I’ve been curious about a house’s ability to make or break your health for a long time, ever since I read an interview with a 90-year-old woman who lived in Racine, in one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses. Wright built these houses for the middle class starting in 1936, in an effort to bring good architecture to the masses. They were one story, L-shaped houses, and are considered the precursor to the popular ranch house design (the photo above shows a modern fieldstone ranch, probably built in the 1940s, that has elements of Wright’s style).
The woman told the reporter that she attributed her long life to the Usonian house. She described the way the house nurtured her and made her feel happy by its very design. The bedroom made her feel cozy and protected; the kitchen was neat and functional and provided a place for everything; the family room encouraged congenial gatherings. She was happy in that house, and happy people are healthier.
Here are three ways there is scientific evidence that where you live really can affect your health.
1. British writer Alain de Botton is a genius at writing about the way architecture affects people every day. In The Architecture of Happiness (2006), he connects beauty in architecture with the well-being of the individual and society.
He writes: “Taking architecture seriously therefore makes some singular strenuous demands upon us … It means conceding that we are inconveniently vulnerable to the color of our wallpaper and that our sense of purpose may be derailed by an unfortunate bedspread. At the same time, it means acknowledging that buildings are able to solve no more than a fraction of our dissatisfactions or prevent evil from unfolding under their watch.”
*Raises hand* I, Laura Tiebert, freely admit that an unfortunate choice of bedspread has derailed me. No, really — it sounds ridiculous, but an ugly bedspread is a downer, don’t you think? And likewise, a fortunate choice of bedspread has the power to make me happy.
2. Cognitive scientist and design critic Don Norman links design and emotion in his TED Talk, three ways that good design makes you happy. Norman talks more of design of everyday objects, like juicers or knives, than architecture, but when he describes the sensual experience of standing under a waterfall shower from Kohler, you see how his assertion that good design should be beautiful, functional and reflective (meaning that you can tell a story about it) applies to home.
“I really have the feeling that pleasant things work better,” he says. The same applies to houses. Pleasant homes work better.
3. When a group of young designers, Trial + Design, produced 21 projects over 21 days, they demonstrated how health and wellness could be incorporated into all kinds of spaces to become a holistic part of our lives. Young designers understand that where we live affects our health. Calling their mission “healthier, happier thinking, one design at a time,” designers in Shanghai, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. came up with clever ideas for hotels, work, schools and more. My favorite? A university library equipped with power napping carrels and their own private blackout curtains. Who among us, back when we were sleep-deprived students, didn’t try to catch a few Z’s in the library? Power naps make you happy.