Today is World Health Day and the theme for this year’s campaign is ‘Depression: Let’s talk’.
You might be thinking “what does this have to do with buildings?”
Given that we spend approximately 90 per cent of our time indoors, in the homes, offices, schools and other buildings in which we live, work, learn and play, it’s likely that these buildings are having an impact on how we feel as people. In fact, there is much research to support this assumption. But these impacts, especially those associated with depression, are rarely talked about. It’s time to change that.
While the physical problems associated with our built environment, like irritated eyes and throats, and headaches, or even being too hot or too cold, are fairly easy to recognise, the way that buildings impact our psychological wellbeing and our ability to manage depression symptoms can be harder to read. Identifying these problems, how they might relate to buildings, and overcoming them, is a central tenet of WorldGBC’s Better Places for People project, which aims to promote buildings which are both better for the environment and for building occupants.
The project has uncovered a host of research that shows how buildings can impact our psychological wellbeing, and how in fact, green and healthy buildings can reduce the negative impacts of building-related illnesses. For example:
- Stress levels: Poor acoustics in buildings can trigger stress-response mechanisms and release cortisol and adrenalin, which increase blood pressure and the constriction of blood vessels. The common response to excessive noise exposure is annoyance, irritation and anger, which can trigger depressive episodes.
- Anxiety: The design quality of buildings has been linked to mental health, and people living in better quality housing have shown to have fewer psychological issues, including decreased anxiety and depression.
- Management of stressful and crisis situations: Research by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that workers in a green certified building, with a good air quality, experienced 75 per cent higher crisis response scores, reducing the risk of depressive episodes.
- Quality of sleep: That same research also revealed that employees in a green certified building experienced 6.4 per cent higher sleep quality scores, which helps to reduce stress and anxiety.
This is particularly important in residential buildings. A recent report by the UK Green Building Council, published under the Better Places for People project, noted that mental wellbeing in our homes is particularly important given this is where Europeans and Americans spend 65 per cent of their lives. It argued that “happiness in residential design is vital: emotions are more powerful here when compared to office or retail settings.”
There are a number of interesting findings in the report, from the fact that when people feel in control of their surroundings and environment, they feel empowerment and stability, to an Australian study which found that people who perceived their neighbourhood as “very green” had a 1.37 to 1.60 times greater likelihood of better physical and mental health.
But it’s not just in homes where considering mental health is valuable: it’s also incredibly important in buildings where people are recovering from physical or psychological problems. A greater emphasis on the psychological needs of hospital patients is key, as the design of healthcare facilities has been linked to accelerated recovery times and fewer hospital-sourced infections.
Our green building movement strongly believes that a healthy (and green) built environment which supports wellbeing – both physical and mental – should be available to everyone. So what can you do?
In the spirit of World Health Day’s theme, beginning the conversation is key. Here are a couple of examples of how to do so.
If you work in a stuffy office that makes you feel physically sick, it may be affecting your mental wellbeing too: why not approach your HR representative, speak to your management, or talk to your facilities manager?
If you live in a home where you can’t turn the heat up or down, or can’t open windows, this lack of control could induce feelings of anxiety: contact your landlord and highlight the problem.
We encourage you to celebrate World Health Day by having a conversation about your daily environment and how it could be improved to support your health, wellbeing and ability to manage depression.
If you have any questions about how buildings can impact mental wellbeing, or further questions on UK-GBC’s Healthy Homes report, please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to talking.
Colin Powell is the Project Manager for Better Places for People at WorldGBC, and Elinor Huggett is Sustainability Officer at UK-GBC