Wellness design, once an idea, is now the ideal in home design. Think of your home as a breath of fresh air, a safe retreat from the chaos of life, fostering your mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
To understand wellness design, let’s start by debunking conventional wisdom — a home that adheres to construction codes doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a healthy living space. Wellness design corrects these shortcomings.
“Current building codes don’t guarantee the space is healthy for us. Living spaces can slowly diminish our health, well-being, cognitive, physical, and biological performance,” says architect Veronica Schreibeis Smith, founding principal at Vera Iconica Architecture and Developments.
“We don’t need our homes sabotaging us. They should nurture us. Wellness architecture is about making selections that help you live your optimum life.”
Schreibeis Smith chairs the Wellness Architecture and Design Initiative for the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) to raise awareness of how the built environment impacts people. The pandemic fueled this awareness as our homes became the primary place for our work, study, play, exercise, creativity, and for caring for ourselves and others.
Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki is the co-chair of GWI’s Wellness Communities and Real Estate Initiative and founder of the America at Home Study, which examines Americans’ desire for home purchases, how they feel about and live in their homes, and what changes they’d like as a direct result of sheltering in place. “Health is the new wealth, and this pandemic has shown many people the importance of this. Home means a safe place for 90% of respondents (of the America at Home Study) followed by comfort, family, freedom, simplicity, and financial stability,” Slavik-Tsuyuki says.
Health and wellness are also top homebuyer priorities, according to The National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA). Its Living Impacts Design 2020 study expands the interpretation of a healthy home to include how we feel about our surroundings, noting that a healthy home creates a sense of joy, comfort, and happiness. The definition of wellness design continues to evolve and expand as new research reveals more connections between the home and holistic health.
To help you improve the health of your home, we consulted leading experts in the emerging field of wellness design and compiled their insights to provide insight into their top 10 essentials.
The products and materials in our homes can pollute the air we breathe. “The worst offenders are flooring and cabinetry because the vast majority of those products have volatile organic compounds that leach out into the atmosphere,” says Adam Gibson, a certified master kitchen and bath designer, Certified Living-In-Place Professional, and NKBA member.
Common offenders of household air quality include tiles with chemical sealers, wood with chemical stains, engineered flooring with formaldehyde, carpet with fire retardants, and cleaning products. Fortunately, there are healthier options. For example, Gibson highlights bamboo as an alternative to wood flooring because it’s a natural, durable grass, free of chemicals, if its adhesives are VOC-free.
Schreibeis Smith notes that many conventional homes may be unhealthy, often stemming from products used in construction. “Some products have endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, bioaccumulative toxins,” she says. “If you go through the list of standard building materials, there are all these chemicals, and they hurt the planet.”
The wellness design ideal pushes beyond specifying non-toxic products, including renewable, waste-reducing, energy-efficient, natural/organic, and locally sourced materials. The NKBA report identified a growing desire among homeowners to minimize their impact on the environment.
Wellness design also recognizes that materials hold energies that influence our sense of well-being in the home. Schreibeis Smith chooses materials that work in harmonic resonance to help people feel balanced, secure, and comfortable. “Each space has a certain feeling beyond the vibe you get from sight or touch. We all have energy fields, and the materials around us have energy. Where and how those energies interact is a dimension of wellness design,” she says, noting that materials that foster balance, comfort, and security — including organic materials in the home such as wood or plants — create a sense of calm.
Clean indoor air
A healthy home has clean air with plenty of ventilation and minimal pollutants. “For safety and comfort, we already see a resurgence of mechanical systems that eliminate viruses and bacteria as they clean the air,” notes architect Nancy Keenan, president and CEO of Dahlin Group Architecture Planning, a co-author of the America At Home Study.
Gibson considers clean air his top priority and often adds energy recovery ventilators or heat recovery ventilators that attach to the existing HVAC system to provide fresh, filtered air exchanges throughout the entire home. “Newer homes built in the last 20 to 30 years need mechanically controlled fresh air exchanges because they are built tighter, allowing for very little exchange of fresh air,” says Gibson.
The kitchen also acts as the lungs of the home with makeup air systems, which remove pollutants, carbon dioxide, and particulate matter while replacing air exhaust with fresh air. Gibson advises installing a system specifically designed to provide makeup air into the kitchen to “prevent back-drafting of carbon monoxide from furnaces and fireplaces or pulling air from undesirable places such as attics or crawl spaces.”
Air purification systems and sensors that actively monitor indoor air quality work in tandem with healthy materials that reduce off-gassing to create a healthy home.
On the surface, wellness design makes sanitization a top priority in all areas of the home. Hygiene is a top priority of homebuyers, a direct result of the pandemic. “Coming out of the pandemic, it is going to be important for people to see hygiene being demonstrated in a meaningful way to be comfortable,” says Slavik-Tsuyuki.
To boost the hygiene of your home, consider the following options to sanitize surfaces.
Consumer demand is growing for germ-resistant countertops and flooring that inhibit the growth of stain and odor-causing bacteria, mold, and mildew. Non-porous materials such as quartz work to keep microbes away by eliminating cracks and crannies for pathogens to thrive. Quartz is a mixture of natural minerals, polymers, and resin that creates a non-permeable surface. Other hygienic surfaces include laminate counters treated with antimicrobial agents and grout-free, scratch-resistant materials. Copper surfaces work as natural antimicrobial agents, killing bacteria upon contact to eliminate the growth of disease-causing microbes.
UV-C light devices
On the UV light spectrum, there are UV-A, B, and C lights. Only the UV-C light or ultraviolet light works to kill germs using a wavelength between 200 and 280 nanometers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes UV-C light as a known disinfectant for air, water, and nonporous surfaces. Consider purchasing UV-C lamps to disinfect your home as a safe alternative to chemical cleaners.
“UV-C light cleans up pathogens and is harmless to humans. These options reduce the number of chemicals we might currently utilize for the same cleaning,” says Fred Maxik, founder and chief technology officer of Healthē by Lighting Science.
Portable UV sanitizing devices are another option for chemical-free cleaning. These devices use ultraviolet LEDs to zap and deactivate microbes on surfaces and objects such as cell phones, car keys for chemical-free cleaning.
Consider hiring an electrostatic spray cleaning service to disinfect your home’s hard-to-reach areas. Electrostatic spraying eliminates germs by using a cleaning solution that combines with air to create electrically charged particles that cling to all surfaces and objects. This cleaning method offers a deeper clean than standard mopping and surface scrubbing.
Our bodies self-regulate physiological processes in sync with the daily light and dark cycles in what’s known as circadian rhythms.
Circadian lighting adjusts the color and brightness of light based on the time of day. In simple terms, circadian lighting mimics the natural daily arc and helps regulate our circadian rhythms leading to better sleep and well-being.
The Global Wellness Summit ranks its No. 1 trend for 2020 as true circadian health, saying that the timing of light is a central pillar of wellness.
“Circadian lighting is a critical element of any wellness home lighting. If our body does not receive the proper circadian cues throughout the day and before bed, we create a dystopian environment for our overall health and wellness,” says Maxik.
To experience proper circadian cues, create exposure to bright, short-wavelength blue-light during the day and warmer, longer wavelength red, yellow, and orange lighting at dusk and night. You can retrofit a room for circadian lighting with app-controlled bulbs that light up with bright, cool tones in the morning and dimmer, warm tones in the evening. In newer homes, some builders are including intelligent home wellness systems with circadian lighting and air and water purification systems that respond to a home’s conditions.
Circadian lighting also includes ample access to natural light. “Make sure you have good access to daylight. If you don’t, then consider retrofitting your home with circadian lighting systems. Another tip — throughout the day, take scheduled sunlight breaks to help your body track with circadian rhythms,” says Schreibeis Smith.
Experts also recommend reducing blue light exposure from our smart devices, cell phones, and computer screens at night because it can disrupt your circadian rhythms and sleep cycle, and sabotage your melatonin production.
Sleep is the foundation of a healthy lifestyle. Research shows that quality rest boosts the immune system, lowers the risk of chronic disease, and improves mental and physical health. Your bedroom and the surrounding built environment can make or break a good night’s rest. According to the Sleep Foundation, factors such as noise, light, temperature, and the quality of your mattress influence sleep.
Consider replacing your mattress with an organic mattress made of natural fiber or adding a wool mattress top to reduce off-gassing to improve indoor air quality. Many mattresses are coated with carcinogenic fire retardants that leach chemicals into the air. To purify your bedroom consider installing a humidifier with detoxifying mists.
Bringing nature indoors delivers wellness-boosting benefits, including cleaner air and a clearer mind. We call this mother-nature-inspired aesthetic biophilic design, one of the top trends in the 2021 National Kitchen and Bath Trends Report.
Biophilic design is one of the most accessible and affordable ways to improve the health of living space. You can add indoor natural elements such as plants, a water feature, a fish tank, a kitchen herb garden, pictures of nature, open up views of the outdoors or add organic, textural materials to strengthen connections with nature.
Research shows that nature stimulates the parasympathetic system (this controls bodily functions when a person is at rest) and lowers stress, encouraging a balance between active and passive neurologic systems.
Architects and designers are beginning to understand how spiritual spaces can enhance our well-being. To understand spiritual spaces in the context of wellness design, think of them not in the religious sense but as everyday spaces that elevate our consciousness and ground us.
“Spirituality is a dimension of wellness, just as we have an emotional body and a physical body. All of these things need to be in balance to thrive and have a happy, joyful life,” says Schreibeis Smith.
She designs sacred spaces, also known as “thin places,” that transition from the chaos of life to quieter, more mindful moments. “Thin places are known to have the same impact on the brain as meditation in that they shut down the prefrontal cortex and allow you to enter your flow state, increasing awareness, creativity, and groundedness. Mindfulness can occur when you walk into these places,” says Schreibeis Smith.
Thin places focus on the transformative feeling of a space rather than its style or aesthetics. The visual elements of a thin place depend on the intuitive talents of the designer rather than a defined list of criteria.
One of the biggest buzzwords in wellness design is a concept called nudge architecture — designing cues into the environment that encourage healthy habits and behaviors. “Nudge architecture is a term taken from environmental psychology called nudge psychology — the idea is that you can design in cues to encourage healthy behavior without taking away choices and free will,” Schreibeis Smith explains.
Homebuilder Alaina Money-Garman of Garman Homes is creating a concept home based on the America At Home Study findings. The home incorporates nudge architectural features, including a vestibule at the main entry to “cue” guests to take off their shoes and accept an invitation to enter. It also has an oversized front porch and outdoor covered space to encourage social connections.
Other examples of nudge architecture include “thin spaces” where the environment is nudging a person to a place of peace and intentional products such as a glass-front refrigerator that displays healthy foods rather than sugar or carb-laden snacks.
With so many people working from home during the pandemic, noise distraction and the lack of acoustic privacy created challenges to getting work done.
Noise also creates stress in a household, so it stands to reason that better acoustics contribute to a better sense of well-being. We can’t make all of our living spaces soundproof, but we can reduce noise levels in our homes.
“Sound is a huge deal in how families can live in and enjoy their homes,” says Money-Garman, who is building two office spaces into her concept home, neither one a bedroom, and both with privacy, sound reduction, and natural light.
Space planning and acoustic solutions that reduce distraction are at the forefront of home design due to our new normal. Adding good acoustic control is an easy retrofit in a home, and there are many decorative options. Consider installing brightly colored acoustic tiles on walls, baffles, or acoustic clouds on ceilings, or adding soft fabrics or rugs to a room to absorb sound.
Living in place
The ability to grow, evolve, and live comfortably in your home throughout your lifetime is another principle of wellness design. Spaces that work as homeowners age and accommodate multiple generations living together are ideal.
“[Homebuyers] can design the home to grow and age with them and to future-proof it for technology advancements to avoid obsolescence,” says Gibson.
He suggests adding extra wiring conduits that accommodate new cable designs and technologies to avoid tearing up walls for future wiring. Other upfront projects include framing for wider doorways and infilling for the current regular-sized doors. Additionally, if you are building a two-story home, you can plan for an elevator by stacking closets. “Frame so that you can remove the floor between stories. Planning is important in the framing stage and adds a little to the project’s cost but saves a tremendous amount in the future regarding retrofitting,” says Gibson.
Wellness design tips
Evaluate what is important
Deciding which wellness design elements to tackle first depends on personal preferences. Evaluate which aspect of wellness is your top priority – emotional, financial, mental, physical, spiritual, or environmental.
Start with small home improvement projects
“The pandemic taught us all that there are small ways to improve the way spaces in the home function to make a huge difference to our well-being,” says Keenan. She suggests several home improvement project options that are excellent starting points, such as creating a home workout area, replacing old carpet with solid surface flooring to improve air quality, and furnishing the front porch to encourage socializing with your neighbors.
Fine-tune your lighting
If a circadian lighting system isn’t in your budget, create your own at home. Switch out home lighting with bright, short wavelength, blue-light bulbs for the day and switch to dimmer, warmer, longer wavelength bulbs with red, yellow, and orange color spectrums at dusk. You can outfit your light fixtures with smart device-controlled LED tunable lights that automatically adjust day and night light color temperatures and brightness levels.
Potential drawbacks to wellness design
If you want to include wellness design elements in your home design, or want to upgrade a home you’re purchasing, experts say the typical labor timeline is similar to conventional projects, such as replacing cabinets or light fixtures. There are, however, several factors to consider that can pose a challenge.
Contractor learning curve
Experts say that wellness design strategies don’t take more time to construct. They may take more time to plan and to coordinate quality as the systems and elements may be new to some contractors. Not all professionals are up on the latest wellness design features, so do your research to find one with the knowledge to take on the project.
Be prepared to budget upfront expenses to retrofit your home with wellness design features. For example, costs for a circadian lighting upgrade are comparable to higher-end, quality products. However, not all light fixtures on the market are suited for retrofitting with tunable LED lighting to mimic daylight. If you are thinking about replacing your traditional light bulbs with tunable LED or smart bulbs, prices start at approximately $25 for a single, smart bulb and can go as high as $50 per bulb.
Healthē by Lighting Science has circadian light fixtures that start at approximately $40 and go up to $105. Additionally, lighting company Savant has developed the Savant Daylight Mode app to support a healthy wake-sleep cycle. The app connects to tunable LED light bulbs such as GE Lighting’s CYNC Smart Bulbs to read your home’s precise geo-coordinates and adjust light brightness and color temperature throughout the day and evening.
Other options that illuminate well-being include the Dyson Lightcycle task light, priced at $599.99, which simulates natural daylight by tracking and adapting to the sun’s movement. C by GE Sol lamp, priced at $232, is a smart lamp with voice control to change light color settings that help maintain your sleep-wake cycle.
When it comes to mechanical equipment and air purification, it can be as simple as buying a quality air purifier. One option is BetterAir Biotica800 Surface & Air Cleaner, an all-natural probiotic mist that cleans air and surfaces, priced at $399.99. You can also opt for a whole-house system, such as Darwin by Delos, which will cost you several thousand dollars, but it optimizes air quality, water quality, light, and acoustics.
“One could also choose to add UV light sanitation within the ducts of the HVAC system to kill bacteria and viruses,” notes Schreibeis Smith. These items are an investment and can be integrated to meet a wide range of budgets.
Contractors estimate that retrofitting for energy recovery ventilators can cost an average of $3,000 to $6,000 per furnace. “It usually doesn’t require running new ductwork; however, it requires two 4-inch PVC pipes that penetrate the building’s exterior wall to exchange fresh air. It usually can be done in one day,” explains Gibson.
The future of wellness design
Wellness design continues to evolve, making its way into mainstream home design. And it’s gaining traction. “The wellness wave began several years ago. COVID-19 was the earthquake that turned it into a tidal wave,” says Schreibeis Smith.
A healthy home isn’t about the quantity of space but rather the quality of space. Renovating to add more rooms or building a larger home doesn’t guarantee well-being. Wellness design considers all aspects of home life, including our mental, physical, and spiritual needs.
“Square footage can’t solve the problem. As architects, designers, and builders, life per square foot has to be our focus in the home. We have to be thoughtful and intentional with every inch of space,” says Money-Garman.
If you are in the market for a healthy home, HomeLight can match you with an expert real estate agent to help you find a house and community to enhance your well-being.
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