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Designing spaces for well-being through my own experiences

As an architect, I have always been intrigued by the profound influence that architecture can exert on our emotional well-being. It goes beyond just creating functional spaces; architects have the power to shape environments that either foster a sense of calm and serenity or trigger anxiety and stress.  Dealing with anxiety in various aspects of my life has made me realise that it is not merely a personal issue, but a complex problem that affects many people in different ways. As I educate myself and learn about others' experiences, I have come to understand the role that architecture plays in mental health, especially in relation to my own triggers. Considering that we spend most of our lives in buildings, it becomes crucial to examine how architectural design can impact our well-being. 

Moreover, given the current prominence of the sustainability issue, I am inclined to align it with the discourse surrounding well-being. I hold a strong conviction that these two concepts are intrinsically linked. Just as sustainability has rightfully earned its status as an essential concern, I propose that a similar level of importance should be accorded to delving deeper into well-being, considering the symbiotic relationship they share. In the forthcoming blog, I will elaborate on my perspective regarding the interconnectedness of these ideas.

To gain insight into this, I have started taking notes on my own experiences, focusing on how certain rooms or buildings trigger my anxieties. It was only recently that I began sharing my struggles with anxiety, and so far, it has been rewarding as people have been understanding. Initially, I kept my anxiety bottled up due to a hurtful yet stupid phrase I heard long ago, 'man up.' It may seem like a trivial phrase, but it stuck with me, leading me to keep my feelings to myself. While I don't experience anxiety all the time, there have been instances where it has caused me to back out of situations and avoid certain places.

Being honest, the best thing I have done is to start telling people about my anxiety. I now realise that sharing my experiences can help, especially when it comes to designing spaces for others.

In brief, my anxiety is often heightened in public spaces, especially small rooms crowded with people. Poorly ventilated warm spaces, insufficient lighting, unclear pathways to entrances and exits, a lack of private seating in certain areas, and cramped dining spaces with closely placed tables are all triggers for me.

Such triggers often result in feelings of discomfort, agitation, stomach aches, and a strong desire to leave the space as quickly as possible. While I have been working on developing personal coping mechanisms, it is essential for our buildings to help lessen these feelings through thoughtful and well-designed spaces.

My own experience, I would choose to sit next to walls, corners, or partitions, giving me a sense of control over the environment.  On the other hand, I feel more at ease when I am in nature rather than confined indoors. These observations have made me realise the importance of incorporating these considerations into building design.

For those dealing with social anxiety, large open spaces and crowded environments can be overwhelming and trigger feelings of discomfort. As architects, it's essential to design communal areas that strike a balance between fostering social engagement and respecting the need for personal space. Creating smaller, intimate pockets within larger spaces can offer individuals a sense of security and control, making it easier for them to connect with others at their own pace.

First thought: Look to carefully craft communal spaces that encourage interaction and socialisation while also offering private retreat areas for moments of solitude.

One topic that has particularly caught my attention recently is biophilic design. For me, this concept stands out as one of the most effective ways that buildings can have a positive effect on mental health. Integrating nature into a building can counteract anxiety triggers that I might feel in certain situations. If a building lacks any kind of connection to nature, I would instinctively seek the calming and serene effect of being outside. Buildings, therefore, should be integral parts of the natural fabric, and creating places that inspire calmness makes us better human beings who respect nature.

Sketch of the Highline in New York

Sketch of the Highline in New York

For example, consider the High Line in New York (above), an elevated linear park that I have visited. This park transforms a disused railway track into a vibrant public space, providing a serene escape from the bustling city. Notably, it also fosters social connections among visitors, reducing feelings of isolation and anxiety. Incorporating a similar concept into our buildings would seamlessly connect both environments, offering a harmonious transition between the tranquil outdoor spaces and the interior of the buildings.

Another aspect that greatly affects our mood and mental health is natural light and open spaces. Incorporating large windows and skylights allows ample natural light to penetrate indoor spaces, regulating our circadian rhythm and promoting a sense of openness and connection to the outdoors, reducing confinement and anxiety.

Just the other day, I stepped into a coffee shop with terribly dim lighting, and let me tell you, it had a profound impact on my mood and emotions. I couldn't help but feel uneasy and unsettled in that poorly lit space. So, without hesitation, I made a quick decision to move myself outside instead. And guess what? Instantly, I felt a wave of relief washing over me.

The difference was remarkable. I felt more at ease, and my mood took a positive turn. It was incredible how such a simple change in environment could make such a significant difference in how I felt.

That experience got me thinking about the importance of lighting in our daily lives. It's not just about aesthetics; lighting can deeply affect our emotions and well-being. In that poorly lit coffee shop, I could sense how my mood was being dampened, and it wasn't until I stepped into the sunlight that I realised the impact it had on me.

Recently, I have incorporated my personal experiences into the design of one of our residential projects situated in Teeton Lane, Creeton, Northamptonshire. While the project had already received planning approval, upon closer examination of our existing drawings, I identified an opportunity to enhance the design's integration with its surroundings and to foster positive mental health for its future inhabitants. To achieve this, I advocated for additional modifications that capitalised on the picturesque views and facilitated natural ventilation. By creating larger apertures that establish a more profound connection with the natural environment, and through collaboration with our in-house interior designer, I aimed to expand the spatial openness and mitigate any sense of confinement within the living spaces. These seemingly minor yet intentional design alterations carry substantial advantages for the overall well-being of the eventual occupants.

House type concept for scheme at Teeton Lane

House type concept for scheme at Teeton Lane

#Second thought: It is essential to consider various factors, such as volume, density, natural lighting, spatial arrangement, entrances, and how the space interacts with other people when designing spaces.

As we strive for carbon neutrality and sustainability in architecture, addressing anxiety through design can play a significant role. Access to natural light and views of nature not only contribute to mental well-being but also reduce reliance on artificial lighting, leading to energy savings. Energy-efficient buildings enhance occupants' comfort by providing consistent temperature control, better air quality, and reduced noise levels, all positively impacting mental health.

Third thought: I strongly believe that embracing nature in architectural design can foster a greater understanding of its importance, leading to a positive attitude towards resource conservation. Therefore, balancing sustainability efforts and considerations for mental health is crucial.

In my last note, I recounted a recent experience during a networking event, I found myself grappling with anxiety triggered by overthinking ahead of the event and being in a room full of strangers.  My first trigger was the lack of clear way-finding to an exit, and the route to the ground floor exit seemed to be excessively long. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable in this situation, I began to yearn for a space that could offer some respite, but unfortunately, none were readily available.

As I struggled with my anxiety, I felt the warmth of the environment only adding to my unease. The situation became overwhelming, and the nearest exit, accessible only by a lift, seemed like the worst option to escape the turmoil. I had a moment of fight or flight, where my instincts were urging me to escape the situation immediately.

However, in that crucial moment, I made a conscious decision to engage with the person sitting next to me. Surprisingly, that simple act of reaching out and connecting with someone helped alleviate my anxiety. As we started conversing, I gradually felt a sense of relaxation, and the need to escape began to dissipate.

This experience made me realise the significance of human connection and the role it plays in mitigating anxiety. Even when faced with challenging circumstances, the support of others can make a world of difference. It also highlighted the importance of creating spaces that are not only visually appealing but also designed with the well-being of occupants in mind.

Fourth thought: As we move forward at Henry Mein, I am determined to provide a greater emphasis on inclusive design that considers the diverse needs of individuals, including those dealing with anxiety. Way-finding that is clear and accessible, alongside well-planned exits, can contribute to a more secure and reassuring environment for everyone.

In conclusion, designing buildings that address mental health is as important as carbon neutrality for creating sustainable, healthy, and resilient spaces. The challenges posed by the mental health crisis and the urgent need to mitigate climate change require simultaneous attention and action. By incorporating design strategies that promote mental well-being and minimise environmental impact, architects can contribute to a more sustainable and inclusive future. Striking a balance between mental health and carbon neutrality in building design ensures that we address the pressing challenges of our time while prioritising the health and well-being of individuals and the planet.

Final thought: Addressing mental health requires collaboration among healthcare professionals, policymakers, community organisations, and the construction industry. By collectively considering mental health in all aspects of society, we can strive for a more inclusive and supportive future. “By building to better standards now, we’re avoiding constructing slums. Better housing that lasts longer is better for everyone’s health, allows people to stay in stable communities and saves money for the public purse,” Sarah Wigglesworth.

 As I explore my own thoughts and emotions related to mental health, I've realised just how vital it is to incorporate these insights into my future architectural designs.

Believe it or not, our experiences play a significant role in shaping the materials and forms we use in architecture. It's like the essence of who we are finds its way into the spaces we create, resulting in truly exceptional environments. The more we understand ourselves, the better equipped we are to craft remarkable architecture that speaks to the heart.

Delving into the complexities of our mental and emotional landscapes has been eye-opening. It's incredible how these aspects influence how we perceive space and what design elements resonate with us on a deeper level. Our emotions and past experiences leave lasting imprints on our minds, affecting our responses to lighting, spatial organisation, and even the overall vibe of a place. As architects, it's crucial for us to tap into this self-awareness to design spaces that connect with people on a personal and meaningful level.

For me, it's become clear that architecture shouldn't be just about creativity and aesthetics. It should also be an empathetic response to the human condition. When we infuse our designs with a profound understanding of mental health and emotions, our creations become more than bricks and mortar – they become spaces that nurture and support the well-being of those who occupy them.

Imagine walking into a building that resonates with your soul, that understands your need for tranquillity and inspiration. That's the kind of architecture I aspire to create – spaces that are not only visually stunning but also serve as vessels for healing and personal growth.

As I continue this path of self-discovery, I'm excited about the impact it will have on my architectural creations. I'm eager to foster a harmonious relationship between mental health insights and design principles. My goal is to contribute to a world where architecture enriches the human experience, instilling a sense of belonging, serenity, and renewal for all who inhabit these thoughtfully crafted spaces.

The more we understand ourselves the more we will design better Architecture.  My aim is to create a positive impact for others in the architecture and interiors we create here at Henry Mein.

"We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us." Winston Churchill

If you're interested in this subject, I recommend exploring some of these articles:

https://www.iconeye.com/architecture/why-architects-consider-emotional-inhabitance-lionheart

https://www.re-thinkingthefuture.com/architectural-community/a3674-architectures-role-in-mental-health/

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170605-the-psychology-behind-your-citys-design

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095263521000479

Written by Ashley Stanworth

Associate Director 

Ashley Stanworth
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