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How your home’s design can improve your health

The incorporation of salutogenic and biophilic design into buildings has shown dramatic results. Numerous studies have demonstrated that, through these deliberate strategies, a building can lower cortisol (stress) levels, lower blood pressure, improve cognitive functions (like your ability to learn or focus), increase productivity, reduce anxiety and improve mood. (iStock) (iStock)
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The concept of “shelter” is prevalent throughout the history of humankind. From the beginning, we sought shelter as protection — from weather, from dangerous animals, sometimes even from each other. But even the Neanderthals adapted caves — excellent natural shelters that they were — for more than the simple function of protection: Cave paintings date back tens of thousands of years, and the purpose of “shelter” has been evolving ever since.

Now our shelters serve countless purposes and do far more than simply protect us. Homes embrace; jails detain; churches sanctify. How we experience and interpret space is defined by the architecture built around us.

We often — sometimes even subconsciously — transfer those experiences and impressions from a space onto the party responsible for that space, be it a messy bachelor, no-nonsense business or struggling community. This power of architecture, recognized in the many grand structures of even ancient civilizations, can be harnessed and used to craft a carefully constructed impression via design; we no longer build to exclusively seek simple “shelter” anymore.

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Cities pride themselves on their robust development. The heights of our skyscrapers, sizes of our mansions and views from our offices serve the function of shelter as much as they serve to symbolize status. The luxury of interior design, as an abstract concept, is now applied as a cultural standard across most of the industrialized world.

But there are problems that come with such a robust built environment and continuous development.

Overcrowded, poorly maintained housing in dense areas is a breeding ground for disease and poor health. Sick Building Syndrome, identified by a series of nonspecific flulike symptoms in an otherwise healthy person, is caused by indoor air contaminants and poor air quality within buildings. Poorly constructed buildings — or those constructed using materials later realized to be hazardous — are a cause of allergies, poisoning and even cancer.

Spatial design can also have surprisingly negative impacts on health and well-being. You may think your cubical-farm office is a terribly boring design but otherwise benign, or that your basement apartment with essentially no natural light is inconvenient at worst. But for decades, research has been mounting on how the design of interiors — including from seemingly harmless spaces like these — can contribute or even lead to anxiety, depression, stress and poor psychological and physiological health. This becomes critically alarming when you consider that the Environmental Protection Agency reports that 90 percent of Americans’ time is spent indoors.

However, as evidence grows on the detrimental impacts the built environment can have on people, evidence in favor of “salutogenic design” — the counterbalance — has grown equally.

Salutogenic design, casually referred to as wellness design, is a design strategy focused on improving human health and well-being in the built environment. The way sustainable design looks at how a building affects the outside environment, salutogenic design looks at how a building affects its inhabitants. One looks outside, the other looks inside, but both strive to create healthy environments.

Salutogenic design is the intersection of architecture, neuroscience and psychology. While many of its tenets are intuitive, this evidence-based design strategy was in fact born out of medical and scientific research demonstrating the positive effects design can have on people’s mental and physical health. Appropriately, the phrase “salutogenic design” is derived from the medical term “salutogenesis,” which focuses on factors that support health and well-being instead of factors that cause disease.

Ironically, it has long been established that it is healthful for people to spend time outdoors. But — no surprise — almost our entire built environment is designed to avoid that very situation. Lifestyles, jobs, truly the culture of our society is structured around being indoors. When you start tracking your daily routine, 90 percent may even seem like a lowball statistic. So how can we apply some of the health benefits of being in nature to our built environment?

One of the most popular methods of salutogenic design is to incorporate biophilic design, which is based on human’s innate connection to nature. According to Terrapin Bright Green’s report “The 14 Patterns of Biophilia” (sister publication of the Economics of Biophilia), biophilic design can relate to the natural environment through literal connections, like living plants or natural materials, but there is a vast array of other methods and elements you can incorporate, as well.

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For instance, visual representations like landscape murals or biomorphic patterns (i.e., honeycombs or fractals) are also effective methods to incorporate biophilic design. Similarly, incorporating non-regular sensory stimulants — think dynamic and diffuse lighting, akin to dappled sunlight — or sounds of nature, like a babbling brook or softly chirping crickets, can also positively affect your well-being.

The incorporation of salutogenic and biophilic design into buildings has shown dramatic results. Countless studies have demonstrated that, through these deliberate strategies, a building can actually lower cortisol (stress) levels, lower blood pressure, improve cognitive functions (like your ability to learn or focus), increase productivity, reduce anxiety, improve mood … the list goes on.

One particularly renowned study, at a high-stress adult detention facility in California, showed that the installation of a full-wall, serene landscape mural significantly dropped stress levels when employees started their shifts, lowered stress over the course of their shifts and sustained lower stress at the end of their day after exposure to the large-scale representation of nature.

Another famous study, focused on hospital design, concluded that views of nature from a hospital bed — compared with views of a brick wall — reduced patient recovery times, reduced the amount of medication needed for treatment and improved patient mood and morale.

Recognizing that humans lived nomadically, out in nature, far longer than we have lived rooted down inside buildings, our evolution is still catching up with our “new” way of life indoors.

By incorporating salutogenic design strategies that bring more of the outdoors inside — whether through natural materials, photos of landscapes or patterns mimicking the natural world — you can take the first steps to improving your health and well-being through the design of your space.

Stephanie Brick is a salutogenic design expert and the owner of Stephanie Brick Design in Baltimore.