Designing for the five ways to well-being

By Koen Steemers
Daglicht en Architectuur

While the science of well-being is relatively nascent, the UK Government’s ‘Foresight’ project sheds a great deal of light on five factors that have a proven effect on well-being¹, leading to the definition of the Five Ways to Well-Being (connect, keep active, take notice, keep learning, give).² The question remains, though, how do we design buildings that can positively influence these five factors?

By Koen Steemers, Professor of Sustainable Design and has been Head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Cambridge


Based on the Five Ways to Well-Being that have recently been established by scientists - connect, keep active, take notice, keep learning, give - this article will outline some general criteria that architects can employ to promote well-being through their building designs.

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Rules of thumb for design

Design should be responsive to user needs, behaviours and requirements, offering users a freedom of choice and control over their environment.

It is evident from the available research that there are no singular or universal design solutions to ensure that every health parameter is optimised and that the inhabitants and the wider population will flourish. As a minimum, designers should ensure that direct physical health parameters (e.g. air quality) achieve a level that is considered ‘good enough’ to avoid ill health, whilst not impinging on the opportunity for design to integrate wider wisdom and to nudge occupants into positive health behaviours.

The fact that there are numerous strategies related to different settings and users suggests that it is important to design adaptable environments. This is particularly relevant in the context of demographic change and climate change but also changes in work, lifestyles and the availability of new technology. Design should thus be responsive to user needs, behaviours and requirements, offering users a freedom of choice and control over their environment.

A number of methods have emerged and are grouped below into key themes:

Neighbourhood and nature

There is a large amount of research related to the design of neighbourhoods that supports health and well-being. Some of the design characteristics that emerge consistently are:

  • High-density, mixed-use development to encourage walking and cycling (Keep Active) to access local services (Connect) – including access to public transport, health, social services, etc. − and reduce the reliance on the car.
  • The availability of diverse public open space (in higher proportion than private gardens), including a variety of high quality and accessible green space (for play, exercise, contemplation, allotments, socialising, etc.) and hard landscape (ideally traffic free or reduced − for play, outdoor eating, etc.). This supports all Five Ways to Well-Being.
  • Providing facilities and interest (Take Notice) in public open space – such as a biodiverse environment(encouraging a richness of flora and fauna), seating and wifi – adds to the potential for social interaction (Connect and Give) and extends the use of the space.
  • The threshold between the home and a neighbourhood, particularly in high-density scenarios, can be mediated with vegetation, both to give close contact with nature but also to provide a degree of separation and privacy.
  • Views of the neighbourhood and nature from the home are associated with psychological benefits and encourage social interaction (Connect) and supervision (Take Notice), so low window sills and openable windows are valuable aspects).
Views of the neighbourhood

Photo: Thekla Ehling

Moving and access

As we lead increasingly sedentary lifestyles, encouraging a modest level of activity becomes important in order to improve cardiac health, counteract obesity and maintain general fitness (Keep Active). The recommended level of activity is at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise (>3 METS, cycling or brisk walking) on five or more days per week, or 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity (>6 METS, jogging or gym exercises) three or more days per week.³

Although gyms have become increasingly popular for some (and can also support Connect), achieving improvement in fitness for all is the main goal. Moving up and down stairs is a simple and effective solution, which counters the tendency for choosing a bungalow house for retirement (resulting in reduced exercise at a time of life when it is important to stay active, and ending up with what is colloquially referred to as ‘bungalow knees’). Three-storey homes are likely to increase personal energy expenditure and can contribute to increased housing density, which in turn leads to other sustainable design opportunities.

Research on human energy expenditure in buildings has revealed that typical office workers are less physically active away from work, with an overall activity level marginally below the recommended levels. Thus even modest increases in domestic and neighbourhood activity levels through design can be health-enhancing. Climbing one floor by stairs accounts for 3.3% of extra daily energy expenditure, and getting up 20 times from a seated position equates to about 10% of a healthy daily total of metabolic activity4. Some stealthy design strategies to Keep Active are suggested:

  • Make circulation an enjoyable experience and provide rewards for the movement (avoid boring corridors, aim for good natural light, views, opportunities for spatial variation and encounter (Connect), use art, etc.). This also supports Take Notice.
  • Separate key spaces with stairs, which provide the most intense personal energy expenditure, to encourage movement (put the living space on a different level from the kitchen/dining area, don’t have toilets on every floor level).

Conversely, for those who are physically disabled or are wheelchair users, it is clear that all housing design must accommodate this. There are numerous guidance documents related to this,5 but some key considerations include:

  • Accessible dimensions for circulation areas (which can contribute to a more generous experience for all).
  • Level access thresholds throughout (valuable for families with prams).
  • Windowsill heights to enable views out when seated (views out, especially of natural scenes, are conducive to well-being).
  • Electrical sockets not too low, and worktops, handles, thermostats and light switches not too high (allowing all users control over their home environment).
  • The potential for a lift to be installed and/or the adaptation of the home for single-floor living (bedroom and bathroom on the ground floor – also useful for temporary ill health and privacy if designed well).

Such design considerations should also incorporate strategies to ensure that partners and carers of wheelchair users are encouraged to remain active.

Social interaction

Photo: Thekla Ehling


Poor nutritional eating habits can lead to obesity and related health problems. The preparation and cooking of (fresh) food can become a more social activity if the kitchen is designed to enable interaction with other members of the household or community.

At a community level, the provision of neighbourhood allotments to grow fresh food is recognised as enhancing health and well-being due to fresh produce, physical excursive and social interaction. Furthermore, the reduced reliance on the car for shopping and the avoidance of packaging and food miles, reduce the energy and other resources required, thus improving environmental sustainability.

With respect to the design of the home, the strategy is to create a sense of the theatre related to cooking, and enabling audience participation through the design of accessible workshops and adjacent seating. To support communal eating and the social interactions that result, the dining area/ table should be in close proximity to the kitchen (potentially upstairs to encourage physical excursus), limiting the temptation for TV dinners but also providing potential separation in terms of noise, odours and pollutants.

Indoor environmental quality


Natural light has a range of advantages over electric light, including its variability and efficiency, and creating an awareness and link to the outside conditions. Apart from being a free source of light within a home and thus, part of an energy efficient strategy, it will animate spaces and can create drama and diversity. Furthermore, the benefits to physical health are now well understood and can counteract seasonal affective disorder (SAD). However, over-illumination can be detrimental to comfort and disrupt sleep A number of rules of thumb emerge:

  • Orient rooms used in the morning (bedrooms and kitchen) to the morning light to provide a dose of light to stimulate the circadian rhythm (SAD light-box therapy typically prescribes 10,000 lux for 30 minutes in the morning).
  • Main habitable rooms should receive ‘good’ daylight (above 3% average daylight factor), and a key family room should have access to direct sunlight for at least 2 hours per day.
  • Windows with high head heights provide more access to daylight by an increased sky view ( which is particularly important in dense neighbourhoods) and better daylight distribution in the room.
  • Bedrooms, in particular, should have effective blackout options to support good sleep patterns, for example, in the form of thermal shutters (for cold periods) and/ or with adjustable louvres (for secure nighttime ventilation in warm conditions).
  • Personal control over the amount of daylight provides welcome opportunities for the inhabitant to adjust conditions to suit their patterns of use, and results in a greater sense of satisfaction with their environment. Windows should offer a range of conditions (e.g. light that is from above, the side, direct, diffuse, adjustable by shutters, louvres and blinds).
Views of the neighbourhood

Photo: Thekla Ehling


As with light, the thermal design strategy should create both comfortable and stimulating conditions that can exploit the climatic conditions to improve energy efficiency. The body senses the thermal environment not just in terms of the air temperature, but also radiant conditions (e.g. sunlight), air movement (e.g. natural ventilation) and the conduction of heat via surface materials (wood feels warm, stone feels cool). Each of these thermal characteristics is a function of, and an opportunity for, design:

“Design-led interventions can make better choices easier.”⁶

  • Exploit solar radiation to create sunny places to be on cool days, such as window seats (with warm surfaces) and sun spaces. Use heavyweight materials to absorb and retain the warmth.
  • Allow the user to adapt so that on hot days there are opportunities to find cool, shady places to sit on more conductive surfaces in a breeze.
  • Adaptive comfort theory reveals that thermal conditions can fluctuate and vary, rather than be constant or ‘optimised’. Occupant control and the adaptability of the design, to suit the users’ needs and preferences as they vary over time, are key factors to success.
  • To cool a building down during hot spells, design openings that allow the creation of nighttime ventilation that is secure (e.g. through louvered sections) and exploits stack and cross ventilation principles (e.g. use the height of a staircase to enable warm air to rise and escape at the top).


As with other aspects of environmental design, acoustic conditions can be used to create opportunities to support user needs and preferences. Although noise can cause stress, acoustic contact with the neighbourhood and nature can be valuable. Similarly, within the home, there are places and moments when acoustic privacy is welcome, although complete acoustic separation is rarely required.

  • To encourage Keep Learning behaviours, it is important to provide quiet, calm spaces for reading and studying.
  • To support activities such as music and indoor exercise without disturbing others, acoustic separation to some spaces is valuable.
  • Design openable windows so that people have the opportunity to connect and talk with passing neighbours.
  • In order to exploit natural ventilation in an urban environment, particularly at night, and when quiet conditions for learning or sleeping are sought, the design should incorporate noise-attenuated air paths.
  • Separate noise-creating sources – such as washing machines and dishwashers – from living and study spaces to support social and learning activities.
  • Consider the acoustics as one progresses through the house: a gravel path will alert the occupant to visitors arriving; an echoey hallway and stairwell can signal when people are gathering; a carpeted corridor dampens the noise to the study, and soft furnishings and bedding creates a tranquil environment for sleep.

Design quality

There are a number of other design characteristics that impact on the Five Ways behaviours; these are briefly outlined below:

  • The colour of our environment, such as interior walls, can impact on our learning behaviour and, in certain spaces, can be used to support learning. Research has concluded that “red enhances performance on a detail-oriented task [such as doing homework], whereas blue enhances performance on a creative task [like art of social debate]”.⁷
  • Ceiling heights can play a role in our social perspective and ability to focus.
  • Recent findings show that when people are in a low-ceilinged space, they are better at focussed tasks, such as studying or reading. More generous spaces prime us to feel free, which tends to lead people to engage in more abstract styles of thinking; they are better able to take a wider perspective and see what aspects are in common, particularly appropriate for social gathering spaces.⁸
  • The form of space influences our sense of comfort and beauty. Curved forms are perceived as pleasant and in recent experiments, “participants were more likely to judge spaces as beautiful if they were curvilinear than if they were rectilinear”. The researchers went on to conclude that this “well-established effect of contour on aesthetic preference can be extended to architecture”.⁹
  • Thus blue, tall and curvilinear spaces, with views of the blue sky, are more likely to be pleasant, sociable and creative environments. Conversely, red, low-ceilinged, rectilinear environments are more likely to encourage focus, concentration and study.
Views of the neighbourhood

Photo: Thekla Ehling


Designing for well-being and health includes a plethora of opportunities and a range of criteria. The strategy is that designs are good enough to meet the quantitative health measures but are also adaptable to and integrated with a broader set of principles to support well-being. There is a potential risk that in an attempt to design the technically ‘perfect’ environment, we risk reducing the importance of the stimuli that encourage occupants to be active, aware and engaged.

Designs should ‘nudge’ users into positive behaviours, not by making them comfortable and controlling their environment excessively closely, but by providing a range of suitable stimuli for behaviour change. An extreme example of this is the design for the Bioscleave House by Gins and Arakawa, intended to “strengthen life by challenging it ... to stimulate physiological and psychological renewal by creating living environments that would be intentionally uncomfortable."10 It achieves this by, amongst other things, changing floor-to-ceiling heights, distinct use of colour, uneven and sloping floor surfaces, and uncomfortable door sizes. This intentionally disorientating approach demonstrates an extreme approach, but a moderate and pragmatic orchestration of architecture to promote well-being is clearly viable.

One of the opportunities of architecture is that, through the design of form, space and materiality, it can order our relationships with each other and our environment by creating interactive settings for life. It can do this in such a way as to provide opportunities to improve our sense of well-being, enrich our lives, make our lives healthier and more pleasurable. For example, the shaft of sunlight in a recessed window seat that creates a moment of warmth and calm, combined with a glimpse of nature, soft and acoustically absorbent seat materials, and the tactile delight of the smooth grip to adjust a wooden shutter.

Our well-being is intimately linked with such moments of delight. To an extent, such stimuli happen all the time, often without being recognised or designed, but when they are orchestrated throughout a building, the effect is cumulative. One study shows, for example, that a holistic approach to the design of schools and offices can boost performance. Likewise, it showed that holistic hospital design can even facilitate better healing. A poor building has few such moments of delight and leaves our lives impoverished, whereas a successful piece of architecture is one where there is an accumulation of many moments of delight that support the five ways of well-being.


  1. Foresight. (2008). Mental capital and well-being. London: The Government Office for Science.
  2. Aked, J., Thompson, S., Marks, N., & Cordon, C. (2008). Five ways to well-being: The evidence. London: New Economics Foundation.
  3. US DHHS. (2000). Healthy people 2010: Understanding and improving health (2nd ed.). US Department of Health and Human Services. Washington D.C.: US Government Printing Office.
  4. Baker, N., Rassia, S., & Steemers, K. (2011). Designing for occupant movement in the workplace to improve health. 5th International Symposium on Sustainable Healthy Buildings (pp. 25–33). Seoul: Centre for Sustainable Healthy Buildings, Kyung Hee University.
  5. Lifetime Homes. (2011). Lifetime Homes Design Guide. Watford: BRE Press.
  6. Mehta, R., & Zhu, R. (2009). Blue or red? Exploring the effect of colour on cognitive task performances. Science, 1226–1229.
  7. Meyers-Levy, J., & Zhu, R. (2007). The influence of ceiling height: The effect of priming on the type of processing that people use. Journal of Consumer Research, 174–186.
  8. Vartaniana, O., Navarrete, G., Chatterjee, A., Fich, L., Leder, H., Modrono, C., et al. (2013). Impact of contour on aesthetic judgments and approach-avoidance decisions in architecture. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA), 10446–10453.
  9. Unwin, S. (2015). Twenty-five buildings every architect should understand. Abingdon: Routledge.
  10. King, D., Thompson, P.,&Darzi, A.(2014).Enhancing health and well-being though ‘behavioural design’. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 336–337.

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