This week I was talking to a family member about ‘sick building syndrome‘, a vague but nonetheless real phenomenon where a building makes people feel uncomfortable or unwell. There was a famous example in Stoke-on-Trent when I lived there. Unity House was built in 1973 as a new home for the council, but from the moment it opened it made people feel uneasy. It was dark and unwelcoming, access routes didn’t feel right, and staff just hated working in it. A flagship public building could hardly be vacated, so council officers struggled on with it for twenty years.
By the time I arrived in Stoke the council had given up and the building had been unoccupied for a decade. Because it was the tallest building in the city and a real landmark, it was a very visible reminder of failure and dereliction, but it couldn’t be re-purposed. Efforts to renovate it or turn it into flats never came to anything and it was knocked down in 2005.
There’s no medical definition of sick buildings, and neither is there anything in particular that a doctor could diagnose in the occupants. But the pattern is still observable: in this office people report headaches, itches, irritability and poor concentration. And in this office they don’t, even if it’s the same people doing the same job.
Over the years architects and experts have narrowed down the causes of the syndrome, and Harvard’s School of Public Health identify 9 foundations for a healthy building.
Some of these are obvious – clean air and water, getting the temperature right. Everyone wants to feel safe and secure. Others are more intuitive and harder to pin down – such as the views through and out of the building. You can explore all nine elements in more detail here.
As I’ve mentioned before with biophilic design, buildings that incorporate and mimic nature make us feel happier and healthier. Good ones make full use of natural light and ventilation, provide a line of sight to the outdoors, and keep us connected to the wider world.
Besides our own psychology, there’s another reason why it matters that buildings don’t disconnect us from nature. Many of us spend most of our time indoors, so a home or an office that shuts out the natural world pushes nature out of our minds. That’s not good for the planet – we want people to be aware of carbon emissions and resource footprints, to be mindful of our impact. Buildings that encourage us to see ourselves as part of the natural world, that situate us within nature, are bound to foster environmental stewardship better than those that isolate us.
I regularly write about sustainable architecture on the blog, but there are many different aspects to a good 21st century building. There are standards to meet on nature connection and on human health as well as sustainability, and they cross over more than we might think.