There is a great industry focus now on healthy spaces, or interior designed environments that encourage healing and relaxation. This kind of exploration emphasises the influencing power that interior design decisions can have over people.
But with the good comes the bad.
On the flip side of these healing spaces though, are the unhealthy spaces. Which begs the very important question:
If our interior spaces can make us well, can they also make us unwell?
While there are a number of theories and heavy debate about this idea, an overwhelming majority of information suggests that it is true. While certain environments help us to heal, it only makes sense that the opposite would also be true.
Examples of this negative response to an interior environment has been so well investigated, doctors have in fact labeled it in medical terms as ‘sick building syndrome’ (SBS). This occurs when a person has a negative reaction to either a room or an entire building that has no identifiable cause of specific illness. More specific is ‘building related illness’ (BRI), where an individual will actually present with symptoms of a diagnosable illness, which are generally attributed to interior airborne contaminants.
While these workplace related health conditions may not be widely discussed, a 1984 World Health Organisation Committee reported that a whopping 30% of new and remodeled buildings throughout the world had issues relating to air quality. This is one of the key causes of the above two health concerns and can be accredited to poor building design, ventilation and various other reasons.
Symptoms of SBS include headaches and eye, nose and throat irritation, itchy skin, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, sensitivity to odors and difficulty concentrating. In sufferers of SBS these symptoms usually desist as soon the individual leaves the ‘unhealthy’ space. Sufferers of BRI show slightly more extreme symptoms, which include fever, muscle aches, chills, chest tightness and coughing, with symptoms often persisting even after people leave the space.
Not only is the presence of these unhealthy environments making us sick, a massive amount of productivity is being lost due to design and ventilation issues.
The key in turning these buildings around is ventilation. Not every space has to be world class in order for it to function without harming those inside, but small steps can be taken in order to create a space that is not damaging. In achieving this turn around, design care must be taken to ensure maximum ventilation, low VOC paints and flooring materials should be used to protect users of the building from harsh chemicals and the inclusion of some form of plant life can boost productivity by 15% and help reduce stress.
It is very positive that designers are looking to create spaces that are good for us. What is important not to forget, is that already built spaces need just as much care, if not more, in their maintenance and upgrades in order to avoid becoming unhealthy and potentially dangerous for those who enter them.