Blog: 4 November 2019A capacity to care – let’s get serious about mental health

Nick Collins

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Nick Collins

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Reading office

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One of the biggest challenges facing architects today is designing places for a rapidly changing world. Over the past 20 years we’ve seen how the industry has focused on the issue of sustainability, increasing our knowledge base to deliver truly sustainable buildings. But there’s no escaping the fact that this focus has come at the expense of other issues. Mental health and wellbeing is one problem that architecture can both cause and alleviate. While it’s just one element in a much larger picture, current discussions would suggest mental health is the next big issue our built environment must tackle. 

Without question the greatest hurdle we face is how to quantify, measure and ultimately value the elements of a scheme that could directly impact wellbeing, either positively or negatively. To overcome this for sustainability, an evidence base was developed enabling ideas and principles to be verified and tested. This is obviously much harder to facilitate for mental health. But, design can and must form part of a wider strategy for buildings that encourage physical activity and social interaction. It must also allow for flexibility to encourage everyone to participate in a variety of ways.      

Methods such as measuring how we balance the urban living trend with green space to improve mental health should be in place. By placing a value on different elements of a scheme we could more accurately judge the impact on wellbeing. Initiatives like our Greenkeeper tool – developed with Vivid Economics and the University of Exeter – aim to understand the true value of green infrastructure by utilising and interpreting big data and advanced emerging research. But we need more tools and research like this and more collaboration.

Architectural teams need to be broader, incorporating masterplanners, urban designers, landscape designers and architects. Simultaneously we must drive greater integration with planners, psychologists, universities and crucially, those that will experience the building, the place, we create. Supporting mental health and wellbeing in design goes well beyond an individual building, it’s the context within which a scheme sits that we must address. We must cast the net wider to include social impacts of a place and all who interact with it, rather than just targeting the end user. 

Local knowledge and early, widespread engagement with the community helps us understand local desires. This engagement is very important to increase our understanding of complex and evolving conditions, enabling design to accommodate these. 

This knowledge and understanding is crucial. We must become more aware as individuals and as an industry to the challenges of mental health. Programmes like Barton Willmore’s new working group, which is tasked to better understand these areas of mental health, both internally within the Practice and externally, are a recognition that more needs to be done to stress test and improve the norm.

If we look at where architecture has failed historically – the design of post-war housing estates or Victorian back-to-back terraces which ultimately facilitated social problems – the design decisions were made a generation before the issues emerged. We have the benefit of hindsight – let’s use it, alongside the skills and knowledge we have to design for tomorrow. 

Take permitted development schemes, for example. Often we’re at risk of repeating the mistakes of the past by providing a quick fix for today’s housing pressures, without asking what the impact will be on the mental health of future occupants.   

Without cohesive industry collaboration we’ve failed to voice our concerns in a way that could have made a difference. The opportunity of reusing those buildings and the potential to provide high-quality housing for the future has been missed.

Even for schemes that are deemed successful we could do better. Architects are often too quick to walkaway once a scheme is completed, missing the opportunity to learn how and in what ways a design delivered on its goals. If the industry means what it says on wellbeing, then we must proactively seek to understand where our designs succeed and where they failed and talk about them.

Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past. While architecture is probably no further behind on mental health than any other industry, as designers we have an opportunity to make a real difference.  We need to come together and be part of a wider discussion, leading the way in how the built environment responds to mental health and wellbeing.

As featured in Architects' Journal.

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Mental Health, Wellbeing, Architecture