Architecture, for health and well-being
By José Luis Manceras Rodríguez, Architect
Wellness: beyond necessity
The 21st century has brought with it a progressive search for individual wellbeing through healthy lifestyles. In these first two decades we have been able to contemplate how different theories and movements that emerged during the 20th century have been taking hold in a society that is increasingly committed to sustainability and health, the latter understood as «a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being», and not only as «the absence of disease or illness» as defined by the World Health Organisation – WHO – in its constitution back in 1946.
The latent change in this breeding ground has been accelerated by the traumatic outbreak in the throes of 2019 of the pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, during which we have witnessed the crystallisation of concepts such as wellness -a person’s conscious decision making, aimed at raising levels of well-being through a healthy life-. This approach to what is natural, healthy and sustainable has gone from being a trend to a new basic need to which we are called upon to respond.
A unique opportunity
As architects, we have the opportunity to participate in this change; to follow the path of great masters such as Alvar Aalto and his Healing Sanatoriums or Le Corbusier and his declaration of intent in the Athens Charter. We can also remember article 4 of the Statutes of the Official College of Architects of Malaga, which establishes «the general interest of society as a general principle of the College – and therefore of its members», or simply do what we have always done, continue to exercise our daily work professionally, without grandiloquence, but with the responsibility that comes from knowing the great weight of our decisions in the lives of the people who use and/or inhabit the buildings in which we intervene, regardless of the size of the commission.
Potential Health Impacts
The performance of our profession, given the enormous complexity of the construction process, involves a wide range of choices. Each of these, as we know, has repercussions on – or is conditioned by – design criteria, construction solutions, economic limitations and innumerable urban planning and technical regulations. We are all aware of these consequences, but rarely do we consider how these decisions directly influence the health of users . Considering that, statistically, we spend around 90% of our time indoors, this is a fundamental aspect to consider. However, apart from compliance with the Basic Health and Safety Document -DB-HS- of the Technical Building Code -CTE- or some municipal ordinance with vague criteria on natural lighting and ventilation, we often find ourselves lacking tools that allow us to understand these impacts and respond to them from our profession.
It is time to remember the WHO and its definition of health beyond the mere absence of disease. There is considerable scientific evidence of how the correct design of buildings accompanied by a careful selection of building systems and materials can positively influence the health and well-being of users. Thus, many categories are affected, one of the most important being indoor air quality, since in most buildings indoor air pollution levels are up to three to five times higher than those measured outdoors – even in urban environments. In this sense, the Regulation of Thermal Installations in Buildings -RITE- establishes adequate renovation levels to avoid this pollution overload -these levels reach the recommendation of the guide for ventilation in classrooms published by the CSIC to reduce COVID contagion-, however, when we are dealing with dwellings, the requirements of the DB-HS of the CTE may be insufficient. For example, by implementing carbon filters in air handling units, the discomfort associated with allergies can be drastically minimised and by sealing the ductwork during construction, dust can be prevented from being blown into the building during commissioning.
But it is not only the quality of the air that is conditioned by our decisions, but with these we can also improve the quality of the water, thus promoting its consumption to the detriment of sugary drinks, or, from the design stage, provide our building with quality lighting which, combined with measures and systems to alleviate noise and achieve adequate levels of thermal comfort, translates into a more suitable environment for the performance of the activity where concentration, problem-solving capacity and, therefore, productivity are favoured.
Continuing on this path, we can always go one step further and it is widely accepted that the presence of natural elements – be they plants, water or organic references – significantly reduces stress for people in indoor environments.
 Wolf, K.L., Krueger, S. and Flora, K. (2014). Work and Learning – A Literature Review. Good Heal. www.greenhealth.washington.edu. Accessed January 12, 2018.
In short, there are a considerable number of measures we can implement in our projects to improve health. There are even bodies in charge of certifying the level of well-being in these projects, but when it comes down to it, it is up to us to propose measures along these lines. Obviously, although it is almost utopian to apply them all, we must be aware that we hold the key to improving the living conditions of the people who use our architecture in every decision.
Case Study: Refurbishment and change of use of law office to biocompatible housing.
Within this way of practising the profession we share a commission prior to COVID-19 (2017/2018) which, however, due to a particular family situation – daughter with absolute neutropenia due to chemotherapy treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia since she was two years old – has served as a research laboratory within the field of the strong relationship between health and architecture that today we understand to be fundamental. We approach this presentation by succinctly listing the keys that made it possible to transform an abandoned law office into a healthy and comfortable dwelling in the SOHO district of the city of Malaga.
Practically since the beginning of human civilisation, it has been known how site selection provides a series of values which, being, in principle, alien to architecture, can be perfectly integrated into it in order to achieve a higher quality of the interior environment without energy costs. These vernacular principles are valid for both new buildings and renovations. Therefore, the first phase of the commission consisted of advising the family on the selection of the property to be refurbished in such a way that it complied with the following criteria:
– Main orientation south-southeast – best balance of solar irradiation and annual thermal needs. In addition to the orientation, the choice of a seventh floor allows the family to enjoy almost the entire solar arc between the autumn and spring equinoxes.
– Passing building -possibility of cross ventilation-.
– Location on a road with little road traffic -lower environmental pollution-.
– Distant views -visual comfort-. We are not talking about the not inconsiderable contribution to wellbeing that pleasant views make, but from the interior environment to obtain a sufficient amplitude of visual distances.
We are evolutionarily adapted to life in the open, but we live in enclosed spaces, so these views are essential to maintain the natural focusing ability of the human eye.
Secondly, the programme has been adapted to these bioclimatic conditioning factors, and there is a direct relationship between the position of the different parts that make up the house and its thermal, lighting, visual and ventilation needs. For example, although it is tempting to have a bedroom with spectacular views, these have been destined for the kitchen and family work or study spaces where it is more necessary to leave the short plane for those necessary moments of visual rest mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Thirdly, construction systems and materials respond to these conscious decisions towards a healthy environment -wellness- with direct repercussions on the quality of the indoor air, the main objective of the project being to improve it, given that, as we have explained, our built park is very deficient. In the refurbishment, a double-flow ventilation system with heat recovery, air treatment unit and active carbon filters was implemented in order to guarantee a continuous renewal of filtered outdoor air without compromising energy efficiency. We have designed a «centralised mask house» free of suspended dust, pollen and harmful particles. This system presents a great health improvement/cost overrun ratio in relation to the minimum systems required by the DB-HS of the CTE. On the other hand, cleaning materials and products are the main sources of indoor pollution, usually reaching values much higher than those recommended by the WHO. Nowadays, due to greater social awareness, there is a sufficient and economically accessible supply on the market of products free of substances such as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Formaldehyde (HCHO), which are very common in our sector and for which there is sufficient scientific evidence of their carcinogenic effects. With this in mind, wood – floorboards, carpentry and furniture – with E1 Certificates were required, as well as VOC-free paints, varnishes and decorative papers, while for the improvement of the thermal envelope, polystyrenes and polyurethanes were ruled out due to their harmful emissions – lethal in the event of fire – and vitreous fibres due to their possible relationship with pulmonary fibrosis.
A cross-cutting set of project decisions were also addressed with the clear objective of advancing on the path to health:
– Radiant surface air conditioning with thermal zoning.
– Liquid ceramic paints to minimise the temperature difference between surfaces and thus achieve a more comfortable operating temperature. This type of paint also has photocatalytic properties, which actively promotes the elimination of viruses and bacteria.
– Improved glazing systems for greater acoustic comfort.
– Indoor incorporation of natural plants to reduce stress levels and mental fatigue due to an ancestral human evolutionary component – we are adapted to life in nature. Plants chosen included Sansevieria trifasciata and Epipremnum aureum for their purifying capacity .
– PPR plastic water channels for their low water-polluting capacity.
Looking back, this experience allowed us to explore a way of doing architecture that is becoming more and more current. But if we look ahead, more and more developers are calling for the implementation of health criteria in the development of their project as an added value in property development, and this request is unanimous in cases where the client commissions their own home – once they have been informed.
And most importantly, that two-year-old girl will soon be eight years old with no memory of the disease.
Figure 1. Certified WELL Building Standard™ concepts.
Figure 2. Air handling unit with heat exchanger.
Figure 3. Furniture with E1-certified spruce wood, finished with mineral pigments and vegetable oils.
Figure 4. Incorporation of plants in indoor environment -Strelitzia augusta-.
*José Luis Manceras is an Architect, MAYAB Master and BREEAM ES Housing Certifier.