The designers of our workplaces have long been conscious of safety and more recently cottoned on to the benefits of physical health – we see that in the pervasiveness of luxury, hotel-like end of trips facilities. But architect Kellie Payne from Bates Smart says designers need to start leveraging the research at hand to create spaces that also promote cognitive, social and psychological wellbeing.
As architects and property professionals we design and create spaces that are touchpoints for human kind. From when we’re born, where we go to school, where we work, where we celebrate and where we breathe. And we need to understand we have a responsibility because we are manipulating emotions and the wellbeing of the people within them.
Since the mid-1980s the grandfather of evidence-based biophilic design Roger Ulrich started analysing our workspaces, the habitats for humans that we create. And they’ve been experimenting on us and our habitat to try and understand how the design of space impacts behaviour and outcomes.
The evidence is that well and truly, we know those things, and how we design space impacts our biology, how we feel stress and anxiety, how it impacts our relationships and our physical health, all these modern issues we are facing.
At Bates Smart we see this as a moral and civic responsibility and I think everyone who contributes to spatial design needs to take this on board.
Over the last five years we have seen this responsibility hit the mainstream in workplace design. People are focused on the wellbeing of people. But we are very focused on the individual wellbeing. All these metrics about how the individual performs.
So we started looking at this about 10 years ago when we started designing the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. Designing a building that is triaging dying children, we needed to understand how the design of the space would affect the stress of parents bringing children into the space.
And so we had a meerkat enclosure put in. Although it was seen as a flight of fancy, we know there is a 35 per cent reduction in stress and anxiety when we interact with animals while we are waiting.
So we took that evidence and came up with the five factors of health and started analysing how our design affects wellbeing.
We’ve got enough end of trip facilities
We’ve pretty much knocked physical health on the head. Everyone is obsessed with their step tracking devices. Buildings are designed to support vitality and physical health, it’s sort of a race to the top. If I see one more end of trip facility that looks like a five star spa hotel or a functional fitness gym… We also have a focus on personal safety and how we move through space.
So with those aspects of wellbeing already on the right track I wanted to talk about designing for cognitive, social and psychological health in our buildings.
Design for community
The first one I wanted to talk to you about is design for community.
We were lucky enough to work with the Salvation Army on their head offices in Redfern a few years ago.
This was a design to encourage interaction and a sense of belonging. We needed to create an environment to care for the carers, the people at the front line of society’s most challenging environments.
We started sharing with them some of the studies we were thinking about using. This included an impressive study looking at people over seven and a half years to track how healthy their social interaction is.
If you have no social interaction, when you get sick, you are 50 per cent more likely to die. It’s a fatal condition, loneliness. It’s like smoking 15 cigarettes per day. The Salvation Army said, “Well, yeah, tell us something we don’t know”.
So then we talked to them about their staff and the business challenges they are facing. Businesses often talk about cross-selling, but this wasn’t relevant for the Salvation Army. They wanted to nurture, they wanted to know how big their social interaction should be to develop trust.
So we talked to them about Dunbar’s number.
Robert Dunbar is an amazing behavioural scientist and anthropologist who mapped the size of your community based on your brain across a range of primates.
He projected the maximum number you can truly know is 150 people. And then kept working back through that. So five people is your inner circle who you have really deep relationships with and 15 is people you can turn to for sympathy and trust with deep emotions. And 50 you would consider close friends and 150, that’s about it.
So well we live in the age of the Kardashians and there are people who are Instagram influencers, so surely the have communities bigger than this. Turns out they don’t. Facebook engaged Robert Dunbar and he found that even for influencers and people with big Twitter followings, 150 is still the maximum number of people they can meaningfully engage with.
The Salvation Army has a hierarchical structure. So what we wanted to do was create space that supported the number of people you can express sympathy with.
It led to a different way of thinking about social space. This is where I think you need to design from first principles and not just the 50 metre walk to a tea point and a Tim Tam.
So we created a scale, from small cafes and tea points right up to the 150 person space. But we focused a lot of attention on the smaller spaces that supported 15 people; how could they bring themselves to that space? We let them cook in that space. We let them leave things and nest in that space, they left their plates, their cups, their cooking ingredients.
We brought in some data scientists to test them. We also had some proximity monitors and did some surveys around the depths of connections. We went from 50 per cent of people saying they had a best friend at work to 78 per cent. We also saw a 200 per cent increase in proximity interactions for more than five minutes between the people in the 15 person group.
So, we do think design can influence behaviour in that way. We also did a lot of work on materiality and biophilia in those spaces.
Designing for cognitive health
The project I’m talking about is due to be finished in February next year. It’s a building in Harris Street that will have a warehouse for working and company called Publicist Group will go in, which is a co-lab of 15 different advertising groups. So we were designing for creatives.
Back to the evidence. In a study, two groups of people, two different teams, are given a memory test after a walk. One group goes through a park and the other though the city. The people resit the test and the park group have a 25 per cent increase in cognitive function. So there’s something about the park.
The studies go deeper into this and we believe these studies are talking to us about materiality and biophilia.
This is when scientists’ eyes roll, and we say this is not a check list solution, it is a design solution, and a deep thinking solution. We need to design our buildings to feel like a walk through the park. So that’s what we’ve done with this building.
The atrium is lit from the sky and we have two intertwining green walls that rise up in the space. The light comes though, it’s a dappled light that diffuses through the workspace and the interconnecting space.
We’ve also thought about the materiality of the design. We’ve used haptic design – touch and feel. Most of the things you’ll touch will be timber because it’s a natural material.
So what I hope I’m demonstrating is what happens when you take this evidence and interpret it through the lens of creativity to find solutions to these problems and environments that make people happier and healthier.
The other piece of evidence that’s really strong concerns fresh air. And I think the VOCs and the plant studies are important. If we double the amount of fresh air coming into a space we get a doubling of the cognitive function across nine different functions, impressively two of those are creative thinking and strategic decision making, which is what everyone is searching for.
So not only do we have increased air into this building, we’ve also created mixed mode balconies.
In these spaces that connect into the circulation, when you come into it you pull down this façade and it’s like a big shugg window and it forms a balustrade. So instead of having an airconditioned breakout you now have a terraced space that’s full of fresh air and no airconditioning at all. These can also be used as workspaces.
Designing for psychological health
When we think about psychological health, we think about it from a salutogenic approach. Salute meaning, “to your health”. So it’s about promoting this in design instead of the traditional pathogenic way, which is to stop people from dying.
What we’re trying to do is provide a better quality of life and this sort of approach to design is what created the World Health Organisation. So it’s quite a considered way of thinking.
What we are trying to do is reduce stress and support resilience. And this is probably the most popular or the most timely issue.
This is because we live in an age where we are very focused on the individual – individual monitoring, our own problems, and how we make them better. But the bigger picture is the community and its impact on your health is bigger than some of those individual pieces. And here we are looking to reduce individual stress.
The project I wanted to use was a legal firm in Melbourne called Maddocks. The legal fraternity is facing a crisis in mental health, they have unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and suicide. And as an industry they are really trying to tackle it.
There’s a study about putting people recovering from post-operative care in two separate rooms, one with a tree and one without.
People looking at the tree left the hospital a day earlier, and took 22 per cent less painkillers, and my favourite statistic is 71 per cent less negative comments about their nurses.
So, if we are talking about happy health workplaces, we are looking at people trying to get happy. But when we look at it from a health point of view then they are bound to less stress and suffering less anxiety.
So when we worked with Maddocks we worked with the base building owner very early on to see how we could create the outdoor terrace halfway up the major commercial development. It’s a two-storey double-height space that’s directly connected into their breakout, which is another mixed mode, fresh air space.
Their entire workspace wraps around this beautiful breakout. There’s a lot of indoor plants. It’s about the design of it, it’s about how you interpret the data. It’s not good enough to put a Madonna Lily on top of the storage unit and say “I‘m better”.
The other thing I wanted to talk about is beauty matters.
We live in this post-data age where we think we can break everything down into statistics, checklists and measures but I say to you that you need to challenge yourself to think about beauty, because it also reduces anxiety.
People who are more satisfied by a space, the highest descriptor, is because they find it beautiful.
We also need to think about the geometry when we design as well. Angular spaces increase the flight or fight response by 50 per cent. Particularly spaces you aren’t familiar with such as hospitals or major commercial buildings.
The WELL building code has been an amazing starting point because it has given building owners a baseline measure.
But we cannot stop at a checklist. We need to have a deeper conversation from the outset and how we can create a visual collaboration tool. It needs to be informed by evidence to reach the outcomes. But we can plug in WELL building tools so that the marketing people can go out and hit their targets.
So when you ask the question – what’s next?
The answer is depth. A deeper understanding of human nature and connections, supported by digital data perhaps.
We need to deepen our understanding of wellness design and think about it at a high level. Places need to start from a very human centric space. We need to start with evidence and not Pinterest and Instagram.