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Can a Building's Design Affect Mental Health? Apparently, Yes

Feb 13, 2021 by Barbara Zito
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We often talk about building design in relation to aesthetics. But aside from how a structure looks, how does it make people feel? It turns out that when open spaces, lush landscaping, and expansive views of the outdoors are featured elements, a building can make people feel better.

Mental health before and during the pandemic

In 2019, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reported that there were 51.5 million Americans ages 18 or older living with some form of mental illness, or about 1 in 5 adults. It's a staggering number -- and this was prior to the pandemic, with its long months of forced isolation. By late June 2020, several months into the pandemic lockdown, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that more than 40% of adults were struggling with either mental health issues or substance abuse, with 31% suffering from anxiety and/or depression.

To keep up with the demand for treatment for mental illness, more facilities are being built, and many are incorporating nature into the design. Research says that being able to enjoy nature -- even if it means looking out at it from a window -- is therapeutic. There's a reason fresh air makes us feel so good: Natural surroundings can reduce levels of cortisol, the "fight-or-flight" hormone known to cause stress.

Nature as architect and designer

A recent article about building design in the New York Times featured the Taube Pavilion, a $98 million mental health facility part of the El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, California. While a treatment center might conjure up an image of a cold, clinical setting, Taube Pavilion is much more like a resort in design. Residents have private rooms overlooking the Santa Cruz Mountains and can take walks in beautifully landscaped courtyards, gardens, and other outdoor spaces.

Although mental health facilities still need to be safe for their patients and the staff who care for them, they no longer have to resemble prisons. At Taube, there are more windows, though they are glazed with polycarbonate compounds to prevent breaking. The common areas are spacious, and even the hallways are wide. Residents have thermostat controls in their own rooms, as well as dimmer switches to adjust the lighting as they prefer. All of these features create a safe, stress-free environment that can boost the progress of patients in treatment.

A breath of fresh air in commercial and residential design

Of course, a stress-free environment can have its benefits outside the healthcare sector. Residential and commercial buildings that incorporate a more open, airy biophilic design will be a true breath of fresh air for tenants and patrons.

For example, outdoor seating areas at commercial buildings can allow for socially distanced meetings and lunches al fresco -- a perk for many returning to their normal work schedules on site. Ponds, fountains, and other water features, either outdoors or in the lobby of an apartment building, can add a relaxing natural element. And while large windows can let in sunlight and offer a view of the outdoors, photos and artwork of landscapes on walls can also bring the outside in for any type of setting.

The bottom line

After long months spent indoors during the pandemic, we all know how good it feels to get some fresh air every once in a while. Buildings that feel more spacious and connected with the outdoors offer that desirable combination of function and aesthetic. Investors with new construction projects should seek to incorporate these and other design elements that will elevate the mood of residents and patrons.

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