Architecture and the “wellness” industry


Search Inside Yourself

As the notion of ‘work’ becomes more blurred, so does that of the work environment. The increasing elimination of temporal or spatial limitations on the concept of labour, either in the form of remote working, the elimination of fixed working hours or both, has come to imply that we work everywhere all the time. 

No longer is it just the modern office affecting our condition for a fixed eight hours a day, it is our environment as a whole that affects us, unrelentingly without intermission, built and beyond. When it comes to optimizing labour productivity, no external factor can be ruled out—including and particularly those factors previously considered unrelated to work. 

As the circumstances impacting our health (and productivity) become more ubiquitous and general, so does the language that is being applied to them. What used to be ‘the office’ has become ‘the workplace’; what used to be our ‘health’ has evolved into our ‘wellbeing’. Negligible as the shift in semantics might appear, an important change nevertheless is underway.

While understandings of being ‘healthy’ or ‘well’ might not significantly differ, the implied responsibility for either differs radically. Health, up to a point, can be attributed to external factors that individuals can expect to have taken care of for them; wellbeing, however, is largely a matter of individual choices by them.

Once rebranded as ‘wellbeing’, the notion of health moves from being a right to being an obligation—a non-negotiable condition in terms of labour participation, all the seemingly benevolent language notwithstanding. Mantras such as ‘work hard, play hard’ are little if not euphemisms to promote the unconditional, never-ending nature of work. The design of the modern office is an integral part of this. The more indistinguishable the conditions of work and leisure, the more surreptitiously working hours can be extended. To work best, we should never actually feel like we are working. Still, who’s kidding who? Bootcamp or playground, despite the prevailing metaphors, the workplace is exactly what it claims to be: a place to work.

Not surprisingly, the sectors which have been at the forefront of the trend have also been the ones to take things further, beyond the immediate physical environment of work, into the incorporation of established health practices such as meditation and yoga. Spurred not infrequently by Silicon Valley wunderkinds, numerous movements-cum-businesses to this effect have emerged, either as corporate programmes or for individual consumption. At Google, Buddhist monk-cum-Google employee number 107, Chade-Meng Tan, launched Search Inside Yourself, a programme to help Google employees handle stress and defuse tense workplace emotions through techniques with names such as ‘Stop, Breathe, Notice, Reflect and Respond’. Ariana Huffington developed GPS for the Soul and a slew of other apps such as Calm, Headspace, Breathe, 10% Happier, or BetterMe. The fitness industry has seen conventional sport and exercise spill over into a ubiquitous lifestyle concern, spawning a market of attendant apparel, athleisure, to stake its place in daily life.

In body, mind and spirit

The ultimate sector to benefit, however, has been the so-called ‘wellness industry’, which has made the notion of health as personal responsibility its founding principle. ‘Wellness requires the proactive, voluntary engagement of individuals to adopt activities and lifestyles that move us toward an optimal state of wellbeing in body, mind, and spirit’, states the Global Wellness Institute (GWI), a non-profit organization ‘with a mission to empower wellness worldwide by educating public and private sectors about preventive health and wellness’. GWI defines wellness as the opposite end of an imaginary spectrum that starts with traditional health. While health remains the duty of doctors and clinicians, wellness is driven by self-responsibility. What that entails precisely, however, remains fuzzy. Definitions include anything from being in a good mood to a focus on the community, stress resilience, restfulness and joy. If healthcare cures, wellness is all that prevents us from becoming sick, and, like healthcare, it is subject to perpetual progressive insight.

Wellness is, meanwhile, big business. According to the GWI, the wellness market represents 5.3 per cent of global economic output; the world spends US$7 trillion on healthcare alone and spends an additional US$4.2 trillion on feeling well. This considerable piece of the economic pie is comprised of anti-aging products, healthy eating, fitness, preventive medicine, wellness tourism, complementary medicines, and the so-called ‘spa economy’.

In declaring real estate its next frontier, wellness is also the domain where the notion of health and building are reconnected. At the time of writing, wellness real estate—for the most part, resorts and health ‘villages’ or housing—comprises 740 projects in thirty-four countries and is valued at US$134 billion. The two countries that by far lead wellness real estate are the US at US$52.4 billion and China at US$19.9 billion. ‘The way our homes have been built in the last century is reinforcing lifestyles that make us sick, stressed, alienated, and unhappy’, says the GWI. The institute cites a WHO report, whereby 23 per cent of global deaths (12.6 million deaths) in 2012 were due to ‘modifiable environmental factors’. It goes on to cite a World Economic Forum study, according to which ‘the cumulative global economic impact of chronic disease could reach $47 trillion by 2030’.

The GWI is not alone in attributing disease to the built environment. Today, the list of illnesses caused by buildings and ‘unhealthy’ urban environments is matched by a slew of definitions and organizations for fixing them. The Healthy Building Index (HBI), Sustainable and Healthy Environments (SHE); Arc, Fitwel and WELL building standards for offices; Building Healthy Places for cities. When not fervently allying themselves with these entities, architecture offices have sometimes developed their own in-house programmes, such as Atkins’s Putting People First.

What might some of these organizations recommend? The Building Healthy Places standard encourages urban designers to ‘incorporate a mix of land uses’, ‘host a farmers market’ and, just in case anyone was still ignorant of the matter, to ‘select building materials that are not known to emit harmful toxins’. Yet the latest generation of healthy architecture seeks to go beyond the traditional tools of placemaking into a domain of quantified high-tech.

The Villa Valencia by Location Ventures, which was set to open in 2021 but is, at the time of writing, still under construction in Coral Gables, South Florida—not too far from Seaside, the mecca of New Urbanism—intends to employ new technologies to guarantee that residents feel healthier. The sales pitch highlights ‘hospital-grade air, energizing light and pollutant-free water to protect from contaminants, free radicals and aging’. Residents can set alerts for certain allergens and be notified when these reach a critical level indoors, automatically turning on the HVAC to circulate fresh air. Together with landscaped rooftops and a hammam-style spa, the makers of Villa Valencia aim to create a home that makes you live longer. ‘We’re catering for a clientele, an affluent clientele, and what we want to provide—and I’m careful to say this, it’s important —we want to create the healthiest home environment possible’, says Rishi Kapoor, head of Location Ventures. ‘What is wealth without health?’

– an edited excerpt from architect, verb: The New Language of Building by Reinier De Graaf

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