An individual overlooking a cityscape environment.


The Importance of Human Health in the Built Environment

October 28, 2022 by Courtney Jones

The Elephant in the Room

Human health has been at the forefront of global and local conversation for the past few years and with good cause. The aftermath of a global pandemic, a looming mental health epidemic, wildfire smoke clouding the air, and the simple reminder of entering another flu season, all bring our attention toward human health. One of the United Nation’s (UN) 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. In the developed world, obesity, addiction, loneliness, anxiety, and environmental quality are some of the challenges we face in achieving well-being. For LSW, we recognize that our built environment plays a role in addressing these challenges. Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” The question is, will they shape us into healthy individuals and communities or not?

Fostering Community

The Three Scales
Human health is one of LSW’s four Sustainability Pillars. The pillar is intentionally broad encompassing the three scales of community health, occupant health and material health. At the largest scale, human health connects to thriving communities. The built environment can help cultivate a flourishing community through robust, multi-modal transportation systems, accessible green space, and creative programming for activated public space within private developments. For a community to thrive, projects must provide public space to facilitate gathering, playing, and engaging resources together. This could look like a co-working space or bike workshop occupying the ground floor of a multi-family housing project or a new, nature-play area for a school that is accessible to the surrounding neighborhood. It is about recognizing the social impact of place-based development, where the local communities affected by design have an opportunity to shape and enjoy what is constructed.

The Four Realms of Human Health 

Four Realms of Health
At the community scale, human health connects primarily to our physical and relational needs. However, there are actually four interconnected realms of human health to consider as designers: physical, relational, emotional and spiritual. Physical health considers the health implications the built environment has on our bodies. The buildings we occupy also shape our relationships — which are deeply interwoven with our health. For example, studies like Dr. Bruce Alexander’s “Rat Park,” show direct connections between isolation, environment, and addiction. This kind of research also begins to draw connections between our buildings and our mental health. Our emotional well-being is greatly impacted by the spaces around us. Finally, there is a more intangible form of health curated from within the built environment — one of hope and faith. Spaces that inspire awe and wonder are harder to talk about, but they cultivate a spiritual well-being. Each of these four realms of health begin to shape what it looks like to design for occupant well-being.

Occupant Well-being

At the occupant scale, it is important to acknowledge that people spend an average of 90% of their life indoors. If we spend most of our time indoors, it should positively contribute to our well-being.

Designing for well-being is the prioritization of both beauty and comfort within a space. It’s about the quality of design and how the design makes us feel.

For example, the health performance benefits of specific design strategies, like natural light and the integration of the natural environment are well-documented. Indoor/outdoor connections through light, views to nature and exposure to changing lighting over the course of the day reduces stress and contributes to increased productivity. Bringing daylight into a space curates a beautiful interior, but it also makes us feel calm and focused.

The effective outcomes of health-related design strategies are well-documented and researched. There is abundant evidence linking cognitive function, depression, and anxiety to air quality. Dialing in on thermal comfort can improve concentration and mental dexterity, while reducing the occurrence of accidents. And biophilia, or biophilic design, has been directly connected to reduced stress, improved cognitive performance, and improved emotional state. When it comes to occupant well-being, every project has the opportunity to incorporate intentional design strategies that will result in proven, positive health benefits to occupants.

Healthy Materials

As we move to the scale of healthy materials, the health implications are predominately physical. Most people assume that the chemicals used in building products are strictly regulated or tested for their impacts on human health, but that is not the case. In fact, it is difficult to get clear and reliable information about product ingredients and their potential health impacts on building occupants, workers, and the communities in which they are manufactured or processed. Researchers in the emerging field of exposomics, the study of exposure, focus on the connection between our health and a lifetime of exposures. They estimate that exposure can account for 80- 85% of disease risk, whereas only 15-20% of disease risk can be attributed to the genome. Essentially, the environment plays a greater role in an individual’s potential to develop cancer than their genetics do. This is startling because we don’t necessarily have control over our genetics, but we do have some control over the environment we find ourselves in.

“Healthy materials” is a relatively new area of research and many Architects are still grappling with how to apply known data and communicate the value of healthy material selection to clients. The categorization of harmful chemicals is not universally standardized — although databases like the Living Future’s Red List are beginning to do the hard work of comprehensively listing chemicals to avoid. The baseline for all projects is not to have any illegal substances like lead or asbestos. However, LSW is working to take it a step further. Over the next year, we will establish a standard that can be applied to the materials on all our projects. These metrics will create accountability to uphold the firm value of human health, and more clearly communicate to clients the performance of the built product.

When speaking with our clients, it is important to connect the value of design for people, the priority on human health, and the selection of healthy materials. There is a growing body of literature showing the risks that many building materials pose to human health. As regulations are slow to catch up, Architects must uphold our commitment to the safety, health and welfare of the general public.

At LSW, we are actively working to reduce the use of building products containing the following five chemical groups:

  • Volatile Organic Compounds (V.O.Cs) 
  • PVC (vinyl) 
  • Phthalates
  • Antimicrobials (marked with a health claim)
  • PFAS and PFCS (fire-fighting chemicals and non-stick surfaces, water-repellant materials)
*if you would like to learn more about harmful chemicals found in common building materials reference Perkins and Will’s Precautionary List.

We acknowledge the harmful health effects of these chemicals and materials have and we are doing our part to avoid them. We understand this will be an ever-evolving list and on-going conversation with our clients. Nonetheless, we have taken the leap, and we our taking responsibility for the part we play in creating healthy environments.

Design for People

At the end of the day, the Human Health pillar for LSW is all about connecting back to our design philosophy: Design for People. The heart of our design process centers on the human experience, what makes us happy, keeps us healthy and supports the communities in which we live and work.

Design Philosophy Graphic-small