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  • Ryan Anderson, AIA/Principal/Lead Architect

Building Health Series (Part 6 of 6): Mental Health

Last in our series regarding the COVID-19 pandemic is more about how our surroundings affect our mental health and well-being from a building perspective. We'll touch on natural light, views, workstations, and our indoor environment in general. While this segment may not be directly related to mitigating spread of pathogens, it can sure do a lot for our overall well-being.

Architects are not psychologists or sociologists, however, every design we accomplish is interwoven with psychology and sociology by how a person physically and mentally experiences or interacts with others in a building. And while mental health is certainly not a tangible constructible piece of a building, we are still very mindful of how our designs impact and affect people on a daily basis as our designs significantly dictate how that happens.

During difficult times and especially during uncertain times, such as a pandemic, one's mental health becomes all the more important to be attentive to. Whether it's the physical volume of a space, quality or type of light in a space, access to views outdoors, the colors around us, or proximity and access to colleagues, these all can have a profound affect not only on mental health, but on productivity within the workplace as well. Let's look at a few strategies:

Outdoor Views - Having direct views outside has been shown to have a significant impact on employee productivity, mental health, and sleep patterns (producing a secondary effect of greater productivity at work) - whether landscape surrounding a building, views of the sky and clouds, or just general activity in the area, having views connecting a person to their surrounding environment is beneficial.

Lighting - Lighting is a critical component of any office environment and yet our eyes are naturally attuned to the natural daylight the earth receives every day. The more artificial the light we produce in indoor environments, the more strained our eyes become, which can affect overall health and mental wellness. This is all the more reason to utilize artificial lights that replicate daylight as much as possible and, when it's feasible, utilize natural daylighting, which has the secondary effect of producing vitamin D in our bodies, enhancing our mental health and well-being all the more.

Color - Color has a profound impact on how we experience spaces and the mood that we set. Natural earth tone colors are soothing and relaxing. Bright and vibrant colors can cause stress and anxiety. Other colors are associated with food and eating, while others are associated with depression or melancholy. However, there is a wide array of colors and color combinations that create balance even when using colors that are associated with the aforementioned traits. Many books have been written on the theory of color, so we won't delve into that much here, but it's very important to look beyond what is trendy or what your favorite color is to really understand how the color will be perceived and what will create the ambiance you need in your space.

Social Connection - Our ability to interact with those around us is very important - it allows us to connect to people, reinforces relationships, enables socializing, and is critical to developing the culture of an organization or even the micro-culture with those immediately in our surrounding spaces. As great as technology is in empowering remote work or virtual meetings, being able to visually and physically collaborate with those people in person goes a long way in maintaining one's well-being.

Workstations - Volume, adjustability, customizable, heating/cooling, fresh air. For those working in an office a majority of the time, our workspace is critically important. In hard-walled offices, the volume of our space can feel claustrophobic if too small, yet cavernous and empty if too big. Smaller spaces are more easily cluttered, which can be overwhelming and increase stress. Ergonomics should also be considered through proper chairs, productivity equipment, and even adjustable height workstations. Providing flexible office space that allows users to customize it to their preferences enhances ownership of that space and in turn satisfaction with their job. Proper heating and cooling can also affect well-being - spaces that are too hot, too cold, or not getting enough fresh air can impact comfort to the level of losing productivity and efficiency and also impacting our mental health.

What we've outlined above is just a cursory review of strategies and they are certainly more extensive and sometimes more nuanced than what we've presented. At a high level, they are just a few of many strategies that can help to bring some peace of mind to sometimes chaotic times and they are certainly beneficial regardless of the current state of affairs.

We hope this series has sparked some ideas for you and, if nothing else, at least started a conversation of what you can do to help mitigate pathogen risk at a basic level while at the same time improving the quality of life for yourself and those around you in your building.

Ryan is a Vice President at Ackerman-Estvold and the architecture team lead and has been applying his trade in the region around Minot for the past 17 years. If you have any questions throughout this series or would like more information on a particular topic, by all means contact us and we'd be more than happy to have a conversation.

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