Building Wellness into Building: Improving the Livability of Homes

By Cheri' Ben-lesau

Today’s leaders in architectural design have embraced a holistic approach that goes far beyond mere aesthetics. Today and into the future, the best of us will focus on designing buildings that are sustainably sourced, affordable, and created to enhance the well-being of end users.

While much of what makes cities livable—things like reliable public transportation, walkable-bikeable infrastructure, a clean environment, and low crime—may be beyond my ability as an architect to guarantee, building in ways that improve the livability of a home are well within my grasp. As an architectural designer, I have asked myself these questions: Can building design improve longevity, decrease isolation, be affordable, and even affect happiness?

Yes, absolutely, it can.

I was inspired to consider longevity by looking at the shared habits of communities where people live longer than average. These pockets of longevity are often called Blue Zones. In his book, Dan Beuttner lists the lifestyle habits these communities shared: moderate, regular physical activity, purpose, reduced stress, moderate calorie intake of a mostly plant-based diet, moderate alcohol use, spirituality, and engagement with family and friends.

If you want to live long and prosper, garden. Do it outside. Buettner and other researchers discovered that outdoor gardening is integral to longevity. 

Isolation is another critical and growing concern affecting our quality of life: what is referred to as social engagement in the Beuttner studies. Arguably the most comprehensive study done on longevity and well-being, the Harvard Study of Adult Development shows that good relationships equal longer, happier lives. Being lonely is as bad for you as being obese, and nearly half of Americans are lonely.

We need a new spatial contract. In the context of widening political divides and growing economic inequalities, we call on architects to imagine spaces in which we can generously live together.”

Hashim Sarkis, Curator La Biennale 2020

Big homes are expensive homes, and expensive homes are out of reach for many. Housing prices have outpaced wages in 80% of markets. Enter the trend for smaller homes. According to Zillow.com, the median price of a home is $156 a square foot. A 1300-square-foot home is half the price of the 2,600-square-foot monsters that are the current norm, and if well-designed, a house is highly livable at 1,000 square feet or even less. 

So how does this tie into how I will design houses? Enter the pocket neighborhood. These neighborhoods sometimes spring up accidentally. The outcome of less isolation and less crime caught people’s attention, and the positives could be engineered such that now pocket neighborhoods are being built with quality of life in mind. Architect Paul Chapin coined the term that has now come to represent neighborhoods that are typified by 14 or less smaller houses arranged around a central courtyard and designed to balance privacy and interaction. Some of these communities have shared cars, shared entertainment spaces, storage sheds, and my favorite is one in California where the entire community is planted to be edible.

The way I plan to improve how people live in their homes is to design and build homes of 1,000-square-feet or less in small, defined community groups of 10 to 14 units. Parking will be on the external/back side of the buildings. Porches will face inward towards a courtyard that will house amenities such as a recreation area, enclosed meeting room, and community gardens. Houses will be small, designed for people to age in place, and will use low, fire-load materials to improve safety, deter termites (an issue in the Gulf South), and cut down on insurance premiums.

An architect cannot dictate spirituality, levels of alcohol and tobacco use, or make couch potatoes get out there and garden. A pocket neighborhood, especially one with a garden option, would not attract everyone. But for the right people looking to improve their lifestyle, live affordably, and live engaged and active, a pocket community could possibly improve not only longevity, but it could, dare we say, even make people happy.

Successfully designing highly livable homes requires collaboration. It takes a holistically designed community, and the cooperation of architects, builders, city planners, and community leaders. But the improvements will start with the leadership and artistic vision of the architectural designer, and this designer will engage by building pocket communities.

About the author

Cheri’ Ben-Iesau is an artist, a U.S. veteran, and a California Native whose parents are both artists—a trait Cheri inherited. She served in the U.S. Coast Guard and now, in a complete shift of careers, is pursuing a degree at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, Louisiana, that will allow her to express her creativity in a big way, while also helping shape her community.


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