Human and planetary health are so closely connected and more and more we are realising that design that is good for planetary health is in fact better for human health too.
When it comes to thinking about the spaces we inhabit, understanding health from a human and planetary perspective is a great lens for developing sustainable design. So often, design choices that lead to more energy-efficient, environmentally positive outcomes will also benefit human health.
Integral design strategies such as natural ventilation and natural lighting should be the first port of call on any design project, if the external conditions allow. Access to natural light and fresh air is deeply connected to our mental wellbeing and also reduces our reliance on artificial light and mechanical ventilation, reducing our reliance on energy.
Design for natural ventilation and shading can reduce reliance on air conditioning or mechanical ventilation systems in hot summer months or warmer climates. Rotating shading fins have been used in this project by MGF Arkitekten.
Design for natural light in this project by FMD Architects reduces the need for artificial lighting with high level windows for overall brightness but also low levels windows for task light and views when sitting.
In addition to this, one of the best ways to move towards sustainable design strategies is to look at less energy-intensive materials. Problematic materials include concrete or plastics-based products. Concrete is particularly worrying, as the cement industry is the most energy-intensive industry in the world, also contributing to huge amounts of pollution. Plastics-based products are also an issue due to the petrochemicals required in manufacturing. Examples of this are things like vinyl or acrylic-based wall paints and anything using glue (as a side note, glue is an issue in all construction materials as it makes end-of-life recycling and deconstruction almost impossible).
Lime paints have a much smaller environmental impact as they avoid the use of petrochemicals, but also don't contribute to off-gassing which can cause interior pollution, resulting in health issues.
Low impact design should instead focus on finishes that require low-energy processes and use less natural resources to create the finished product. These could include materials such as stone, terracotta, and wood. Another interesting example here is using mineral or lime paints. Rather than being applied as a plastic film, these paints bond with the surface of the wall. As well as being less harmful in the production process, these paints have the added win-win that they do not result in off-gassing of VOCs and ammonia. Off-gassing results in higher levels of indoor pollution, causing a range of both short and long-term health issues.
Terracotta is comparatively low in embodied energy, and when used as an interior finish can be long lasting. The material brings in natural texture and tones which contributes to a greater sense of connection to nature, which has been shown to improve mood and overall wellbeing, as shown in this project by Mas-aqui.
Designing elegant structure that can be visually expressed reduces the need for additional interior finishes, as shown in this project by Grey Griffiths Architects. Adding finishes to conceal structure would not only demand more material to be used on the project but could lead to sheet materials or paints being used that could result in harmful off-gassing.
Taking the idea of low-impact materials a step further, there is an amazing amount of innovation happening in the development of materials manufactured from waste products. Products as sheet material from recycled plastics, bricks made from construction waste, and vegan leather made from fruit waste. These products divert material from landfill, but often also demonstrate an interesting finish that acts as a way of telling a sustainability ‘story’, which can capture people’s attention.
These glass sheets are made entirely using waste glass bottles, which are reformed into panels at low temperatures to reduce energy demand, resulting in this marbles glass pattern.
‘Fruit leather’ is an innovate leather alternative being developed by an ingenious pair in Rotterdam, using fruit waste to create an animal friendly textile.
For a company, this could help to communicate a sustainability ethos or to inspire building users to take a more environmentally conscious approach. We shouldn’t underestimate our emotional response to tactile or visual cues and how powerful this is in connecting us to the story behind something.
It is important to consider how we can encourage building users to feel emotionally invested in understanding and promoting sustainability. One key way this can be brought into a project is through the inclusion of nature or natural materials in design. The more connected with nature we are in our day-to-day lives and the deeper an understanding we have of our environment, the more empowered we are to make positive changes towards protecting it.
Stone Cycling has created these ‘waste based bricks’, making use of waste products to save it from landfill.
Creating a relationship to nature within buildings has proven benefits to human health, with various studies showing direct benefits for mental wellbeing, mood, productivity, and reduction in long-term health issues. For sustainable design projects, this relationship should always be central to our thinking. By delivering design that is better for humans, this is often achieved by pursuing more sustainable design practices.
- Maria Henshall
Mineral or lime paints are an alternative to plastics based wall paints, avoiding the use of petrochemicals and offgassing of chemicals and VOCs.
Bathrooms using natural timber finishes can smell amazing, reducing the need for artificial air fresheners that are detrimental to lung health.
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