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To care for mental health through architecture, we must care for ourselves

Assael wv
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Architecture has a key role to play in its users’ mental health. But for this to happen, practices must first attend to the wellbeing of their own staff, writes Ben Channon of Assael Architecture

Ben channon

To mark this year’s World Mental Health Day, we should reach out to those around us that have been affected by mental health. Unfortunately, you won’t have to look very far. In the UK, it is estimated that one in four people will experience a mental health problem each year. In England alone, a staggering one in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem, such as depression and anxiety, in any given week. 

These sobering figures indicate the scope and scale of mental health issues in the UK. They can – and most probably will – affect all of us at some point in our lives. 

Architecture has an inherent role to play in improving the mental wellbeing of the entire country. We spend between 80 and 90 per cent of our time inside buildings, so the design of those spaces has an undoubtable effect on how we feel, think and how we interact with those around us.

Neuroscience can empirically show how our brains react to monotonous façades, poor wayfinding and the use of a cold, clinical colour palette. Yet, despite all we know about the connection between design and mental wellbeing, it is rarely applied in practice. So much so that I made it my mission to improve how architects understand the impacts their buildings have on the way people feel, culminating in a book on the subject called Happy by Design

I believe, however, that this lack of understanding may be down to the fact that, for too long, architects have neglected the importance of mental wellbeing within our own profession. After all, how can we expect an anxiety-ridden, overworked Part 2 to consider the wellbeing implications of their material choices when their own mental health is such a low priority? 

Architecture’s issues with mental wellbeing start in the lecture halls, run through the crits and then into the practices in which we work. The recent AJ Student Survey emphasised this trend, with one in three students reporting stress-related mental health problems during their studies. Just two years ago this figure was one in four, which highlights a worrying trend. 

Architects are particularly at risk of experiencing mental health issues in the workplace due to the nature and circumstances of their day-to-day jobs. Long hours, volatile and sporadic workloads, tight deadlines and demanding clients can all take their toll on our mental wellbeing. 

Long hours, volatile and sporadic workloads, tight deadlines and demanding clients can all take their toll on our mental wellbeing

The market in which architects operate in is not going to change overnight, but the way in which we run our practices can. We must create practices that care for architects so that they can then care for the wellbeing of those people that live and work in the buildings they design. You cannot have one without the other. 

Last year, I launched the Architect’s Mental Wellbeing Forum with a group of top architecture firms to try and actively improve mental wellbeing within architecture practices. The response has been resounding and we are currently working towards creating a toolkit that will help firms create healthy employment practices that support employee’s mental health and their work-life balance.

The efforts of practices to improve the lives of their employees doesn’t go unnoticed. For instance, in the AJ100 Employer of the Year award, which Assael Architecture won last year, judges recognised the ‘truly caring environment’ and Assael’s ‘remarkable degree of compassion’.

Its initiatives include support for younger staff with a mentor scheme, trained mental-health first-aiders, yoga classes and mindfulness training. And if late working really is unavoidable, the practice pays overtime.

It saddens me that where I work is the exception, rather than the rule, in our industry right now. 

To help address the mental health crisis facing the UK, architects need to reflect. It is our responsibility to design and deliver buildings that support the public’s mental wellbeing and help them live happy and healthy lives. But this will not be possible if we continue to neglect our own mental health. In order to care through architecture, we must care for ourselves first. 

Ben Channon is associate and wellbeing ambassador at Assael Architecture and author of ‘Happy by Design: A Guide to Architecture and Mental Wellbeing’ published by RIBA Publishing. You can follow Ben Channon on Twitter @MindfulArchi and the Architect’s Mental Wellbeing Forum @AMWForum

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