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Mental Health And Architecture

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Not a topic often brought up in vocational studies in architecture, mental health can be briefly defined as psychological wellbeing. It affects how a person exists in a space in terms of their behaviour and how they think. This is not the same as believing one is mentally healthy because they lack a mental illness, as a person is not necessarily physically healthy because they don’t have a broken limb or heart condition.

Stress is a topic that is notorious whenever the topic of mental health is discussed.

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The idea of what stress is complex to define as it may differ from person to person and is not easy to measure. Generally, stress is believed to be any nonspecific mental or emotional pressure experienced in an uncomfortable situation. This definition is suited to the modern human being. In the times of cavemen, stress would be triggered by any sources of threats to our survival, such as larger predators like wolves or lions. Our bodies reaction to stress has remained the same even though the current sources of stress are significantly less violent and ambiguous. Heart and respiratory rate quicken, rise in production of stomach acid and increases in blood pressure are some common side effects from stress, as well as, tension headaches and insomnia. Unlike the cavemen that existed before in earlier eras, where the cause of stress was more sudden and was dependant on our survival, the stress mankind experiences today, with our professional positions and managing a family to name a few, can keep us in a permanent mildly foreboding state. This persistent stressful state can lead to the manifestation of other psychological conditions such as mood changes, anxiety and depression.

Apart from influencing the respiratory and digestive systems, stress also affects the reproductive, muscular and immune system. The latter creating additional adverse effects in people living with MS as stress increases the activity of the immune system which attacks the nerves. In my case, some of my symptoms are blurred vision in one eye, dizziness and I can be prone to fainting. All those symptoms intensify under pressure. Some common inducers of stress inside a building:

  • Visual discomfort such as what is caused by inadequate light
  • Indoor air quality, fungus, volatile organic compounds
  • Inadequate space
  • Isolation
  • Noise
  • Sick building syndrome
  • Lack of natural features such as plants or water sources

In the general public exists a perception of the role of an architect and Interior Designer, as being superfluous when it comes to the purpose of the construction of a building. In other words, some believe the whole point of a building is to create space for people to exist in; from living quarters to working spaces. It is common for engineers and architects tto disagree because of similar biases against the profession. During my internship in an architectural firm I observed an example of this. The structural engineer working with us at the time, acted like a polite dictator. One of the responsibilities of a structural engineer is the well thought out positioning of structural members such as beam and columns.

There were areas where beams with a depth of 800mm were required.

We noticed that he chose the same 800mm deep beams through the whole building from ground floor to fourth floor. That depth meant the ceiling height is less by a meter; when there’s a space of 3m from top of the floor slab to the underside of the ceiling above, the height of the space was reduced to 2. 2m. Note in the 2015 Danish Building regulations, the height of a habitable room should be 2. 5m. My boss at the time was trained to be familiar with basics of loads of a building, one of those being that on higher levels, the sizes (depth and/ height of beams can be less than the floors much further beneath them i. e. the beams on the third floor and fourth floor can be smaller than those on the ground floor. When this was mentioned in meetings with the structural engineer, he reminded us what he believed our job was; to make the building look attractive. Clearly discrediting the role of an architect. Unfortunately, that kind of scornful attitude is not new to most architects and interior designers. The whole point of architecture may have had humble beginnings as structures for shelter from the environment. However, as humanity developed, and culture grew architecture was viewed as artistic expression. Within the last century, opinions of architecture now include considerations of the psychological impacts of the practices on the wellbeing of the users of the buildings.

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