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Challenging Housing to Respect Our Minds and Bodies

Posted on Aug 6 2018 - 6:30pm by Lance Edwards
Skidmore, Owings and Merrill focuses on health and well-being in the design of the 2018 Multifamily Executive Concept Community.

healthBy Brian Lee (MultiFamilyExecutive.com Article —  Today, there are many building standards that compete to qualify and quantify sustainability, but what if our design work is ultimately judged by how it promotes and nourishes our health and wellness?

SOM, an interdisciplinary practice of architects, engineers, planners, and designers, thrives on the expertise of diverse talents working together on the built environment. And we’ve discovered that successful innovation also comes from strong design connections to science and research relating to the fundamental aspects of engineering, medicine, and sociology.

For the 2018 MFE Concept Community, we’re partnering with AMLI Residential, a multifamily developer that places great emphasis in their projects on improving the quality of life. In a study of Chicago, where SOM is based, we reviewed several surveys from AMLI as well as third-party, national studies that ask what features renters prefer in their homes and which sustainable elements they feel are worthwhile. We also spoke to various building-standard organizations to see how targets of sustainability, wellness, and performance intersect in healthy environments.

Looking at data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) and the World Health Organization (WHO), there are several modifiable risk factors for morbidity and mortality that can be mitigated by design strategies. We believe targeted design responses to a focused set of goals could provide tangible improvement to health and wellness in multifamily housing.

The Air We Breathe
We may think we’re lucky we don’t live amid unhealthy levels of PM (particulate matter) like those prevalent in cities of developing countries, but the fact remains that the air in Chicago, for example, has spores, pollen, household VOCs, mold, dust, and vehicle or industrial pollution such as ozone, all contributing to allergies, asthma, and lung disease. As we expect the electrical grid to become cleaner in the future, part of the solution is to move to fully electrified buildings and vehicles to minimize combustion of fossil fuels, a major cause of pollution in our cities.

In our project, we studied the standards of 18 countries and the WHO to arrive at a new air-quality standard that’s more stringent than current U.S. standards and resets the requirements to protect the needs of younger, older, and more vulnerable populations. Advocating for abundant natural ventilation in our buildings is a good first step, but air quality can now be easily monitored with sensors to determine whether air should be brought in freely through windows or be treated with HVAC filters and dehumidification.

For tightly insulated buildings, it’s especially important to improve air quality. In addition to operable windows, baffled outside air apertures will help mitigate surrounding noise. A cross-ventilated unit is worth considering in exploring how to overcome limits posed by internal multifamily corridors and fire codes. We’ve also been studying how phytoremediation—using plant roots and soil to remove benzines, formaldehydes, and other VOCs and contaminants—can be integrated into air systems.

Light and Our Daily Rhythms
Natural daylight has physical and psychological powers to heal. It is sometimes estimated that 42% of Americans have a Vitamin D deficiency, an illness that can be treated with direct sunlight. Our body’s circadian rhythms, the daily cycles of our wakefulness and sleep, are affected by our brain chemistry and light. We know that students are more alert and attentive in classrooms that have abundant natural light. Seniors are regularly encouraged to spend time outdoors in bright light to reset their circadian rhythms, allowing them to get a full night of sleep.

In addition to providing carefully placed and sized windows in apartment units, utilizing balconies or solariums can add essential access to direct and reflected natural light. Double and triple glazing, dynamic glass (electronic controlled tinting), and shading elements all contribute to balancing daylight penetration with energy performance.

We’re also integrating controllable light-color fixtures in the Concept Community unit that tune to brighter, blue lighting during the day and warm-tone lighting in the evening (as on smartphone screens), matching the circadian rhythm of our bodies (see illustration below).

Restorative Sleep
Poor sleep habits affect our performance, personality, and overall health. Apartment units can nurture better sleep habits by allowing the control of light quality and color, noise, carbon dioxide concentration, and temperature to foster the restorative powers of sleep.

For the Concept Community, we’re also exploring how the size and configuration of the bedroom in today’s unit should optimize space and create a flexible, personalized environment. How can the bedroom provide the comforting qualities of a cocoon but be able to transform itself when more space is needed?

Quality Eating
High on the list of causes of death are modifiable health factors related to diet. Asking ourselves whether design affects how we eat, we thought the unit kitchen must be a place that encourages proper cooking and eating with smart, digital appliances and well laid out, convenient storage, preparation, and eating spaces.

Considering the refrigerator as the highest energy-consuming appliance with direct resident control, can we reduce its size by using cabinetry with dry, cool storage to increase the consumption of fresher, more flavorful food?

Taking it a step further, the building design should celebrate cooking and eating in common areas with a communal kitchen and farm table for group food preparation, sharing, and eating to promote peer support for healthy diets. Here, hosting cooking and diet classes can become welcomed amenities and services.

With new trends in grocery shopping/ordering, takeout, and, eventually, drone delivery, thoughtful access should be integrated into the project. A grocery store or restaurant on-site is a positive amenity for any housing development.

In Chicago, several urban farm organizations leverage their food production by integrating their facilities with restaurants and bars. In addition to a “farm to fork” flow, these restaurants and bars can recycle waste into compost and send it back to the farm operation for a symbiotic, sustainable relationship.

Rooftop greenhouses for food production and ground-level restaurants can be integrated in project parking garages, each expanding to meet increased demand as parking requirements are reduced in the autonomous-vehicle future.

Use It to Lose It
Another leading cause of death is a high body mass index. An important goal of our study was to build in measures to combat obesity and inactivity. Certainly gyms, exercise rooms, and outdoor fitness areas are expected amenities today. Advocating using a bicycle instead of a car for commuting means it’s important to provide convenient access to bicycle-sharing programs, personal bicycle storage, in-house maintenance shops, or space for a bike in the unit itself.

We also wanted to encourage deliberate exercise by creating everyday walking routes that add steps to the daily routine. We’re renewing the “skip stop” elevator concept by having elevators stop every third floor combined with one flight of stairs up or down, to literally place residents on a healthier path to their units. The elevators would still stop at every level for service access and disabled access but would work in concert with inviting, open stairs to promote a small daily dose of exercise and a chance for positive encounters with other tenants.

How Clean Is Too Clean?
As a modern society, we’ve moved toward a lifestyle of almost sterile hygiene that in fact may be devoid of the important microbes that support effective digestive and immune systems. Research has shown that our microbiomes—the human, animal, and environmental collection of micro-organisms—are interrelated for good health.

Rather than relying on probiotic supplements to reintroduce microbes into the body, we’re considering how fresh air, water treatment, natural organic building materials, gardens with dirt and flora, and even pets help provide the balance of health our bodies seek. We’re anticipating a time when digital health-feedback devices will be a common component of the unit for residents to measure their daily wellness.

Connecting With Nature
Gardens for healing and contemplation have been designed in health-care settings to generate positive patient outcomes. In a similar vein, we believe nature should be an essential component of multifamily housing, not a landscaping afterthought.

The greening of city streets and the creation of heavily landscaped plazas and courts has contributed to Chicago’s “Urbs in Horto” (City in the Garden) aura. Additionally, we’re exploring making the Concept Community unit smaller, more efficient, and more flexible than the standard unit while increasing the amount of indoor–outdoor landscaped common rooms that coordinate with the three-story elevator stops.

Phytoremediation green walls could be integrated with natural “stack effect” air movement. Potentially, a rooftop herb, vegetable, or flower conservatory could have physiological benefits for building residents and visitors. For the residential units, a solarium concept could mitigate Chicago’s severe winter weather and extend tenants’ connections to plants, sun, and fresh air.

Healthy Building Materials
With increased public interest in the potential effect of building products on resident health, the industry is more aware than ever of the potential of some materials to contain carcinogens or other disease-causing substances. Such consumer awareness has led to strong worldwide interest in the inclusion of safe, nontoxic materials in construction.

Labels and standards such as material “red lists” and product declarations have transformed the market and continue to challenge those of us in the development and design professions to be transparent in our specification and use of various building products, enabling consumers and specifiers to better understand the presence of accumulated contaminants inside their homes.

Occupant health can also be amplified with biophilic design elements. For example, traditional materials such as wood now have scientific support for their restorative qualities and power to increase our ability to relax and reduce mental fatigue. Mass timber use in tall buildings is at the cusp of widespread code, construction, and market acceptance, echoing the appeal of using natural materials in construction.

The Concept Community’s unit design seeks to incorporate a simple and elegant material palette with selective organic elements, reducing the unit’s chemical content and increasing its compatibility with our natural world. Various surfaces, colors, and aromas can affect our senses and neurological behavior, enabling us to differentiate between nurturing and alienating environments.

The Social Fabric
Chicago’s downtown growth and vibrancy are a result of its residents’ attraction to the life and energy of the city’s social fabric. Multifamily housing is an important building block for density and should be a natural extension of this vibrancy.

While each apartment unit should offer the option of full privacy, our project promotes socialization via amenity and common spaces. A resident’s measure of happiness often factors in convenience and price but is also connected to one’s feelings about his or her place of residence—a sense of security, personalization, connections with others, intimacy, meaning, and avoiding isolation. Highest on a survey of sustainability we studied was being able to recycle—again, that sense of belonging and doing good.

Through the 2018 MFE Concept Community, we hope to discover how behavior, physical and mental health, and the built environment can foster a sense of wellness and healthy living.