Observations | (Re)Building To Benefit Mental Health
COVID-19's Indirect Effects on Mental Health
The pandemic has dramatically changed the lifestyles of billions across the world. It has impacted the way we work, network, eat, and most importantly, the way we interact. The result of this will have a long-lasting impact on many of us both socially and mentally.
Social interaction is a key aspect of human behavior. Studies have shown that lack of social interaction affects mental and physical health. With people forced to spend most of their time indoors during this pandemic, statistics show an increase in anxiety, depression, and loneliness since March 2020. This pandemic has also negatively impacted our physical activity with no access to public fitness facilities like gyms, increased work-from-home schedules, increased reliance on deliveries when stores aren’t open for walk-ins due to safety precautions reduced our physical activity from commutes and office routines. People are now spending more than 90% of their time indoors. As architects and designers, we can take action to remedy these issues.
Braving the Elements
Studies suggest that increased exposure to nature is directly associated with decrease in feelings of social inadequacy, loneliness, and depression. Both public and private spaces are creating innovative design changes to ensure we can safely spend as much time outside as possible.
Parks and public gathering spaces have utilized signage and markings such as large, six-foot circles painted directly onto lawns to help visitors keep their distance without overcrowding. Not only does this give people the space they need to enjoy the outdoors when the weather is nice, but it also allows for social interaction with family and friends outside of the household.
For much of the world, outdoor gathering time is limited due to inclement weather. In Chicago, we've already seen the first snows that threaten the viability of outdoor dining. Earlier this year, the City of Chicago challenged people to push boundaries to explore the possibility of dining outdoor during this pandemic with the “Chicago Winter Dining Challenge.” The 60 winning ideas vary in cost and complexity, from outdoor heaters that allow diners to enjoy a meal in cold weather to igloo-like greenhouses that can ensure air is properly circulated and the elements can’t interfere with a night out.
Bringing the outside in.
While the above outdoor interventions can help us get out of our homes more frequently than we otherwise would, Midwesterners know the struggle of leaving the home when winter is at its dreariest. During these times, architects and designers can bring the outdoors and memories of warmer days inside. Take for example this living wall installed in the basement conference room of the Surgical Innovation and Training Laboratory designed by Bailey Edward and Cannon Design. Despite the lack of windows, such design details lets users feel closer to nature, even if they can’t see the outdoors:
Surgical Innovation and Training Laboratory at UIC by Bailey Edward and Cannon.
This concept of bringing nature indoors should be applied to residential and multi-family units as well. By installing living walls or even bringing in potted live plants to shared common areas, residents have a space to escape without facing the elements. Just as living plants need natural light to thrive, so do people. If natural light cannot be brought into a space via windows, some artificial lights can mimic the powers of the sun, increasing moods for people and allowing plants to continue to grow.
Windows offer more than just natural light to improve our mood. The views beyond the pane can also have mental health benefits. If possible, adjust ground coverage to accommodate larger open, green spaces for people to look out to. When the weather is nice again, residents can use this shared space to enjoy the outdoors.
As we spend more and more time in the home, it’ll be important to ensure we have the room we need to complete our day-to-day tasks without coming down with a case of cabin fever. Residences should be designed to be open and flexible to allow for all members of the household to have the space and privacy they need. While extra bedrooms and bathrooms are great for privacy, whether working from home or quarantining, they are a luxury not all existing households can afford. Consider movable partitions in large common areas to offer temporary privacy when the household has individual tasks to complete. When the household wants to socialize, the partitions can be removed to create room for everyone. Such partitions and dedicated spaces can also help maintain a healthy work-life balance, giving a physical, visual representation for when it is time to focus and when it is time to relax.
The Writing’s on the Walls
Of course, our connection to the outdoors does not dictate our moods. And though we all have our personal color preferences and there are recorded differences on the effect of colors based on gender, certain colors have been studied to be more conducive to certain behaviors. For instance, blue has been shown to facilitate better studying habits in university settings. The bright yellows and pale greens used in the common areas of Chicago Read Mental Health Center were chosen for their effects on patient positivity. Bailey Edward selected cool blues for the patient bedrooms areas for their calming, relaxing effects.
Chicago Read Mental Health Center by Bailey Edward.
While we may be isolating ourselves in order to protect our physical health, we do not need to completely sacrifice our mental health in doing so. As architects and designers, we should create spaces that will protect the mental and emotional well-being of the community. From simple changes to encourage proper social distancing to bringing nature inside to adding color and space theory to influence our moods, both outdoor and indoor spaces can be manipulated to help get us through this pandemic.
This article was possible thanks to the research of Bailey Edward’s Healthy Buildings group which focuses on the impacts architecture, engineering, and interior design have on physical and mental wellbeing. Many thanks to former BE Designer Meghna Majethiya for her hard work on this article. We wish you the best of luck in California where you will get plenty of sunshine and nature to enjoy!