(Un)Happy by Design

Nothing in my five years of studying architecture has shown me the importance of good living space design has on both mental and physical well-being as much as staying in student accommodation during the first years of my undergraduate studies. Constrained in a 11m2 room with a tiny north-facing window in the grey capital of Wales, I was only allowed an opening of two fingers width,  to provide natural air and no direct light. In the few days that the sun came out, there were no benches to sit on in the ‘courtyard’ paved with concrete tiles, and the only view out was the tall brick walls surrounding the blocks of flats. Being used to the feeling of the light breeze travelling around the house and the distant sounds from the street accompanying daily activities back in Cyprus, suddenly I felt more isolated from the world than ever before. Years later, locked-up in yet another brick-wall-facing flat, this time in London, I wake up every day feeling grateful for the small balcony we have.

Now when most of us are working, living, exercising and doing anything and everything from home, we are experiencing the impact of the design of our living environments on our well-being, both physically and mentally, more than ever. Things we overlooked in our homes, like the little balcony which we thought was a nice addition to the flat, has now become our main living space, an essential part of our well-being amidst self-isolation. But can design really make us happier and healthier?

Author of Happy by Design: A Guide to Architecture and Mental Wellbeing, Ben Channon certainly thinks so. Collating research-backed design elements that have a positive impact on our ‘happiness’ and well-being in his book, he gives suggestions on how to integrate these into the designs of the built environment.

Led by his own experiences of anxiety, Ben Channon collates useful research and gives guidelines to design happier buildings in this pocket-book that makes a great read for architects and non-architects alike.

Let’s have a look at some of these elements. Unsurprisingly, first on the list is light. Being connected to the outside world through detecting changes in temperature and light gives reference to our body clock whilst not being able to do so could be ‘disorienting and even distressing’, Channon writes. However, what might not be as widely well-known is that consideration of artificial light is also as important for our wellbeing, hence why many designers have devoted their lives to lighting design. The temperature of the light, the harshness and glare can all affect our moods negatively, such as bright lights making depression-prone people become more depressed as research suggests, whilst correctly used light can provide comfort, feelings of intimacy and calmness.

“Given that most people now spend more than 80% of their time inside, designers should look to create direct interaction with nature within buildings wherever possible.”

The use of natural and tactile materials, such as exposed brickwork, timber furniture, linen and cotton, also plays an important role in our stimulation, whilst no doubt fitting into our greater inherent need to be connected to nature. The lack of stimulation, and monotony in our built environments on the other hand ‘can lead to boredom, unhappiness and even higher mortality rates’, says Channon. However, it is also important to avoid overstimulation, which is especially crucial for one third of the population who are introverts that prefer “environments that are not over-stimulating and rely on quiet time to re-energise. Hence, a good building should be allowing for spaces for activity and spaces for calm. Speaking of calm, the importance of being able to cut out noise and light is also highlighted as crucial to our wellbeing as having comfortable furniture and bed. However, research also shows that letting occupants alter their spaces, and having control over it is more important than providing an uncontrollable “perfect” environment.

When people are restricted from making buildings or rooms their own, they lose an element of control and can even begin to resent a place.”

Thus, the two most important takeaways from the research Channon collates are the positive impacts of being able to be in control over our environments and to have a connection to nature. Whether the connection to nature is provided through sunlight, wind, views to greenery (and better yet, to water as people who live near the ocean report having better mental wellbeing than those who don’t), having plants and natural materials, the research also shows that this need is heightened for those living in cities. This is because people living in cities have been shown to have a more active amygdala, the part of the brain creating the fight or flight instinct, resulting from fear. 

Being able to have control to dim the lights, alter the temperature, layout of furniture, block noise out and store away our belongings, provide the much-needed calm in our homes, away from the chaos of the city. The less we feel in control of our situation or detached from nature, the more the increase in our stress levels and the likelihood of suffering from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.  

“The perception of control is closely linked to our happiness. Psychological studies have shown that if we believe we have more control we feel more content, even if our actual levels of control are unchanged… A desire to regain control can be closely connected to many more long-term psychological problems such as eating disorders or obsessive behaviour,” explains the book.

Some of these necessities are addressed in guidelines such as the London Housing Design Guide, which mentions the need for outdoor spaces, flexibility, and storage space. Interestingly, it also states that ‘dwelling plans should demonstrate that all homes are provided with adequate space and services to be able to work from home’ and refers to ‘the Code for Sustainable Homes’. The Code for Sustainable Homes had guidelines for direct sunlight requirements, sky visibility, provision of space for drying clothes, private outdoor space and a whole section on the home office, setting out not only space requirements but also the provision of a suitable number of sockets, telephone points, and internet connections. However, despite being made mandatory temporarily in 2008, the Code for Sustainable Homes got withdrawn in April 2015. The Building Regulations which are supposed to be referred to instead, focus heavily on the safety of the occupants, whilst forgetting about health. 

none of these guidelines matter when it comes to ‘permitted development’, which has been expanded in March to include the demolition of empty buildings and the replacement of new buildings, all without planning permission

To make matters worse, none of these guidelines matter when it comes to ‘permitted development’, which has been expanded in March to include the demolition of empty buildings and the replacement of new buildings, all without planning permission. This leaves the health of the occupants to the hands of developers, which can mean, as seen in some recent developments, much smaller space provisions and no regard for the quality of life of residents, resulting in what has been quoted as “21st-century slums”.

Of course, there still are guidelines and certificate schemes run privately such as the WELL certification, and Home Quality Mark developed by BRE as part of BREEAM, a well-known family of quality and sustainability standards used by most in the industry. However, to be able to see meaningful change, we need developers and regulation makers to understand the importance of having healthier, happier building users. An argument can be made that happier tenants and employees mean fewer complaints and more productivity for the landlords and employers.

1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year and in England, while 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week.

In the UK, work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 40% of work-related ill-health and 49% of working days lost in 2016/17. Research finds that approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year and in England,1 while 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week. According to WHO, depression is now the leading cause of disability and ill-health worldwide. The research highlights that the power our built environment has over our health, for better or worse, needs to be acknowledged on a larger scale. 

When focusing on providing more homes and shelter, we must not forget the quality of the living spaces we offer. We also mustn’t forget that when those of us that are forced to stay at home will be free to go back outside, there still will be those in our society that have little mobility to be able to go out and exercise, to feel the fresh air and to get light on a daily basis. We need regulations that not only focus on safety but also on the health and wellbeing of inhabitants. And we need to drive this discussion alongside the equally important discussions surrounding sustainability and the provision of more affordable housing for a healthier, happier society. Who knows, maybe we will be able to bring out a happier future for all out of these bleak times.


1 McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R. (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey. The NHS Information Centre for health and social care.

2 McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) (2016). Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014. Leeds: NHS digital.

All drawings and their captions are from Channon, Ben. Happy by Design (RIBA Publishing. Kindle Edition)