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The building blocks for better health and wellbeing

Written by Amy

Given the impact building design can have on our mood, surely architects, planners and other stakeholders should be striving to create spaces where people feel happy and relaxed, says Izzy Rhodes, lead architect and founder of Swain Architecture.

Projects like the RIBA Stirling Prize-winning Goldsmith Street in Norwich are a reminder of just how far we have come from the often-oppressive social housing seen in years gone by.

Hailed as a ‘masterpiece’, the Goldsmith Street development is made up of 105 Passivehaus homes for social rent.

Despite the density of the housing, the scheme has been designed in a way that maximises natural daylight and feels spacious, with the right mix of private and communal areas. The characteristic back alleyways of Victorian terraces are reassuringly absent and in their place are curved, landscaped pathways that make the walk home all-the-more pleasant.

Taken together, these features should have a positive impact on tenants’ wellbeing. After all, we all thrive when we feel warm, safe and comfortable in our home and neighbourhood.

Perhaps the reason Goldsmith Street has attracted such attention is because improving quality of life is still not the norm in many building projects in housing, as well as other public buildings and workplaces too. Doctors’ surgeries, offices and hospitals are ostensibly functional – yet they can be anything but if they fail to lift someone’s mood, or help them to work more productively.

It would be easy to lay the blame for poor design on planners and project managers, who want to reduce costs. But this is where architects need to draw on their seven-plus years of training to ensure every feature on a building is well-conceived and within budget in the first place.

If a planner still disagrees about where a window has been positioned, for example, the architect should look for creative and technical solutions to the problem, rather than simply agreeing to delete it from the drawings. Even though few people would want to spend time in a room with no windows, designs like this do crop up from time to time.

Whether architects are working on a private commercial or housing development, a publicly-funded scheme or single residential unit, they should not be afraid to challenge their client to consider the impact of their design, beyond the practical and regulatory.

The owner of a period property may have decided the layout is not suited to modern living, however, a large extension can quickly turn into a vast box, devoid of original character and feeling cold and empty. Where part of the garden has been lost, it is a good idea to bring the nature indoors with rooflights that give occupants a clear view of the sky and any nearby greenery.

Sometimes an extension isn’t the right solution at all, as was the case for one of our clients who wanted to transform a 1960s bungalow into a family home. Rather than simply increasing floorspace, we added vaulted ceilings to create a sense of space, as well as mezzanines in the children’s bedrooms to give them their own dens to play in.

In other projects, we have included a link from the house to the garage to help with storage and alleviate the stress associated with clutter.

We have all seen episodes of Grand Designs where someone has gone well over budget – the finished product might be impressive but how can their quality of life be better if they are financially crippled and stressed? Fundamentally, good design subtly promotes wellbeing and mitigates the negative impact of urban environments, on budget and within the space available.

For more details on Swain Architecture, visit www.swainarchitecture.com

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