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Design for Wellness Beyond Today

May 6, 2020

The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has health and wellness more top of mind than ever when designing buildings and their spaces. Read more for important considerations for designers.

Before COVID-19, the world was already overloaded with stress from work, family, political concerns, and environmental and economic challenges. These forces were also increasing awareness of the impact of stress on physical, social, mental and emotional health.

With nearly everyone on the planet now experiencing a full-blown pandemic, we are even more attuned to the importance of health and wellness in our lives.

Demand for building features that enhance human comfort, encourage positive behaviors and hygiene, and support a “mind, body, spirit” approach is rising in all building types—many that had rarely considered these qualities previously including office developments, classroom buildings and municipal facilities.

Photo: Site harvested log bench at Duke University Student Wellness Center; Credit: Robert Benson Photography

Sustainable features, now considered desirable by most user groups from students to office building tenants, foster the wellbeing of users by reducing pollution and facilitating environmental stewardship. Amenities such as gyms, showers for those who bike or walk, interconnecting staircases that encourage movement and in-house healthy dining options can all contribute to the physical health of building occupants.

Providing for occupants’ wellness involves more subtle understandings of how people inhabit and use space. Today, with COVID-19 disrupting much of daily life, revisiting and reinforcing the ingredients of design for wellbeing becomes both needed and timely.

One Space Never Fits All

Even before home isolation became a universal experience, the idea of facilitating a sense of personal space for building users was an essential aspect of design for wellbeing. Views of nature, natural light, flexible furnishings and the presence of greenspace allow individuals to feel more personally tied to the spaces they occupy.

(Photo: Duke Integrative Medicine meditation space; Credit: Robert Benson Photography)

More importantly, accessible and occupiable terraces, plazas, and roof gardens allow users to break away from daily routine and connect to the natural world. These spaces also enhance wellbeing by allowing users to choose where to work. Getting up from one’s daily workspace and resettling in a different environment, whether to work in a team, alone in a lounge area, outdoors under a shade canopy or in spaces that socially connect them with others, is freeing. The process can also reset one’s perspective, enhance self-awareness and encourage creativity.

Today’s government-mandated work-from-home and corresponding virtual conferencing protocols are giving us a glimpse into how we each shape our own work environment. No two spaces are identical. Whether our COVID-19 workspace was on the couch, at the kitchen table amidst the action of home life, or behind a desk with a view, we will each emerge with greater consciousness of the need to tailor one’s environment to tackle the task at hand.

Qualities of Space for Wellness

As designers, we recognize that many characteristics of buildings and spaces can enhance comfort, encourage mental and physical wellbeing, and foster supportive communities. Humans are attracted to the familiar characteristics of natural materials like stone and wood. They project warmth and comfort and provide a calming sense of connection to nature.

More and more, the material quality of buildings and spaces goes beyond natural references to reflect the specific site or locality. Materials that reference a building’s immediate surroundings and community add meaning and provide users deeper connections to the world. This sense of belonging is a vital facet of emotional wellness.

Photo: Multiple workspace options at RTI International Headquarters; Credit: Robert Benson Photography

Natural light has been proven to improve the experience of users when glare, reflection and heat gain are controlled. Equally, the absence of natural light wears on a person’s mental and physical wellbeing. Strategies for controlling light can span from simple sunshades to high-tech electrochromic glass.

Greenspaces again have a role in supporting human wellness. Educational and corporate campuses, and even urban office towers, are giving back street-level space to their users and to their neighborhoods. The tops of skyscrapers, once essential to the iconography of high-rise buildings, are now prime locations for sky gardens and amenity terraces that provide both a change of setting and access to fresh air.

[Related: Complete List of Covid-19 Coverage]

The Future of Wellness Design

We cannot predict the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic’s ultimate influence on our lives and the architecture we create, but we can speculate on how current trends in design for wellness might be reinforced and adapted as people emerge with more sensitivity to ensuring individual and collective wellbeing.

At work, assuming the demand for individual offices will increase is shortsighted, just as it was for tall buildings post-9/11, which continued to get built. All building types have been adding spaces to facilitate collaboration and cross-disciplinary thinking—practices that will continue to be in demand as we collectively seek to solve problems and generate innovation.

(Photo: Interconnecting stair at Dimensional Fund Advisors East Coast Headquarters; Credit: Robert Benson Photography)

The design challenge is to reconfigure these spaces to ensure, when necessary, distancing practices can be implemented. Moveable partitions, seating and workstations will accommodate spatial adaptation. Increased outdoor meeting space will allow for congregation and, as needed, distancing while meeting.

Multipurpose rooms, prevalent in many buildings, will gain added significance if their design includes adaptability to allow sheltering-in-place. Robust technological infrastructure will ensure these spaces the capacity for digital and virtual communications. We must also provide the ability for people to safely find a place for contemplation or privacy, such as the current trend for open-plan workplaces to add spaces reminiscent of phone booths.

[On Topic: Breaking down Indoor Environmental Quality and How to Improve it]

Health centers, whether for students or communities, will likely require new and additional spaces for isolation. Seamless wayfinding—always important for these buildings—carries special importance in filtering users through buildings and ensuring they arrive to their intended destination.

Photo: Duke University Student Wellness Center casual meeting space; Credit: Robert Benson Photography

Spaces that facilitate healthy choices may also contribute to every individual’s capacity to care for themselves, including community teaching kitchens and oasis and meditation spaces. Waiting rooms may get larger, with more zones of separation, so those seeking routine care can have separation from those who are sick. These functional additions can accelerate our focus on wellness and encourage attention to self-care.

We include interiors staff in our architectural design teams. These professionals infuse our work with perspective on the latest materials, color options, and even more detail on the health impacts of materials and finishes. This integrated approach brings the best combination of talent to holistically addressing design for wellness.

[Related: Isolation Inspiration: View New Products for Your Next Project]


Every individual has multiple communities, and the pandemic has likely made our connection to others more significant than ever before. Many of us are anxious to get back to those communities, whether at home or work, and to the idea of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Team working, learning, collaborating, and building community will still be important to the workplace and education. Many of the strategies we’ve learned in this pandemic—staying six feet apart, good hand hygiene, not exposing others when you’re sick and so on—will make their way into our design thinking. Building code and zoning ordinances will inevitably evolve to ensure greater safety against the spread of future viral outbreaks.

Photo: Emory Student Center student commons; Credit: Robert Benson Photography

With diversity on the increase, the need to respect and accommodate the many different backgrounds people bring to our collective experience will rely on us reinforcing our commonalities. Designers and their allies must be at the forefront of advancing awareness of healthy environments that allow us to be together again. Then, we can share in solving tomorrow’s health challenges and advancing wellness for everyone. Once there is awareness, the movement to implement change through design is unstoppable.

Read next: Community Comes Together During Coronavirus

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