.  Our campuses, buildings, and individual workspaces all have an influence on our health and that influence can be good or it can be bad.

Of course, it helps to define what we mean by health: the Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization Constitution of the World Health Organization says:

‘Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.’

This is a great starting point for healthy design because it reminds us that designing-in health isn’t just about taking the stairs (although that helps) but also about providing environments that reduce stress and encourage social interaction.

Getting it right at all scales:

In the same way that health is a complex system, the skill of the designer is about not having a one dimensional view of designing-in wellbeing, but about getting it right at many different levels.

Before people even get to the campus, decisions will have been taken about how to travel there.  Achieving a modal shift to active forms of travel such as walking, cycling, and increasing use of public transport is important.  However, how much of our campus masterplans are dominated by parking?  Often too much.  Due to their scale, universities and healthcare organisations have a fairly unique ability to engage with these issues at a regional scale compared to others.  Collaboration is being organised at a regional level, such as the G4W grouping in Wales and the South West of England. Health related to transport and issues such as air quality can be influenced greatly at this level.

At the campus scale green (planting and landscaping) and blue (water) infrastructure are important to promoting health and wellbeing.  Not only does this resource promote healthy activities but it can also reduce stress levels, modify air pollution levels, and reduce the urban heat island effect.  In addition, many of these features also support achieving sustainability targets. There is a great deal of overlap between features, such as those required by BREEAM or Eco Campus, which are also beneficial to health: a virtuous circle of benefits.  Designing-in health however needs also to consider social aspects too – IBI Group’s landscape architects through a Health Design Assessment tool have identified that the spaces between buildings can have a beneficial impact on social wellbeing.

The benefits of ‘green’ buildings for health is highlighted in work by Harvard UniversityBiophilic design is considered another hot topic and it is certainly true that material selection and design of spaces to reflect nature can be beneficial for health – for example the amount of visible timber in a space can be used as a design approach to reduce stress levels.

Social and Technological Change:

Several years ago IBI Group’s ‘4 Labs 4 Cities’ study on what makes a good research building identified that technological change is a big issue for lab design.  The use of technology in research, learning, and by people in their everyday lives has potential to enhance design approaches that promote wellbeing.  Wayfinding apps can encourage walking routes around campus and aid access to active forms of travel.

Social and demographic change happens irrespective of what architects design and needs to be considered in the healthy campus.  We are living longer and the young and old suffer from increasing levels of loneliness in our cities.  New models for how we live, work, and play on the campus can respond to this in a positive way – for example New York University is looking at a scheme to lodge students with elderly people – a potential saving for the student and companionship for both groups.  Such intergenerational models are coming to the fore not only to solve housing problems but to support lifelong learning and harnessing the skills of the older generation providing a sense of purpose and thus improved social and mental health.

Not all good design is necessarily healthy design – but designing-in health makes for higher quality environments for people to live and work.  Benchmarks are starting to emerge for this, which can be a way to differentiate and demonstrate market leadership, such as in attracting leading academics from around the globe.  The business case for building-in health should be easy to make though at an organisational level.  In the corporate world a study of the Koop Awards found that the winners’ share price rose three times more than the S&P market average.  There are similar value propositions to be found in research environments and these need to be clearly promoted to get buy in from senior management and decision takers.  As has been written about by researchers at UWE Bristol, building-in wellbeing (or salutogenesis) is not only an individual or project level issue but also a strategic organisational issue too.

The campus is ripe for more consideration and more priority being given to designing-in health.  For the good of our health, it’s something we should all be striving for.

Mark Drane

Mark is an architect and member of IBI’s global education practice, IBI Learning+. He leads the firm’s Higher Education and Science practice in the UK. Additionally, Mark is a Doctoral Researcher at the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre at UWE, Bristol with a research interest in the links between wellbeing and the physical environment. Mark firmly believes that the combination of Evidence Based Design and teamwork is the key to solving complex, real-world, problems.

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