How Design Can (And Should) Inspire Wellness

Buildings form the context for most of our lives. However, their function extends further than just a roof over our heads. The environments that they enable play a role in ensuring both our physical and mental wellbeing.

The key aspects of a building that create and promote health and wellbeing are well documented by public health professionals and academics. However, scholars at Harvard have identified a disconnect between this information and the actual construction, design, and implementation process.

In order to bridge the many gaps between estate professionals, building owners, hospital administrators, facilities directors, homeowners, and academics, we will explore the nine foundations of a healthy building that can be referenced by all stakeholders to ensure the buildings are created and maintained for optimal wellbeing.

The 9 Foundations

In this section, we will cover what the nine foundations of a healthy building are, why they are important, and ways that you can ensure your building is creating the best environment for its occupants, regardless of for work or play.


Not only does poor ventilation make spaces stuffy and unpleasant to be in, increased air pollutants can cause many different harms, to the extent that such symptoms have been called sick building syndrome (SBS).

In fact, some studies have found that better ventilation results in increased productivity and health. Between the comorbidity of SBS symptoms and increased absenteeism, the benefits of higher ventilation rates and quality far outweigh the energy costs, and that doesn’t even consider the difference when using more advanced low-energy systems.

Local guidelines provide the minimum outdoor air ventilation rate to control odours, chemicals, and carbon dioxide produced in facilities. It is also important to draw outdoor air from non-polluted sources and always filter the air coming in or out.

Ventilation systems also influence temperature, humidity and air pressure. In addition to higher ventilation rates, improved maintenance of HVAC systems can significantly improve air quality. Commissioning systems, conducting regular maintenance and monitoring ventilation in real-time to prevent and resolve ventilation issues promptly.

Air Quality

Did you know that our largest exposure to pollutants occurs indoors?

Because we typically spend 90% of our time in offices, schools and residences, improving the indoor air quality (IAQ) of such spaces is imperative. In fact, indoor pollutants pose higher human health risks than those outdoors due to stricter regulations.

IAQ levels not only influence health and wellbeing, but they also impact productivity through effects on cognitive function and absenteeism. Poor IAQ also disproportionately affects vulnerable individuals, such as children and the elderly.

There are also significant economic benefits from cleaner indoor environments. Combined costs of productivity loss, healthcare costs, and building damages can result in hefty sums. In the US alone, the savings and productivity gains from improved indoor environments have been estimated at $25 to $150 billion per year.

You can limit your air pollutant footprint by carefully choosing supplies, furnishings, and building materials with low chemical emissions, paying particular attention to chemicals of concern.

Maintaining humidity levels between 30-60% will mitigate odour issues and mold growth. Always make sure to conduct annual air quality testing to ensure your systems are functioning properly.

Thermal Health

Comfort cannot be achieved without meeting the proper levels of temperature and humidity levels, which is necessary for productivity and performance. Regulating thermal conditions can also influence physical and emotional wellbeing. Additionally, certain environments have been found to facilitate the spread of viruses and bacteria.

Extreme heat events are increasing in frequency due to global warming and pose significant health risks. Indoor temperatures can even exacerbate such risks if not properly managed. Having advanced systems in place that can maintain thermal stability in cases of extreme heat can be a preventative measure against averse health repercussions, even heat-related mortality.

Using sensors and other such systems can help regulate temperature and humidity in real-time to maintain comfort throughout the day, regardless of changing use and occupancy.


Entrance of water into damaged, poorly designed, and improperly maintained buildings has been identified as the main source of building-related illness from mold exposure. Mold exposure is also a leading cause of asthma but can also cause a variety of allergic reactions in non-sensitive individuals.

These adverse health effects can have serious social and economic repercussions due to the seriousness of the illnesses they can induce.

Regular inspections of roofing, plumbing, ceilings and HVAC equipment to identify potential condensation spots, and secondary sources of moisture must be properly controlled against.

Mold can grow in hidden places, meaning even rigorous cleaning procedures are insufficient for its control. Mold must be dealt with immediately, and contaminated materials must be replaced, and adjust your systems to eliminate the source of the moisture issue.

Dust & Pests

Dust and dirt can accumulate to become reservoirs for chemicals, allergens, and metals, so cleaning surfaces regularly and using high-efficiency filter vacuums limits these hazards.

Pests introduce allergens that can cause immune responses. Pest management is best done when emphasis is put on preventative measures, such as sealing entry points, removing trash, and preventing water buildup. Training building management to prevent and respond to pest problems. Pesticides should only be used as a last resort, as their use can also pose a health hazard.

Safety & Security

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shows that safety and security are basic fundamental needs and required for our ability to thrive. While also maintaining the safety of our possessions and person, the feeling of safety also secures our emotional and mental wellbeing. Buildings play a critical role in making us feel safe and keeping us secure.

Our “fight or flight” responses triggered by our sense of security being threatened can alter our physical and psychological functioning. Prolonged exposure to stresses or feelings of threat can negatively impact long-term health by placing huge amounts of stress on our bodies and wearing down our immune systems. It can also result in the development of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. Ultimately, the responses and behaviours that result from fear can adversely impact psychological and physical health and lessen quality of life, productivity, and performance in both the short- and long-term.

Meeting fire safety and carbon monoxide monitoring standards is required by law and testing such systems cannot be left up to their performance in crisis scenarios. Providing ample lighting in areas such as stairways, common areas, emergency points, parking lots, and entryways will help keep everyone safe and feeling secure. Video monitoring can reinforce the security of your building, enabling effective patrols and incident reporting.

A comprehensive emergency action plan and mechanism for communication to building occupants will ensure the safety of everyone if a crisis situation arises.

Water Quality

Water is the essential nutrient of life, and so ensuring and maintaining clean water sources is absolutely essential. Contaminants can come from a variety of sources, both internal and external.

Maintaining and upgrading your water servicing systems and conducting regular maintenance will reduce the chances of contamination. Make sure you test water quality regularly or install systems to monitor cleanliness automatically. Install water purification system for removal of newly identified contaminants, if necessary. Ensure residual disinfectant levels are sufficient to control microbes but not in excess. Prevent water stagnation in pipes.


Noises such as traffic, aircraft, and construction can be highly distracting and sometimes distressing, interfering with communication and concentration. Noise exposure can be exhausting and over-stimulating, leading to more long-term risk for occupants.

Blocking outside noise should be a priority during design and construction. Some facility functions or elements can also generate a lot of internal noise; this should also be considered and controlled.

The potential noise disruptions that affect work satisfaction and productivity that are more frequent in open-plan office spaces should be weighed with the other benefits of such floorplans.

Lighting & Views

Light not only allows for vision but is also used by the brain and body to regulate all sorts of physiological functions. The built environment should take into consideration both of these important functions, as they are necessary to reduce eye strain and headaches and ensure proper rest, performance, and cognitive ability.

In addition, studies have shown that exposure to natural landscapes can have positive psychological effects such as faster recovery from stress and mental fatigue, lower blood pressure, and increased physical activity.

Thoughtful construction can take advantage of natural light, which not only saves you on costs but will also improve the visual comfort of those inside it. Aim to provide vision to exterior windows from all workstations. Using blue-enriched light in the daytime and blue-depleted light in the evenings will improve rest and overall wellbeing.

Creating appealing outdoor spaces around your building will encourage people to go outside. In addition, using natural or nature-inspired materials and design elements can help make your space more tranquil.

Additional Tips

Below are two additional recommendations the study provides that increase occupant satisfaction and health.

Smoking Policy

Abiding by public health guidelines is necessary as a minimum effort, and many occupants will appreciate never encountering second-hand smoke on your property. Establish and enforce a smoke-free policy indoors and provide a designated smoking area in an accessible but low-traffic zone.

Active Design

Choosing elements that will encourage activity will improve the health of all occupants, such as inviting staircases and recreation areas, while ensuring that all spaces remain fully accessible.

Ergonomic furnishings will also improve the physical wellbeing of your occupants as it will limit the development of chronic physical injuries and make them more likely to participate in other physical activities.


We often think about buildings as a shell for where life happens, when in fact, they play a significant role in how that life happens. Being thoughtful about design can improve the health and safety of all occupants as well as the integrity of the building greatly. Maintenance plays a large role in maintaining these positive outcomes and benefits, which can be enhanced by using internet of things (IoT) systems and sensors, as well as integrated workplace management systems (IWMS) to track, control, and monitoring.

Horizant offers customizable and scalable IWMS solutions to fit your unique needs. Contact our team today to learn how we can help you optimize your space!