If modern approaches to medicine have taught us anything, it’s that the systems of the body are deeply intertwined. Health is holistic – real wellness includes physical, psychological and emotional health (if you want to learn more about integrative mental health, check out this article). Our environments can contribute positively to that wellness, or they can drain us.
So how do we design homes that work holistically to promote healthy bodies and minds? We have plenty of thoughts about that.
Start with natural materials for any home design project. Conventional building materials are typically made with synthetics that pose a range of health hazards.
Common toxins in building materials include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in paints, formaldehyde in plywood, fiberboard and particleboard, chromated copper arsenic (CCA) in pressure treated lumber, phthalates in PVC and flame retardants containing polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in insulation. These chemicals are carcinogens, respiratory irritants, neurotoxins and endocrine disrupters.
These materials seem benign because the damage they do to human health is so slow. As they age, however, they generate an environment where we’re constantly exposed to low-levels of chemicals through off-gassing or through skin contact.
The physical benefits of not covering our floors and walls with carcinogens are obvious. The mental health benefits are less tangible, but no less real. Although it goes without saying that your brain will function better when it is not being exposed to neurotoxins.
Using natural materials is an important part of what’s called biophilic design. This is an evidence-based field of architectural and interior design that aims to help humans foster connections to nature through our built environments. Research across fields such as neuroscience, psychology, anthropology and biology consistently finds that human brains and bodies function best when we feel integrated with natural surroundings.
Natural finishings in homes create a sense of being immersed in nature, particularly if the finishing is more obviously natural, like a wood or stone floor. This sense of immersion improves cognition and emotional resiliency as well as reducing stress, anger and fatigue. If the material comes from or somehow reflects local ecosystems, the effects are stronger.
We need natural light to thrive, and with many of us spending most of our time indoors, natural light can be difficult to come by. Without adequate exposure to natural light (at least 30 minutes every day), we risk Vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D deficiency is linked to physical conditions like cancer, heart disease and chronic pain, as well as mental health concerns like depression. Too little light reduces our sleep quality, as well, because it leads to higher cortisol levels and lower melatonin levels at the end of the day. That disrupted sleep quality reduces our ability to focus and increases mood disturbances.
Plan your building or renovation project to include sources of natural light, particularly morning light. If the neighbours are too close for comfort, install skylights instead. Natural lighting has the additional bonus, of course, of reducing your need for artificial light, which is an environmental plus. Incorporate high-performing window glass in your home design planning, however, because windows are inherently less energy efficient than walls.
Access to Natural Spaces
It does not matter whether your green space is 45 acres of land and a conservatory or a fire escape landing with container plants on it. Simply viewing nature creates feelings of positivity and restoration in humans.
Even better are multi-sensory experiences of nature. Smelling soil, listening to the sound of water or the sound of wind through the trees or opportunities for physical contact with plants and soil improve our moods and cognitive abilities, as well as our immune function.
Any home design project that integrates indoor and outdoor spaces has these benefits for human health. A simple way of incorporating green spaces is through house plants. You can always go bigger, however. In fact, the more consistently you bring natural elements into your home, the more your brain will process your home as a place of refuge and restoration.
To bring the outdoors in, consider putting a living wall into a core part of your home, like a kitchen, main bathroom or main hall. To bring the indoors out, add a sheltered outdoor seating area and workspace to your home. Build an outdoor kitchen with a brick or solar oven.
Since biophilic design is about creating a sense of a rooted connection to place, biophilic designers usually emphasize the importance of using native materials, plants and trees (if appropriate) in these spaces.
Clutter Free Rooms
In renovations large and small, incorporate strategies to reduce clutter. Clutter has the effect of decreasing our coping and our cognitive processing abilities. It’s a bit like constant information overload. Clutter raises our cortisol levels, according to organisational behaviourist Libby Sander, fatiguing our brains and making our memories worse.
Emotionally, she says, clutter increases stress, anxiety and depression. Features like built-in cupboards and furniture with hidden storage capacity can help keep rooms clear. The most effective strategies, however, are going to be the 5 “R”s. Refuse to buy new things. Reduce the number of things you own. Reuse and repurpose your existing things rather than buying new. And recycle the things you can’t use anymore.
Build with Intention
In your home design plans, include space for activities that bring you joy and that promote your health. These don’t have to be elaborate spaces. It could be quiet alcove for meditation. Or a bay or other deep-silled kitchen window that gives cooks a place to grow fresh herbs. Or a dual purpose room that can serve as a guest room and an exercise studio.
Whether you use these spaces as intended or not is up to you. But purposefully building spaces that honour your intention of maintaining your own well-being gets you one giant step closer to developing healthy habits that will revitalize you.
We hope these building considerations help you create a space you love, one that prioritizes a healthy connection between you and your environment.