Wellness by design: Self care is health care

I’ve noticed the phrase “self care is health care” on the news. Here’s my take on it as an architect …

Disconnecting from devices and enjoying nature is a form of self care. Clients who benefit from my 5 Senses Design™ embrace home life outside the Internet; likewise, my biophilic designs encourage interaction between nature and the indoors. “What Happened When I Went on a Staycation with No Electricity” in the Huffington Post explores how self care is health care, too. A break from modern amenities can open our minds to new experiences.

That said, we do need electricity to function in our day to day life. My job as an architect is to unite the two lifestyles, bringing the outdoors in and the indoors out. Mindfully designed architecture promotes self care.

Organic Spa Magazine puts it well: “Every thought we engage, every attitude we embrace, every action we enact impacts our health profile … As you nurture your soul, you allow air, touch, food, water, rest, sights, sounds, aromas and movement to likewise nurture the physical layer of your existence.”

We can blend the best of technology with practices that date back 3,000 years. Actually, design that appeals to all our senses is seen in many cultures, especially Ayurveda, the system of medicine based on the Indian subcontinent. They combine the 5 senses and the 5 elements to heal many illnesses. It’s truly fascinating. And yet we’ve turned our back on much of this ancient wisdom, and toward convenience and distraction. My objective is to reinvigorate these old concepts in a home, while also utilizing the best our time has to offer.

And I’m not alone. Many studies prove that nature can provide the best self care. Roger S. Ulrich, Ph.D., EDAC coined the phrase “stress recovery theory.” Without proper rest, the amygdala sends a signal to the hypothalamus, which releases chemicals that cause high blood sugar. This fight-or-flight reaction might feel good in the moment, but if you don’t allow your body to rest, chronic stress leads to serious illness.

Fortunately, there’s a solution. Ulrich is now a professor of architecture at the Center for Healthcare Building Research at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. His colleagues pilot a healthcare program, which incorporates elements of WELL Building Standards and biophilic design. Their research shows that people exposed to natural light and open air feel better. Wounds actually heal faster in a calm environment. To promote this healing, they want to see 25% of each hospital’s property transformed into landscape grounds and rooftop gardens, and 1% of the interior floor plan covered with plants.

When I think of a home, I wonder, is there opportunity to create wellness here, too? I turn to our roots. We’ve developed as human beings in parallel with nature; maintaining that connection is vital. We have a biological need to connect with nature. Consider forest bathing in Japan and China: Is there any reason why we shouldn’t incorporate this in our homes?

It’s exciting to revisit these old ways. Biomimicry, in general, looks at how nature solves problems. There are so many interesting solutions on a biological level. For example, Lotusan is a self cleaning exterior paint. When water droplets hit, it will clean itself, just like the lotus leaf that remains clean in a dirty environment. The bumps and ridges on each leaf pick up dirt particles and wash them away when the surface is exposed to water.

With all these natural solutions at our fingertips, it amazes me that only about 10% of U.S. Patents relate with nature. The great outdoors has been around a lot longer than our built environment; it offers a huge resource library for us to utilize today.

Let’s look away from our screens, and out the window for solutions. In home design, I create this connection through layout, sun orientation and materials. A home with large openings and overhangs shades direct sunlight and provides reflected light. Most important, the home harmonizes with its people. I understand how each client operates through their home. Then I coordinate the design with their circadian rhythm. Light guides you. Your eyes should adapt to light in the morning, and gradually the sunlight can bathe the space. When you leave the house, you’re ready; when you return, the lighting allows you to wind down for bed.

I’ve noticed it’s difficult to wind down when accosted by blue lights (as in computer screens). That’s because they simulate the blue spectrum of daylight, which starts to get our minds going. We have it backwards — we expose ourselves to blue spectrum light in the evening when we should be doing it in the morning. I find it easier to awaken before my family and start my day before everyone comes downstairs. That way, I’m prepared to assist my wife and our three boys. I watch a show, write while eating breakfast, or do some computer work and drink a glass of water. That’s my routine instead of coffee — cool water and research.

At night, I read a book by the fire (no blue light). I love to light a fire and curl up in a nook with a view of the sun set, listening to the crackling of the logs and bathed in the warmth. The 5 Senses Design™ is a way of life. I experience better performance and greater clarity … and less stress.

I’ve spent a lot of time camping, and imagining our ancestors huddling around the fire. Before the Industrial Revolution, the fireplace used to be the heart of the home. Fire was used in many ways, for making ammunition, smelting lead, cooking, and, of course, heat. Then, the fireplace moved to the side of the house and the TV den has replaced that space. And that’s okay, times change. I still recommend watching TV in the morning, not at night, but it’s a difficult habit to break. If your TV is above the fireplace, try turning both on. Then evolve slowly; transition to only the fireplace and reading at night.

I design separate reading rooms and TV rooms to make the adjustment easier. A living room that opens to the patio is another way of welcoming in the natural world. It’s a balancing act of an indoor fireplace to outside fireplace with a pool. However you make the lifestyle change, you’ll inevitably enjoy more restful space and earlier morning invigoration.

That’s what self care is all about — engaging in the present moment with all five senses. Consider, what excites you on vacation? Few will say watching a screen. The design, lighting and more promote healthier activities for my clients in the comfort of home.

There are several sources today that will suggest that electrical energy and WiFi signals can disrupt our sleep. Some have suggested that they turn off all of this energy or keep it out of their sleeping space, and have found the best sleep in years. Currently I don’t have a study to point to on this subject, but perhaps there is something to it. Yet “self care is health care” doesn’t always mean turning off the WiFi. But when you do transition, how can we make this easier and smoother? No one wants to be running around turning everything back on in the morning. When I design a home with this in mind, we can incorporate a charging station for devices downstairs and a switch that has all the tech on the same circuit, with an automatic schedule. Through biophilic design and 5 Senses Design™, your home encourages routines that will give you a good night’s sleep … and will change your life.

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