Sustainability & Health: Integrating Design Approaches that Further Your Mission


Recently, there has been a flood of research and discussion on the topic of health and housing. Once limited to the realm of clinical care, health is now understood to be complex, multifaceted,  and influenced by neighborhood conditions and socio-economic factors.

These factors—known as the social determinants of health—include an individual’s access to healthy food, economic stability, safe and clean housing, and more.

This newfound understanding provides a more holistic lens for understanding and addressing health at the community scale. As a result, new programs—such as New York’s Vital Brooklyn initiativeexplicitly focus on health and wellness as an important component of a multi-pronged approach to community development.

How does building science fit into this holistic understanding of health?  

Research suggests that the buildings we live and work in profoundly affect our health in countless ways, including one’s ability to concentrate, mood and sense of well-being, blood pressure, circadian system functioning, and more. Understanding the factors that contribute to positive health outcomes gives architects, engineers, developers, and sustainability consultants new tools to proactively design spaces that improve the quality of occupants’ lives, and new ways to relate to broader conversations happening at the community scale around health and wellness.

What’s more, many of the building design approaches that support human health also advance the realization of sustainability goals. By utilizing an approach informed by neuroscience and green building design practices, spaces can be effectively designed to positively affect resident health and wellness, minimize building energy consumption, and further the mission of development organizations.

Grounded Cognition & Building Science

In order to understand how human health is impacted by our physical environments, it’s important to understand some basic concepts about mind-body systems. Human bodies are composed of three key systems:

  • Physiological — includes the body’s physical, visceral, and somatic systems
  • Psychological — includes cognitions, thought processes, decision making, and other related functions
  • Limbic — includes hormones (the endocrine system), emotional responses, memories, and other related functions

Each day, as we navigate our physical surroundings, our five senses are interacting with environmental stimulants, engaging our physiological, psychological, and limbic systems, and triggering cognitive responses in our brains. Interestingly, up to 90 percent of all cognitions are non-conscious; so our environments are constantly coloring our feelings, perceptions, emotional state, and stress levels, often without us being aware that these responses are occurring. Despite the fact that there is little mainstream attention on the impacts of our physical surroundings on our health and well-being, each of us experiences these responses all day, every day.

Imagine you are in a crowded, artificially lit room without windows. You have no sense of the time of day because you cannot see outside, so your perception of time is skewed. There is construction happening next door, and you don’t realize that you’re clenching your jaw as you aim to maintain concentration. The lack of natural light is visually uncomfortable and depresses your mood without your awareness. Unbeknownst to you, the background noise elevates your stress levels, and you leave work with a tension headache. As you commute home, you debate calling in sick the next day to give yourself a chance to catch up on some much-needed rest.

Environments can impact our mind-body systems in positive ways as well. Consider the experience of sitting by a window in a naturally lit, quiet office overlooking a scenic view. Dynamic and diffuse light increases your visual comfort and positively impacts the functioning of your circadian system. Looking at nature has been proven to lower blood pressure, improve mental engagement, attentiveness, and attitude. As a result of this serene setting, you are more productive, relaxed, and happier. You complete your work ahead of schedule and end the day feeling confident, accomplished, and in control.

Countless examples like the ones above play out every day in each of our lives. Recently, the connections between human cognition and place have become so well established that there is a new discipline in the field of neuroscience called “grounded” or “situation” cognition. While neuroscientists have begun to establish compelling connections between human health and our physical surroundings, many buildings are still designed and constructed without these vital perspectives.

With a new focus on health and housing sweeping the affordable housing industry, now is the time to consider how these perspectives can be integrated into development and retrofit projects to actively improve resident health outcomes.

Come back for my next blog about some design elements that can help you meet both sustainability and wellness goals.