Have you ever wondered why some places make you feel better than others? As an architect, I have long been interested in why certain environments, i.e. buildings or houses, have that effect. I have always felt that there must be an objective way to understand the “why,” over a simple, subjective “I feel good.” If we could just tap into that knowledge, we could realize the full impact of design on wellness.
Years ago, I began to research what happens to us physically, mentally and spiritually in different environments as relates to light, volume, materials, texture. It was exciting to find new studies in cognitive neuroscience and environmental psychology that began to explain what is happening on a cognitive level and how it affects our well-being. With a deeper knowledge of how our bodies react to the environment around us, we can leverage the power of intentional design for impactful results on our wellness.
Cognitive neuroscience is a cross-disciplinary field that combines biological sciences with behavioral science, and studies the neural connections within the human brain in order to determine how the brain achieves the functions it performs. This is important because it shows that we can track why we feel certain ways in certain environments, and, with that data, we can increase the chances of more effective design.
Environmental psychology studies the interplay between individuals and their physical settings. This includes urban design, sustainability, natural environments as well as room proportions, connection to nature and natural light to furniture layout. Even at the smallest scale, science can show us why, when furniture is laid out in a room with high ceilings and our back is to the entryway, our cortisol levels are raised and we may feel isolated, nervous and stressed. While tracking the results is the ultimate goal, knowing why it is happening will lead to better results.
Wellness is an active process that involves constantly analyzing our path to see if it aligns with questions such as: Who I am? Where am I going? Am I making choices to align with those goals? In order to do that, we need to be free of stress, present and clear-minded. As we begin to focus more on the scale of a home, there are newer branches of science that are starting to gain traction. These are based on the research of cognitive neuroscience, and are focused on both the scale of a home and us as individuals.
The first, neuroaesthetics, focuses on how we perceive beauty through art, music and architecture. A goal is to see if there are universal things that we can call beautiful and, if so, whether some are more beautiful than others. One of the values of beauty is that when we see something beautiful, our bodies send messages between our nerve cells through the neurotransmitter dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical of the brain.
The second is called neuroarchitecture, which attempts to understand how architecture directly affects how we process information and our behavior. The basic premise is that we are different people in different environments: In rooms with long views out to nature we are optimistic and creative, while in rooms with no natural light we may feel agitated. At the scale of a home, this is powerful because when we can track and understand the neural connections that we have and how we behave in different environments, we can then design to scientifically achieve specific goals, i.e., reduce stress, improve creativity, revive our spirit, etc.
The home environment
We know that we are different people in different places, but the tricky part about design is that people have different place types (for example, we are unique in how we respond to a particular environment). While science is now showing us how our brain is functioning in different environments, those functions are not wholly universal for all people.
Some people find solace in large open rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows, while others are revived in small intimate spaces with the warm light of a fireplace. For some, it is gathering with a large group of people, while for others, it is sharing a glass of wine with a friend or reading a book. The goal of great design is to understand the people who are going to be living in the home, who they are, what their aspirations are and use science to create environments that can help fulfill those goals.
Designing your lifestyle
If you are thinking of renovating an existing home, moving to another home or designing a new home, start by understanding your place type and that of anyone else living with you. The goal is to design your lifestyle room by room.
Rooms for gathering should be different than rooms for contemplation or sleeping. You can begin with a list of questions: What do I like to do that fills me with joy? How do I refresh myself at the end of the day? How often do I entertain? Would I like to entertain more? Do I like being outdoors? What are the assets of the property? What direction is the sun coming from?
From questions like these, you can begin to write the narrative of how you want to live. This may vary from the way you are living now, or even what the common perception of modern living is. Much emphasis has been placed on the open floor plan concept over the past 20 years of residential design. People often think that this is a modern way of living. In reality, it may or may not be the best environment for your unique place type.
Modern living is about designing our homes to match our own individual makeup. A home should encourage us to be who we are, it should remind us of who we are and should inspire us to be who we want to be.