How to Design a Home That Boosts Wellbeing

Hume Director Itai Palti speaks to Houzz about neuroscientific studies is being used to help create spaces that will improve the well-being of those who live in them.

Original article published in Houzz

Architects and designers are increasingly looking to science for proof that buildings have an impact on our mental health. In neuroarchitecture, evidence from neuroscientific studies is being used to help create spaces that will improve the well-being of those who live in them.

“Today we use the term neuroarchitecture to describe how the brain and body behave in buildings,” says Eve Edelstein, director of the Human Experience (Hx) Lab at global architecture and design firm Perkins & Will and one of the pioneers of neuroarchitecture. “Our brain’s senses, perceptions, thoughts, emotions and actions respond to the air we breathe, the quality of light, the intensity of sound and the color, texture and dimension of all places.”

We’ve taken a closer look at some of these studies to see how science can help you design a home that’s good for you. Here are seven ways to incorporate the ideas into your home.

1. Keep Calm

“We live in a society that’s overworked and overstimulated, and this has a huge effect on our well-being,” says Itai Palti, director of Hume, a science-informed architecture and urban design practice in London. “Our homes are usually the only place where we have a choice of how much stimulation we’re exposed to.”

He recommends incorporating calm areas within your home. “Create spaces free of digital distractions and conducive to healthy interactions with family and friends,” he says. “This doesn’t necessarily mean a minimalist room — it could be a balcony for gardening or a hobby room, for example.”

“I suggest the most important neuroarchitectural principle is to design around people, and not the TV,” Edelstein says. “Position yourself to enjoy the sun when it’s out, make quiet spots for study and create spaces that support the value of people coming together.”

2. Let There Be Light

Exposure to light is important for maintaining the body’s natural rhythm, and sunlight during the day is key. “The science of vision informs us that daylight is more powerful than electric light,” Edelstein says. “Begin with the architecture and the location of windows for sunlight, and arrange furniture and shading to allow for morning light, to shade intense heat and to provide darkness at night.

“While you’re thinking about this, don’t forget the relaxing and invigorating value of a view,” Edelstein says.

Locate your largest windows in rooms you’ll use during the day, such as the kitchen, and arrange furniture to benefit from the light coming in. If you work from home, make sure your desk is close enough to a window that you can pause to enjoy a view of the outdoors and take in the sunlight.

3. Tone It Down

As important as it is to maximize daylight, it’s also crucial to minimize light at other times.

“We now know that both light and darkness are very important to our biological clocks, or circadian rhythms,” Edelstein says. “Yet our homes and our cities are bathed in light that flows through into our bedrooms, or from computers and phones, exposing us to light from morning through nighttime.”

“To not be exposed to blue light, or too much light, in the evening is crucial for a heathy circadian rhythm, which affects your sleep, your mood and even your eating habits and digestion,” Palti says.

Plan a layered lighting scheme with lamps and dimmer switches, as low lighting will help your mind and body unwind in the evening. Keep screens out of the bedroom and invest in light-blocking window treatments.

4. Shut Out the Noise

Sound has a big impact on our well-being and affects us differently at different times, Edelstein says. “The field of psychoacoustics reminds us that what is a pleasant sound at one moment may be unwanted at another,” she says.

“Within our homes, we can apply these principles to manage where sound goes when we need to concentrate, communicate or rest by using absorptive or reflective materials to distribute sound differently,” she says.

In this room, for instance, the architects installed acoustic paneling in a shared wall to avoid noise transference between the house and its neighbor. They also installed a pocket door that can be closed in the evening to create a quieter space.

For more immediate ways to manage noise, think about incorporating soft materials and artwork in your room to absorb sound.

5. Connect With Nature

“Have you ever wondered why the flicker of leaves or the sparkle of water is so engaging or relaxing, and why many choose to invest more in homes that offer beautiful views?” Edelstein asks.

An explanation can be found in the biophilia hypothesis, which was defined by Edward O. Wilson in the 1980s as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” Palti cites a seminal study that showed that the recovery rates of hospital patients were better among those who had a view of a natural scene.

In our homes, we can apply this by ensuring we have a connection with living things. Incorporate glass to provide a view of greenery outside, and include natural materials in the design of your interior.

Being close to water is also highly beneficial for our mental and physical health, and an ongoing research project, BlueHealth, led by the University of Exeter in England, is looking into this more closely.

Of course, we can’t all live near an ocean, river or lake, but by incorporating a water feature into your outdoor space, you can enjoy the restorative effects. If space is tight, there are plenty of alternatives to a pond, such as a fountain like the one seen here.

6. Be Smart With Space

Research has shown that people often see open spaces as more beautiful than enclosed ones, but this doesn’t mean your rooms have to be large.

Palti says it’s important to look at preferences in context. “One might judge a smaller space as more beautiful than a large one if it’s better designed,” he says. “We also know of many open spaces we’d rather not hang around in, and many small, cozy spaces that we deem beautiful. We use a User-Affordance-Space formula, which means we home in on someone’s specific needs.”

The key is to design a room that feels spacious and functions well, rather than focusing on size or whether it’s open-plan or not. This tiny living room, for example, has been designed with plenty of glass to create a connection to the outside, and the layout ensures there’s a feeling of flow.

7. Cull the Clutter

If you’ve been putting off decluttering your home, scientific data might give you the motivation you need. In a study on the link between procrastination and clutter by Joseph Ferrari and Catherine Roster, respondents with cluttered homes reported lower life satisfaction.

“This again plays on the concept of cognitive load,” Palti says, “and the effect of overstimulation and distraction from the environment.”

It makes sense, then, to put storage at the top of your list when designing your home. Declutter first, so you’re left with the final edit of your belongings, then plan the storage to match your needs.