Health and wellbeing is a huge talking point, no matter what industry you work in. For architecture and construction, new building standards and product certification are helping to conquer the commercial sector as the biophilic office proves a return on investment. What we are lacking though are examples of this approach working in the mainstream residential sector. Where there are examples, they’re mostly one-off private homes or in the premium Build to Rent sector. So, the crucial question is: Can we build affordable healthy homes at scale?
This was the topic of discussion put to four experts at a seminar dedicated to this subject at WoodFest Sheffield: Edward Murphy, founder and managing director at building performance consultancy, Ollio; Sarah Wigglesworth, director at Sarah Wigglesworth Architects and principal investigator for the DWELL design research project at the University of Sheffield; Kevin McGeough, director of Ebbsfleet Healthy New Town programme; and Miranda Plowden, business development director at South Yorkshire Housing Association.
Any industry looking to futureproof its sector should look to another for inspiration when it recognises changes need to be made. For those building homes, there are numerous examples of healthy design in commercial spaces that can be transferred to the residential sector.
Recognising the need for healthy homes isn’t a new issue though. The Wellcome Collection recently hosted an exhibition about Living with Buildings with a focus on health and architecture. The exhibition showcased examples of 19th century slum housing and the initiatives that followed to improve housing and occupant health. Poor ventilation was a huge issue at the time and continues to be so now.
But our thinking around what makes a healthy building has progressed and Edward Murphy reminds us of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) definition of health: “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing.” This is what a building’s design needs to accommodate.
Edward looks to the WELL Standard for guidance. For those unfamiliar with the WELL Standard, it focuses on eight key features: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Fitness, Comfort, Mind and Innovation. A building is registered to meet the WELL Standard and assessed on set criteria. If it meets the standard, it is awarded certification from bronze through to platinum level.
Commenting on where the UK is currently in its approach to healthy buildings, Edward said: “Wellness is not just physical, it is mental and psychological. The demand for health preserving buildings is here and it is growing.”
One initiative that is attempting to address this issue is the Healthy New Towns (HNT) programme. Established by NHS England, a healthy new town encourages architects and planners to incorporate health and wellbeing into the design of homes and beyond into the community. NHS England, through HNT, is proposing a Quality Mark for homes and neighbourhoods.
Kevin McGeough, who leads on the Ebbsfleet Healthy New Town Programme which has been piloting the concept, explained that a version has developed with the working title ‘HomesPlus’. At the moment it is a proposed benchmark for quality homes and neighbourhoods which will feed into and help shape the national proposal, but as yet isn’t a reality.
While the discussion around the UK housing crisis has very much been dominated by the quantity of new homes per annum, the government’s recently re-invigorated call for design quality may give rise to new hope for better homes being built in the future.
Better homes mean future proofing homes. Older people are living longer, and homes need to be more flexible and adaptable to better meet the needs of people throughout the life course, particularly downsizers. This was the aim of the University of Sheffield design research project, DWELL (Designing for Wellbeing in Environments for Later Life). Sarah Wigglesworth and the research team developed their own criteria to understand wellbeing in movement, sound, materials and community. Using these principles, the team developed a layout for a multi-generational neighbourhood offering dwellers opportunities for informal social encounters in the rituals of everyday life, contact with the natural world and accessible public services.
Sharing her conclusions from the research project, Sarah said: “We know how to design great housing and what will support longevity, autonomy and wellbeing. We need the housing suppliers to respond with new models of housing to support adequate quality of life.
Sarah also showcased some modular housing prototypes created for the Home Group made from cross-laminated timber (CLT), a building material known for its adaptability, health benefits and carbon sequestering ability. It’s also a quicker way to build, often saving costs on site, has fewer defects and does not rely on skilled workers. Similar benefits can be achieved using prefabricated timber frame or SIPS.
Sarah continued: “We need to design for the long term. This is important for climate change impact, and we need to build community cohesion through attention to the broader issues of planning, location and access to services. Housing should consider everyone’s needs as people, not simply offer a niche product that works as a business model. Our findings around the ageing population show that what works for older people works for everyone.”
NHS Healthy Towns and projects like DWELL show healthy homes can be delivered at scale, but how can we achieve greater affordability?
For Miranda Plowden, this is her key concern at South Yorkshire Housing Association. Housing associations want to achieve higher standards, particularly to support their customers’ health and wellbeing. But land prices and low property values make it difficult to make quality housing commercially viable. Providing quality social housing is reliant on grants and these have been cut in recent years, so housing associations struggle to provide the homes they want their clients to live and thrive in.
All the speakers agreed that we know how to build good homes, we just don’t do it. Both Miranda Plowden and Kevin McGeough agreed that offsite construction can play a key role in delivering sustainable homes. Kevin commented “We developed modern method of construction solutions ten years ago, we just never built them. It’s not new, we just need to get started.”
Offsite solutions such as timber frame and CLT have been used for affordable homes at scale. But the health benefits these projects deliver are usually a bonus rather than an intention. Referring to the WELL Standard, they create a healthier living environment through improved indoor air quality and increased thermal comfort (which also reduces energy bills – essential for those needing affordable housing). They also fulfil some of DWELL’s additional features since CLT has low VOCs and is a natural renewable building material, locking in carbon.
So, there are solutions available for this complicated problem, but the speakers feel the only way to create a level playing field is for MPs and built environment professionals to lobby for building regulations that set requirements for healthy homes. This would make healthy homes accessible to all.