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Even though it seems like today’s hot topic, it’s not new: in the 1920s, it was noted that college students experience stress. Academic concerns, post-graduate concerns, financial well-being and societal issues have always affected students’ physical health and mental well-being. However, between 2009 and 2019, campus counseling centers reported an approximately 40% increase in the percentage of students seeking mental health services, and 8 of 10 college presidents indicate that student mental health has become a priority on campuses. The new norms and rules brought on by today’s COVID-19 pandemic have caused heightened depression, anxiety or feelings of hopelessness.

Can the campus physical environment lessen or reduce these concerns, or even reverse these concerns? Should students and parents look for college and university campuses that are aware of and address these issues? Yes, say educators, psychologists and architects who study this phenomenon. Great Jobs Great Lives, The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report, argued that institutions of higher education have a responsibility to assist students in not just attaining great jobs but in pursuing better lives. The report noted that students who had better experiences on campus were not just better students, but happier, more productive adults. In addition to the beneficial effect of integrated wellness and student service programs, well-buildings can substantially increase feelings of student well-being on campus.

So, what is wellness in buildings, and how will it help produce happier students?

Over the past 20 years, the idea that buildings can be designed to enhance physiological and psychological well-being has taken hold through the WELL Building Standard and the Biophilic Design movement. Both advocate spaces that encourage socialization (and privacy when needed); are varied and flexible; provide opportunities for active lifestyle fitness and healthy eating; incorporate bodily comfort controls that include acoustic, temperature considerations and natural light, ties to the local environment, connectivity and views of the outdoors; and a focus on natural aesthetics and beauty that reconnects people to nature, promoting a healthy life balance.

Focusing on well-buildings presents an opportunity to target outcomes that impact the university at large, delivering benefits like:

  • Enhancing the educational experience;
  • Improving the recruitment and retention of staff and students;
  • Maximizing the performance and productivity of building occupants;
  • Building brand equity; and
  • Transforming campus culture.

So, what should parents and students look for to ensure healthy buildings/healthy students?

1. Buildings that incorporate active design

Encouraging and guiding students to make healthier choices—taking stairs instead of elevators, walking between buildings rather than driving—can be done through the architecture of the buildings and campus. Designing social spaces along major circulation routes, indoors and out, as well as providing engaging and calming outdoor paths and spaces allows students to see and be seen—and to emulate the better habits of their peers. Within buildings, amenities such as restrooms and game nooks can be located at the far end of the building or communal space so that students must walk a bit to reach them.

2. Activity and participation in outdoor spaces

Nature has been proven to provide a calming and nurturing effect on physical and mental well-being—those who connect with nature, thrive. The campus green should not be the only green area on campus—pockets of greenery on a well-landscaped campus provide visual, mental and tactile relief, as do areas set aside for a bit of fun. Outdoor courtyards and paved areas with shaded seating encourage students to spend more time outside relaxing or interacting with their peers.

3. Buildings that motivate healthier indoor choices

Buildings that encourage healthier choices include the following qualities.

  • They include quiet sleeping spaces, as good sleep is essential to a happy life; lighting, temperature and acoustics all have an impact on sleep.
  • They allow community activities to take place in the residence hall because fostering social activities decreases the risk of isolation. Include social, as well as less social, spaces. Students especially seek out company and places that make them feel wanted and accepted. At the same time, we need our private moments. Campus social spaces, whether academic, social or residential, should be able to accommodate a seamless mixing of the two.
  • Numerous studies have shown natural light that changes throughout the day increases productivity and concentration, enhances body’s natural circadian rhythm, and enhances mental health and physical well-being.
  • They include mood-enhancing spaces that take into account light, color, vibrancy and access to the “wonderful”—such as artwork—which can promote a positive attitude by providing students with a visual and mental break.
4. Nearby services and amenities

The ease of accessing on-campus student services and amenities, as well as access to off-campus facilities—including integration in the broader community—mitigates a student’s isolation and promotes self-growth and and a sense of belonging.

The Roman architect Vitruvius famously advised that buildings should be built with firmness (good structure), commodity (good economy and function) and delight (beauty). They should also be built with well-being.

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