Feelgood factor: how to define happiness?

April 2018

Words by Tony Whitehead

Artwork: Simon Pemberton

A building conducive to wellness in one country might not be so beneficial in another, according to Dr Anna Mavrogianni, senior lecturer at the UCL Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering at the Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources at University College London, which launched a masters course in Health, Wellbeing and Sustainable Buildings in September 2017.

Climate is the most obvious factor to consider: “Factors such as temperature, solar radiation and humidity are all key drivers in how we shape our built environment. Different social norms have evolved, partly in response to this, which influence the way we interact with our buildings.” The Mediterranean siesta, or the shorter lunchtime nap customary in certain Asian countries, is a good example of this, affecting both the duration of building occupancy and the facilities needed within an office.

There will be no one-size-fits-all set of conditions to promote wellness, and buildings will need to be designed so that they can respond to a range of individual preferences. “We are moving away from the idea that highly engineered environments that use air-con and heating to maintain a constant temperature for everybody are always the right thing,” says Mavrogianni. “Research demonstrates that thermal comfort expectations vary a lot across the world and depend on how different cultures react to changes in the weather, what clothes they are wearing and so on. Whether occupants feel cold or not depends on more than temperature. Even the texture of interior surfaces can have an effect.”

"Whether occupants feel cold or not depends on more than temperature. Even the texture of interior surfaces can have an effect"

Dr Anna Mavrogianni, UCL

People also have different acoustic expectations. Research by architect Gensler, for example, found that tolerance to office noise varied among different ages and cultures. “Often it’s to do with what you are used to,” says Mavrogianni. “Sometimes when people move to an airtight, triple-glazed, thermally efficient house, they find they cannot relax because they cannot hear neighbourhood sounds and they feel disconnected. It’s a good example of where we make decisions driven by one imperative — such as efficiency — which turn out to have unintended consequences where wellness is concerned.”

Latitudinal variations in daylight present particular challenges to wellness designers seeking to reinforce the natural circadian rhythms of building occupants. Should they seek to mimic a standard 12 hours of daylight, or accommodate local adaptations to long days or nights? “It seems likely that local populations will have adapted to their local hours of daylight. But there are things you can do anywhere to enhance the connection to daylight — such as putting spaces that are more heavily occupied in the morning on the east of a building and those used more later, perhaps for socializing in the evening, on the west.”

From The Possible, issue 03

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There are certain approaches to wellness that appear to work worldwide: “We find a good correlation between personal control and comfort levels. Where occupants can open a window, for example, they tend to be happier. This is partly because they become more temperature tolerant because they understand there will be natural variations, but also because they feel empowered. The positive effects of a connection to the outside and to nature also seem to work wherever you are.”

This article appeared in The Possible issue 03, as part of a longer feature on designing buildings for wellbeing

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