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How Architecture, Nature, and Health Intertwine

January 22nd, 2015 by

Today, when an architect talks about the environment and architecture, sustainability is often the first topic of conversation. Yet beyond that, there is much more to consider than energy conservation and natural resources. Aesthetic and emotional components must also factor in to the design equation. Certainly, the natural environment is a core part of sustainability, but is that enough?

If we, as architects, endeavor to design and build a sustainable environment, is it not also imperative to consider the positive response nature elicits? Research has shown time and again that significant health benefits can occur when simply viewing a natural setting. As social scientists Kathleen Wolf and Elizabeth Housley explain in a 2014 publication, “Reflect and Restore: Urban Green Space for Mental Wellness,” “physiological measures of stress are restored to desirable, more healthful levels when study participants have either been placed within or view of green spaces.”

Children may be capable of achieving even more benefits from natural surroundings, according to Nancy Wells, an environmental psychologist in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University. “Having nature close to a home protects the psychological well-being of children, and the impact is strongest for children with the highest levels of stressful life events,” Wells explains in an article highlighting her research.

As these and other studies reveal, integrating nature into architecture comes with major benefits, but how can this be accomplished in so many different site situations? NorthBay Environmental Education Camp, envisioned to provide a camp experience for underserved children, is located on a bluff surrounded by wetlands and forests and overlooking the scenic Chesapeake Bay. The camp’s individual buildings sit at the edge of a grassy plateau on the site’s highest point, creating a central green space as the heart of the campus.

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The dining hall and administration building, two places every camper visits, serve as the main entries to the campus’ outdoor central green. This, in turn, enables students to quickly orient themselves to the camp’s facilities and rural setting.

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Other connections to the landscape are realized in the design. These include the Water Lab, built as an extension of the pier; the deck hovering over the wetlands; and the zip line that carries daredevil campers from the elevated Education Building to the bay waters below. Open natural spaces also provide opportunities for recreation and social interaction, two additional benefits of incorporating nature into built environments.

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Nature and urban spaces
People living and working in urban environments have an even greater need for green spaces, given the many perceived stressors of urban life. In fact, research conducted in a variety of American cities shows that the percentage of natural open space in people’s living environment has a positive association with the general health of residents, particularly in lower socioeconomic groups. “Elderly, youth, and secondary-educated people in large cities seem to benefit more from the presence of green areas in their living environment than other groups in large cities,” according to a study from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

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Architects sometimes approach urban design with the preconception that nature must be “inserted” into the urban fabric, but many cities were developed around natural elements — a confluence of rivers, an inner harbor, a valley. Urban architecture can take advantage of these and other natural amenities. Harborview Pier Housing, for instance, was constructed on existing unused pier pilings to create townhomes that literally hover above Baltimore’s inner harbor. The city also offers vertical living and associated outdoor spaces that give residents a view, not of their neighbors but of the open sky.

In many of our multi-family urban projects, we provide open spaces on rooftops, far from the street noise and congestion. These landscaped roof areas provide rainfall retention, heat island relief, and insulation value. Yet with these (and other) sustainability benefits, residents find a peaceful place closer to nature and a stronger ability to balance their lives.

To learn more about the link between architecture and health, read one of my other posts, “Architecture with Health and Wellness in Mind.”