“What if our health became the basis for judging every building and every public space? What if each of us – every person, everywhere – asked, ‘Does this place cause health? How does it make me feel?’” - Tye Farrow, Farrow Partners

In the architecture and design industry, the word ‘health’ usually brings to mind hospital and clinic projects. But health is not a building typology, said Canadian architect Tye Farrow of Farrow Partners at a presentation he recently gave at the Australian Institute of Architects. Instead, it is a term that has experienced a “leap upstream” from the medical to design realms, with a range of design factors having an influence on both our physical health and state of mind.

The ultimate design test for Farrow when looking at new spaces and architecture, be it a streetscape, an office building, or a hospital, is therefore assessing how healthy they are. In turn, this means architects and building designers must turn their attention from the technical aspects of sustainability, such as a building’s carbon footprint, to whether a space ‘causes health’, or allows people to thrive mentally, socially and physically.

“In recent years, expectations for environmental impact have been expanded to include awareness for how physical surroundings affect our state of mind,” he said.

“We believe that sustainable building objectives must embrace human health issues as well as environmental effects. This means that the public should expect design to make a holistic, meaningful contribution to their lives.”

Drawing on the idea of ‘salutogenesis’, which refers to the focus on factors that support human health and well-being rather than those that cause disease (pathogenic), architecture which ‘causes health’ is not isolated, placeless and rootless, but promotes five vital elements – nature, authenticity, variety, vitality, and legacy.

NATURE: a reference to things that grow from, or are a part of, the natural world. Letting in natural daylight as it moves with time, for instance, has been proven to stimulate the brain.

A more concrete example is the Credit Valley Hospital: Peel Regional Cancer & Ambulatory Cancer Centre by Farrow Partners, where the design team was told to deliver “something alive”. In response, they designed a lobby with glulam tree-like structures, which communicated a specific message to staff and patients, as well as the community at large.

Credit Valley Hospital. Photography by Scott Norsworthy. Source: ArchiTravel

“What we hear from our clients is that the prominent use of wood raises people’s spirits and helps reduce stress,” explained Farrow.

AUTHENTICITY: designs that draw on things we know; our memories.

St. Mary's Hospital Farrow Partners in association with Perkins+Will. Photography by Andrew Latreille

The St. Mary’s Hospital in Sechelt, British Columbia, for instance, depicts well-known cultural symbols and features artworks that tell stories. Its lobby is animated by a sunburst mural that spans 70 feet long, instantly recognisable and understood by patients, staff and members of the community.

The main lobby of St. Mary's Hospital features the sunburst meral created by First Nations' artist Shain Jackson. Photography by Andrew Latreille

VARIETY: buildings don’t have to be stock-standard, but can be experimental in communicating the aspirations of organisations, as is the case of The Kaplan Medical Centre in Israel.

Kaplan Medical Centre

Farrow was retained by the Centre to create a master plan that would inspire and “raise organisational aspirations in the context of fund capital initiatives that rely on philanthropy”. The new Harzfield Geriatric Hospital is the first phase of the campus revitalization plans, and features leaf-like roof forms that allow the building to stand out from its surrounds while being clear about its aims and purpose.

VITALITY: designs that come alive and activate spaces.

Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre. Photography by Peter Sellar

The Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre in far north Ontario brings together two 100-year-old hospitals and was created as a symbol of regional revival. Reflecting the area’s lumber industrial past, the building uses wood as a structural material extensively to create dramatic spaces flooded with natural light.

The project is the first cancer centre in Canada to incorporate direct natural light skylights within the cancer radiation treatment rooms – spaces typically devoid of fresh light – while harvesting the sunlight to power the radiation monitors.

LEGACY: designs that make a lasting contribution.

Farrow Partners' winning concept for health promoting 'centres of influence' in South Africa. Image: Farrow Partners

Farrow pointed to his practice’s designs for the South Africa Health Promoting Lifestyle Centres (HLPCs), which won an international design competition funded by the South African Ministry of Health. Planned for adaptation and construction in rural settings, townships and cities throughout the city’s nine provinces, the HLPCs will house a wide variety of spaces that provide education and skill development opportunities, as well as clinics, retail and even areas for sustainable farming.

These multi-purpose functions are clearly expressed in the centre’s form, which takes the shape of South Africa’s national flower, the Protea, and which serves as a metaphor for hope, healing and renewal.

“One of the team’s goals was to demonstrate what can be done in a tangible way to move beyond minor improvements in achieving a healthier population. On a global scale, the design will serve as a ‘leapfrog model’ that opens the eyes of decision-makers,” Farrow Partners explain.

Although the design factors that contribute to health-causing environments, such as the use of quality natural light and timber products, are for the most part intuitive, architects and designers must focus more on understanding how a space makes users feel.

A walkable neighbourhood, for example, has potential in enlivening a suburb, but distance, safety and access aren’t the only ingredients for a successful recipe - it also requires streetscapes that are not boring and repetitive, but which attract local residents. This requires thinking about the visual and physical qualities that motivates people to create thriving spaces.

What makes New York's High Line a thriving public space? Image: NYC Parks

If the industry understood the health-causing potential of every building, every public space and every home, then “dreary design and merely functional places would become unacceptable,” Farrow once wrote in SAB Magazine.

“Instead, people would expect optimistic design that encourages social interaction, pride in community identity, connections to nature, cultural meaning and a positive legacy.”

Eterra Resort Tree House by Farrow Partners