Can buildings improve mental health?  

Darren Brooks is head of technical and design at offsite manufacturer Premier Modular

The national picture of mental health remains concerning, with one in six people in England experiencing a common mental health problem in any given week. Increasingly, the impact of the built environment on mental health is becoming better understood. A growing body of evidence shows the influence that design can have on an individual’s wellbeing. But how can design and construction teams better support the mental health of occupants through their buildings, and what should be considered?  

“Construction teams should maximise access to natural light, given the role daylight plays in promoting good mental wellbeing”

Workplace design trends are quickly evolving to better accommodate health and wellbeing. Ergonomic furniture, open-plan spaces and biophilic features such as green walls have become workplace staples, while accessible green roofs are gaining popularity for their ability to control rainwater runoff, energy conservation and the provision of green space for building occupants.

However, given that most people spend between 80 and 90 per cent of their time inside buildings, surface-level details alone cannot be relied upon to nurture positive mental wellbeing. The structural composition of a building has a part to play too, such as airtightness. A cross-examination of studies conducted by University of Oxford researchers found exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution could be linked to poor mental health and potentially lead to depression, anxiety and even neurocognitive disorders.  

To this end, the uptake in mechanical ventilation with heat-recovery systems and heat pumps by construction companies is a step in the right direction. Both systems ensure buildings maintain a high internal air quality without sacrificing energy efficiency. To support the function of these systems, suppliers should aim to take a fabric-first approach to design and construction, which will enhance the performance of the building envelope to improve air permeability. Quality control is paramount to maximising airtightness, so limiting variables that could impact this, such as the weather and measurement inaccuracies, is essential.  

Sound approach

Another element of a building that plays a role in mental health is acoustics. Noise pollution or the insufficient transmission and reception of sound in a room can have a negative effect on occupants. For example, acoustics are an important design consideration for schools and other educational institutions that accommodate children with auditory sensitivities. Exposure to lots of acoustic interference can be incredibly uncomfortable for these pupils and lead to distress and anxiety – both from the experience itself and the knock-on effects on learning capability. It’s therefore important that project teams create an absorptive internal blanket by considering materials such as fibreglass or stone wool insulation, or introducing sound masking, to ensure environments support learning and wellbeing.  

The link between strong acoustic performance and mental health is further outlined in the NHS Technical Memorandum 08-01. It states that in a clinical facility, where patient recovery often requires a therapeutic environment, good acoustic conditions are important for promoting essential sleep patterns. The memorandum underlines that a lack of sleep impacts mental health, and that strong acoustic design improves patient comfort and morale. 

Design and construction teams should also endeavour to maximise access to natural light, given the abundance of research detailing the role daylight plays in promoting good mental wellbeing. Patient recovery units are typically located near windows for this very reason, and regulations relating to medical facilities, such as the NHS Health Building Notes for adult acute mental health units, request natural light and views of landscapes or the sky to be factored into designs. Where natural light is not readily available, project teams should find solutions to increase lighting to aid recovery and/or treatment. 

As the understanding around mental health and the factors that influence it develops, there is an opportunity for design and construction teams to further drive the support that buildings already provide. By keeping in mind core concepts such as maximising natural light, reducing noise pollution and optimising internal air quality, suppliers can shape a more nurturing built environment. 

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