Wellness is not the absence of sickness: it is physical, social, emotional, financial, occupational, intellectual, environmental, and spiritual health. As part of the paradigm shift toward a whole-student model of healthcare, institutions of higher education are exploring how their buildings can best support student + staff wellness.
The Healthy Minds Study (HMS) demonstrated that today’s undergraduate and graduate students are suffering high levels of anxiety, stress, and depression, conditions that can be directly affected by the spaces in which they live, work, and study. Research continues to reveal the powerful connections between the built environment and health. For example, the Harvard COGFx study (2016) demonstrated that participants had better cognitive function in highly ventilated, low-VOC spaces. Other studies have shown that stressors (like poor acoustics, air quality, and lighting) are interconnected and accumulative, demanding a holistic, evidence-based approach to designing for health.
At VMDO, designing for health and wellness means not only focusing on reducing negative outcomes, like absenteeism, social isolation, and stress; it also means promoting positive outcomes, like improved academic performance and sleep and teaching students about healthy lifestyles. Our desired result is more connected, better performing, healthier, and more resilient students both within and beyond our buildings.
Specific strategies for promoting proactive and reactive health outcomes vary by building type, location and occupancy, and include:
Provide Fresh, Clean Air. There is abundant evidence linking cognitive function, depression, and anxiety to air quality. High ventilation rates, good filtration, and pollutant control are critical to any healthy environment.
Select Healthy Materials. The materials and products used to construct a space directly impact the health of occupants, as well as the health of those up and down the supply chain. Choosing materials with safer, known chemistry, and that avoid the production of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), supports occupant health and performance.
Provide Daylighting and Views. The health and performance benefits of natural light and views is one of the most well-documented correlations in building science research. Indoor/outdoor connections and exposure to changing lighting over the course of the day and seasons reduces stress and contributes to increased productivity.
Select Supportive Lighting. Electric lighting design is a key component of health, from reducing glare and flicker, to providing proper color rendering, to supporting good sleep hygiene and occupants’ circadian rhythms.
Control Glare. Visual discomfort, especially during extended tasks like reading or computer work, can lead to increased fatigue, headaches and reduced productivity. Controlling glare through a mixture of design and user control, while still allowing variable daylight, support health and wellness.
Support Healthy Eating. Poor nutrition, food insecurity and high rates of eating disorders amongst today’s students are key drivers of the push for increased nutrition education on campuses.
Design for Acoustics. One of the most common complaints in buildings is acoustics, and for good reason: poor acoustics is a significant impediment to cognitive function and increases stress levels. Providing a range of environments with a range of acoustic qualities – from quiet to active – allows students to select environments appropriate to the task at hand.
Design for Movement. Lack of movement is as negatively impactful as smoking when it comes to health. Encouraging occupants to “move more, sit less” through proper ergonomics, adjustable workstations, circulation design and the location of amenities can help to integrate movement within the everyday.
Provide Restorative Spaces/Access to Nature. Connection to nature lowers stress, whether through direct access, views, imagery or patterns. Establishing meaningful views and relying primarily on daylighting are not only provide energy benefits, they also support student and staff health, especially when integrated with interior vegetation and natural materials.
Reinforce Community. Students who have a sense of belonging are happier and do better academically. Providing a spaces to connect with others and the surrounding community at a range of scales helps to reduce social isolation and encourage collaboration for both staff and students alike.
Design for Inclusion. Designing environments that are welcoming to all is essential for today’s campus. In addition to going beyond the requirements of the American with Disabilities Act, opportunities for providing a more inclusive built environment include gender neutral facilities, stakeholder engagement, and enhanced wayfinding and environmental graphics.
Create Safe Spaces. Today’s students expect an integrated and comprehensive approach to safety. Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) best practices encourage appropriate passive and active safety approaches while also reinforcing connectivity and community.
Education. Environmental graphics and wayfinding tied to health topics, and occupant engagement through dynamic displays, communicates the health-promoting strategies in place and encourages behavior change.