01: Rethinking Wellbeing for a Post-Covid Society

Design and wellbeing go hand in hand. This was true long before the pandemic but especially relevant after long months of living with loss, disruption, isolation and uncertainty on a global scale. As architects, interior designers and urban planners, we play a critical role in supporting the wellbeing of all people by creating healthy and sustainable spaces, from private homes to megacities. So, what determines wellbeing? And how can we leverage the knowledge and innovation already in place to rethink the meaning of wellbeing for a post-Covid society?

Story Lisa Fjeld

The aim of this article series is to assess how the pandemic has altered the way we think about wellbeing in the built environment, and how Nordic – Office of Architecture can help clients to achieve wellbeing regardless of project type. With a portfolio ranging from large aviation, urbanism and healthcare projects to workplace, education and residential, we have considered what wellbeing means in every type of space.

Through a variety of case studies, we will illustrate how wellbeing can—and should be—integrated into every project type. Since there is no official definition or benchmark for wellbeing in the built environment, we focussed on these key principles:

Taking cues from hospitals

One of the most undeniable contributors to wellbeing moving forward is directly connected to the safety from viral and bacterial infections. As much as we would like to put this pandemic behind us, we know that the Covid-19 virus is likely to be with us for years to come, along with others like the flu. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, infectious diseases will prevail as one of the top five global risks in the post-Covid world. This means that public health measures like vaccination, face masks and social distancing will continue to be a reality, but design features also play a critical role. Some of these features, like antimicrobial surfaces and materials, are already prevalent in hospitals where the risk of spreading infection is high priority. Putting hygiene at the heart of medical and non-medical spaces will require prioritising low porous materials that are easy to clean. Other design features that reduce this risk of infection include touchless and app-controlled technology and smart facilitation of user flow.

Fostering a sense of community

At Nordic we have always intuitively understood that people are drawn to vibrant spaces where they can socialise and connect with other people in meaningful ways. This was more of an unspoken observation—mostly in public spaces—rather than the general discourse in our industry. Fast forward to the last decade or so, and especially to 2020-21 after many months of isolation, we see just how essential it is to include social spaces that foster shared experiences into every project type. Humans thrive when we have a sense of community, and the pandemic has highlighted this more than ever after the negative impacts on the mental health of society at large after lockdowns and isolation. Prior to the pandemic, we were already beginning to see an influx of co-working and co-living spaces, with large areas dedicated to shared communal spaces. We believe that these spaces will continue to flourish in a post-Covid world and that communal spaces will increasingly be woven into all project types moving forward. Branding, environmental graphics and placemaking are great ways to further incorporate a sense of community, by reflecting the values and cultures of the users and celebrating how we live, work, play and learn.

Bragernes 2.0

Functional and memorable wayfinding

The pandemic has exposed many global vulnerabilities in how we manage a crisis. One of the major failures we saw throughout, even from the most democratic nations, was a lack of clear guidelines and communication. It is understandable that an existential crisis of this scale could cause so much disruption and confusion; it is also a great lesson that minimising confusion will greatly benefit wellbeing in any situation. That’s why it’s so important to help people to feel oriented and give them a sense of direction. A classic example is when you are looking for a department in a hospital or your gate or baggage claim in an airport. Hospitals and airports can be stressful environments—with so many people interacting with the space simultaneously—and it is our responsibility as architects and designers to provide intuitive wayfinding that gives users a sense of control on how to navigate the space. This can be done with signage and environmental graphics but also with architectural differentiation. These principles hold true throughout different types and scales of spaces. Wayfinding approaches have also widely been used to help people adhere to social distancing guidelines.

Guangzhou Airport
Shunde Grand Opera House

Holistic design approaches for optimal health

It has long been understood that our environments have an impact on our physical, emotional and psychological health, and have the potential to reduce stress whilst improving cognitive function. As a result, design features that connect the natural world to the built environment has become common practice. Some of these universal design approaches include the strategic use of natural light, views to nature, access to outdoor spaces, biophilia, inspiring artwork, ergonomic furniture solutions, and use of natural materials and nature-inspired colour palettes. This is an extremely positive development for the building and design industry, and we are continuously exploring ways to elevate the baseline. Some examples of how we do this at Nordic is creating spaces for multi-sensory experiences, integrating “hygge” elements, and nudging users to be more active. Most of our lives are spent indoors being sedentary with massive implications to our health. And although we don’t have an impact on the food offered or consumed in the spaces we design; it is up to us to deliver comfortable and inviting spaces that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system for “rest and digest”.

Agency ties it all together

Regardless of some universal “truths” about wellbeing, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for any project. Many of the features mentioned above—and in our case studies—are on the macro level. However, it is important to remember that wellbeing is also an experience on the micro level, for every individual. We all have different backgrounds, from our cultures to our personalities and needs and preferences. We need to take all of this into account when we design a space. And just because we are in a space together does not mean we are focused on the same tasks. But how can we meet these differences simultaneously? This is where agency comes in. If we go back to the airport example, where someone might be rushing to their gate while another person wants to recharge during an extended layover. Providing a variety of environments within each project gives the individual a choice on how they want to interact with the space and empowers people to be their best selves. As you will read later in the urbanism article, we also address agency on the macro level. In fact, all our urbanism projects are focussed on optimising agency, from offering multiple mobility strategies to securing growth within a circular economy.

Whilst the impacts of the pandemic have been mostly negative, there is a great deal of momentum to make positive changes for a post-Covid world. Not only have we have learned about adapting to uncertainty, but also rethinking about what matters so we can move forward stronger and better. Contact us at Nordic to learn more about how you can integrate wellbeing into your project and stay tuned for the next article focused on wellbeing in the workplace.