Happiness and Well-Being in Housing Design

This is an unusually long post. So make a cup of tea or pour a glass of whisky before starting.

In 2008 the UK Govt Foresight commissioned the New Economic Foundation to investigate well-being. The context was a concern among policy makers that Gross Domestic Product may no longer be the sole measure of success of Government policy. Many surveys have shown that even while GDP rises, happiness and well-being do not rise with it. Money does not buy happiness it seems.

The result of this work was a report called The Five Ways to Well-Being which contained some recommendations for you to follow. You might call them the Five Pillars of Happiness? These are described below. The italic descriptions below are NEF’s attempt to create short versions of the Five Ways that are easily communicated and understood.

This work prompts a question for designers. What does this mean for the design of places for people to live in, and how ought we design them differently if we have well-being in mind. Is Well-Being equated to Happiness and are either of them capable of being designed into a development? Is well-being or happiness so strongly related to an individuals personal circumstances that it is not subject to outside influences and it is unwise for a designer to ever suggest that one can design in happiness or well-being? The NEF research suggests that it is possible for people to influence their own happiness, and that there are objective as well as subjective elements to it, hence the Five Ways. Walt Disney gives it a good try in the various Disneyworlds around the globe, but those are hardly places that can, or should, be duplicated, and in any case, there aren’t enough Mickey Mouse suits to go around.

What is also interesting about this research is that it suggests positive action towards a positive goal, rather than positive actions to prevent negative results. Most regulations are aimed at preventing negative results or outcomes such as fire, accidents, structural failure, lack of space and so on, but what could design become if it aimed at positive outcomes instead? Of course many designs are aimed at positive outcomes, hospitals, schools, and many other building types, but the positive outcomes are usually measured by asking whether the temperature in the building is maintained at a steady level, whether the building uses more or less energy than planned, and whether the maintenance bills are low. While all of these are important, we rarely look at the well-being of people who use or live in them to assess the success of our buildings. Granted this can be difficult to measure, but part of the Office of National Statistics work on Well-Being suggests that it is possible to do, and is already being done in small unconnected ways in different disciplines.

It seems to me that housing and its relationship to well-being has a particular role here, insofar as people spend more than half their time at home, and probably change homes less frequently that they change their jobs. Creating a professional expectation that designers should try to enable well-being in their designs, and crucially, check whether they are succeeding, is likely to lead to better outcomes. I think that this expectation applies particularly to the designers of house types used by the major house-builders, as these will be built many times over, thus repeating the same mistakes over and over again, or improving the lives of occupants over and over again. If we are going to build something many times, lets build the right thing, and not the wrong one.

Reading through the five ‘Ways’, which are intended by NEF to explain to laypeople how to interpret the research, it is possible to link all of them to interventions in the built environment in some way or other. Either through direct interventions, or through the creation of space for something to happen. Some issues can be considered and responded to in parts of buildings or in the public realm between buildings, other issues can be responded to by creating spaces that in turn encourage actions by others who will follow on after the designers work is done. The designers job is to create a stage for the actors to use, an environment where things are more likely to happen than not.

The Five Ways to Well-Being:

Connect

Connect with the people around you. With family,
friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work,
school or in your local community. Think of these as
the cornerstones of your life and invest time in
developing them. Building these connections will
support and enrich you every day.

For designers, I think this means creating opportunities for people to meet, to create streets where they can interact, and to bring the activities that stem from entrances and pathways together to create places where the greatest number of people have the best chances of interacting. Making the ground surface the place where it all happens, pedestrians, drivers, bus passengers and cyclists, all merging together and creating possibilities for activity, commercial and social.
This also means enabling people to see each other, to be visible to each other. Places where windows and doors are visible from the street and the street is visible from inside homes.

This means that creating shared spaces is important, where people can mix and meet each other, where children can play and parents can interact, allotments where they can work together and community spaces where they can gather to plan their joint future or knit, play bridge, practice yoga or get married.

This means that high density mixed-use is better than low density monoculture. The more people that are mixed in an area and the more uses, the more likely people there are to meet people like themselves, and make connections, or find appropriate work. This refutes the idea that anyone will find happiness by buying a large plot in suburbia and driving there and back without ever seeing their neighbours.

(See Charles Montgomerys excellent book on Happy Cities for many examples of broken families and difficult lives created by the long commute to and from suburbia.)
Be Active

Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game.
Garden. Dance. Exercising makes you feel good. Most
importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy and
one that suits your level of mobility and fitness.

For the designer this means creating readily available opportunities for exercise. Streets that are designed to be walkable, and enjoyable to walk along. For this to be true, there needs to be variety in the character of the areas, and potential for change so that seasons can be marked in changing colours of leaves and birdsong, as well as the visible changes in family life that goes on in homes. Washing on the line, children’s toys in the garden, bicycles parked in front of houses all give interesting clues to the life being lived inside. Green spaces also need to be provided, and designed so that they can be used as stopping points, or provide opportunities for more active exercise through fixed equipment.

Inside the buildings and houses, the stairs should be designed to be more prominent than the lift and designed to be welcoming rather than forbidding. Landings could have a window seat so that older people can still use the stairs, but have an excuse to stop and rest and enjoy the view.

Inside homes, spaces should be created to enable and encourage exercise. Why create a dining room with fixed furniture that is used once a month, and no exercise space. Put in an exercise bar and a mirror instead and celebrate the idea of exercise without making it seem too obvious. Use the mirror to increase the light in a room to make it more attractive to be in. Put in a wooden floor with underfloor heating so that it is comfortable to use all year around.

The availability of fresh air for health is important, as is the ability to filter out pollutants. Residents should have both opportunities, together with daylight at different times of the day to ensure that they get sufficient light to read or work by, and enough light to set their daily circadian rhythms.

I learned recently that bungalows produce a condition called ‘Bungalow Knee’ by doctors, where older residents knees seize up through lack of activity. This is the first such condition caused by a building that I have heard of. But it raises an important question about regulation and comfort. Providing ease in the form of level thresholds, ramps and stair free environments may be good for the less able among us, but are we inadvertently designing out the exercise in our environment to solve the problems of a few, and denying the regular exercise that the rest of the population needs? Similar evidence is growing around the provision of overheated environments in care homes where any interruption in the heating system produces a lot of ill-health among residents whose systems have become accustomed to constant temperature and are no longer able to regulate their temperature.

Take Notice

Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the
unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment,
whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to
friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are
feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you
appreciate what matters to you.

For designers this is directly related to the ‘Connect’ and ‘Be Active’ ‘Ways’. Perhaps there is a prompt here for design to be more creative and to design in features that catch the eye, or which change when looked at from different angles. Buildings that have some greater level of detail that is only visible when you get closer, or a roof-level feature that is only visible from far away. The designing of opportunities for public art into a proposal is a potential route to creating places that catch the eye and encourage curiosity. The natural world is also a very interesting and varying thing, so creating opportunities for diversity in planting, and places for birds to live and roost, and bats and animals to live can all contribute to the rich experience that this ‘Way’ calls for.

The aspect of the design of homes that is most relevant here is the design of windows. It would help this ‘Way’ to create windows that provide different kinds of views, to the immediate outside, and to the distant horizon. If there is a tree in the street, a window should frame it. A window with a seat to sit in and to enjoy the view. A picture window that is low enough so that the view can be enjoyed while sitting or lying down. A window positioned to bring sunlight into the bedroom. A rooflight to bring a view of the sky into the middle of the house.

Keep Learning

Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for
that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix
a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your
favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving.
Learning new things will make you more confident as
well as being fun.
The response for the designer here is to create spaces where things can happen. Putting seats in the right place on the street so that people can watch the world go by, or take a break in a busy day. Create spaces in residential buildings that can be used for short periods of work so that they can run small businesses from home, and they can learn from our neighbours who can pop in to help them. Make sure that spaces in residential buildings are flexible enough so that if people want to have a hobby, they have space to do it in. Make sure that the building acoustics are good enough for someone to learn to play the drums or bagpipes without annoying the neighbours. Create communal spaces where people can run short courses for their neighbours, or have a party for the residents of the building.

Give

Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone.
Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look
out, as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked
to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and
creates connections with the people around you.

Designers can respond to this idea with a home that creates zero harm by being very energy efficient, sympathetic to nature in its design, manufacture, operation and reuse. It may not be able to ‘give’ directly, but we can design it to ‘take’ as little as possible. We cannot help people to volunteer though, this one is almost out of the hands of the designer. But it can be helped along by creating places in a masterplan where community groups can meet and decide how they want to work together. By creating Community Interest companies that can run a development after the developer has left, and which create opportunities for people to develop skills in managing their local environment in a responsible way.

End

All of the Five Ways resonate with me, as directions that designers should keep in their minds while designing. It is not sufficient to design to meet regulations, there are other responsiblities than the clients direct needs and the regulations imposed by society that a designer should recognise.

In a period where the intention is to design and construct a lot of housing, we would do well to make sure that it is all of the highest quality as it will be there for many years after we have left, affecting the well-being of its residents and through them the success or failure of wider society.

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2 thoughts on “Happiness and Well-Being in Housing Design

  1. On the ‘give’ aspect I believe a home design that feels welcoming and ambient will be a double blessing to owners and to visitors. An inviting home will facilitate hospitality, a form of giving.

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