“We’re creatures of the place we’re in”, neuroscientist Kate Jeffrey told the Conscious Cities conference in 2017. The simplicity of the statement belies its significance; everything from a building’s façade to its symmetry can impact our wellbeing. And within spaces where levels of anxiety are high, like universities, it’s more vital than ever to carefully consider the impact of each design decision.

If we consider an ‘average’ university for a moment, we might envisage lecture theatres, libraries, seminar rooms and studios. Perhaps a café or student union is in the mix, but generally speaking, spaces are geared towards the practicality of education: chairs to sit, tables for laptops, shelves for books. Functionality is satisfied but were we to look for elements that fulfil other needs we may be left wanting.

According to the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), “students are significantly more anxious than other young people: just 16% of students surveyed reported feeling ‘low anxiety’, against 37% for all those aged 20 to 24.” And the levels are rising, with the BBC reporting that the number of “students seeking mental health support while studying at university has increased by more than 50% in five years.”

An article entitled ‘I Can’t Concentrate’ by Students Against Depression gets to the nub of the problem: “Anxiety can severely impact our ability to focus on the important things in our life, including our course. It is very easy to quickly fall behind with our studies, creating more problems for us to deal with,” one student wrote. In other words, anxiety can breed further anxiety as students, unable to focus on their studies, begin to see their work and grades suffer.

Support from tutors and counselling are the more traditional methods used to help students cope with anxiety, but as the number of students wrestling with it continues to rise, it’s clear that more creative solutions need to be explored.

“Taking preventative action to promote good mental health is critical,” said Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, and wellbeing-focused design could well be one of the first lines of defence. In fact, we’re already seeing it manifesting elsewhere. Mental health within the workplace has been in the spotlight over the past couple of years, with open plan office layouts being linked to low employee satisfaction, poor mental health and anxiety, sparking a collective rethink.

“Open plan offices may have short-term financial benefits, but these benefits may be substantially lower than the costs associated with decreased job satisfaction and wellbeing,” said Dr Tobias Otterbring, the lead author of a study of the relationship between office type and job satisfaction published by the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health. Indeed, research by Brickendon showed that 8 in 10 workers claim hot desking affects their wellbeing and, in total, 15.4 million working days were lost in 2017/18 as a result of work-related stress, anxiety or depression.

In response, Copenhagen-based research and design lab SPACE10 recently redesigned their headquarters to prioritise better mental health amongst their team. “Rather than having to make do with an open office plan, we now have the ability to work in an open meeting room, or semi-closed cubicles, or pods – all whenever we like,” they said of the project. Echoing the benefits of a ‘Third Space’ [link to third space piece], SPACE10 emphasised the importance of “treating people fairly rather than the same”, accommodating for different preferences; introverts and extroverts; quiet and chatting; neat desks and busy creative spaces.

In a similar act of innovation, Google partnered with scientists on a Milan Design Week exhibition that demonstrated how different aesthetic experiences can affect us, both positively and negatively. ‘A Space for Being’, featured three subtly different rooms, distinguished via varying sounds, scents, lighting and textures. As reported by Dezeen, visitors entered the rooms wearing wristbands with the ability to track physical and physiological responses, providing important data as to how good – or bad – design can impact our wellbeing.

Such a wealth of research and innovation within the workplace sector poses an exciting opportunity for universities to embrace ‘anti-anxiety architecture’ and centre supporting research. As the University of Sydney wrote in a policy paper promoting mental wellbeing in their universities: “Universities are in an ideal position through which to research and test new ways of designing the built environment to support the mental wellbeing of its inhabitants.”

Fortunately, many of the answers are already out there. Some necessary design shifts are obvious, perhaps, but not so obvious that they should be overlooked in favour of more complex concepts. Natural light, for instance, does wonders for improving both mood and productivity. A sense of control has also been identified as crucial to personal wellbeing. This could mean participation in the design of a space or furniture on wheels and flexible panelling which allows students to adapt a space to their needs.

Bigger, systemic shifts include the design of easy-to-navigate buildings, carefully considered and balanced architectural stimulation, spaces which encourage community, and quiet, private spots for deep concentration. Views of greenery, the geometry of a space and coherent open spaces can all promote mental wellbeing. When we consider how a space might shape our behaviour, the priorities of design instantly change.

Anti-anxiety architecture requires a holistic approach, encompassed particularly thoroughly within the WELL Building Standards, an evidence-based standard which breaks down and formalises what could easily turn into an abstract notion of ‘wellness’. Built around ten concepts including air, sound, light, mind and community, WELL certifications recognise buildings which promote wellbeing and, since their conception in 2014, point to a new era in both design and how we categorise success outside of productivity.

“Higher education is about making lives better”, says Hugo Dale-Harris of HEPI, “That’s why we need better wellbeing metrics and, maybe even a wellbeing league table.”

By embracing such an approach and embedding wellbeing in campus design decisions, universities could unlock a new era in education; a new direction which lowers anxiety, while boosting enjoyment and results. After all, in an increasingly anxious, health-focused society, it’s feasible that wellbeing could soon be ranked, just as grades and employment rates are, so why not design for it?

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