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Choice Architecture: Cambridge meets California. Gnarly.

5 Check Points for Healthy Spaces

"Choice" is no longer a slang Generation X throwback to eighties California. "Choice Architecture" is now about intentionally designing the types of spaces that nudge users into making better choices for well-being.

Koen Steemers, Professor of Sustainable Design, and his Cambridge University report, teaches us about the three elements of wellness and also identifies components of Choice Architecture.

This Elegant Organic Home case study aims to inspire you to introduce healthy principals into your present dwelling. Check points for Choice Architecture can help you carefully choose your next casa.


“Choice Architecture”, the idea that design can make

healthy living an easier choice to act upon.

Three elements are considered when choosing a design for a home:

health, comfort, happiness.


What is health and happiness?

Health not just about an absence of conditions or symptoms. It includes a sense of well-being.

Well-being involves good function plus, actually feeling well. It involves a positive engagement, curiosity and happiness. Happiness is about experiencing ranges of emotions including joy, peace and contentment.

Comfort is a “condition of mind which expresses satisfaction with experiences in [it’s] environment”. Comfort includes psychology around expectation and control, plus physical things like air movement, temperature, acoustics and visuals.


According to the Cambridge Report, there are

5 ways that Choice Architecture impacts your well-being.


Healthy Architecture Encourages Physical Activity

A well designed home encourages physical movement, especially later in life when exercise is important.

Healthy homes have stairs. Avoiding the tendency to opt for a retirement bungalow can result in a reduction in "what is colloquially referred to as 'bungalow knees'".

The Cambridge Study found that " three storey houses are likely to increase personal energy expenditure". One floor of stairs accounts for 3.3% of extra daily expenditure, which contributes to a healthy daily total of metabolic activity. (1)

Healthy designs include areas mediated with vegetation, and artwork, so that attractive experiences encourage movement. Stairs and different floor surfaces encourage well-being.

Other research shows that aging individuals who wear cushioned shoes even inside, may become more likely to fall. Nerve receptors in the feet that detect position need to have more direct ground contact on varied surfaces, to stay responsive.


Choice Casas Contribute Social Capital

A home that is designed well increases Giving. Studies have shown that the the presence of environmental stressors reduces helping behaviors… and social capital.

Interior stressors include poor air flow, light, and noise. A home that does not isolate the cook away from guests also increases social health.


Human Connection Begins with Buildings

Healthy designs are pedestrian orientated, providing non-fleeting connection with others.

Privacy is important but so is remaining connected to public spaces! Friendly cultures embrace sitting on the stoop and engaging with passers by.

To encourage socialization, chairs facing the neighborhood or views of publicly accessible areas, even while sitting, improves connectivity.


Nice Design Takes Notice

Being aware of thoughts, feelings as much as external beauties occurs when pleasant features in the layout trigger mindful engagement, throughout the home.

It can be artwork, vignettes of accessorized furnishings, or views out windows. Diverse types of open space with notable features reduces dead space that can sap motivation.


Academia approves of Architecture that Inspires Learning

Design that keeps its occupants aspiring to learn is a feature of well-designed buildings. The Cambridge study suggested designated spaces for creativity, sound-dampened areas for music, hobby nooks, and quiet places for reading.


Your Check Points for Choice Architecture

  • Does the property have easy access to nature?

  • Are walkways mediated by art, or vegetation?

  • Is there lots of open movement and accessibility?

  • Is privacy balanced with a visible connection to public natural spaces?

  • Do seating arrangements allow for non-fleeting connections with people?

  • Do low window-sills connect interior to exterior?

  • How many opportunities are there for noticing, as you move throughout the property?

  • Does lighting highlight beautiful features, and places to showcase art?

  • Is there more than one level (ideally, three) with stairs?

  • Are there various types of walking surfaces rather than a continuous surface?

  • Are washrooms dispersed over the levels, so that physical activity is required for basic tasks?

  • Do multiple spaces in the home inspire learning and creative expression?

  • Is the overall environment pleasant, including natural light, temperature, ventilation, and sound?

  • Does dining have sense of theatre, eaters close to the cook but far from the T.V.?


Case Study: Elegant Organic Home Choice Scores

Nature-Adjacent Neighborhood for a Natural Home

Mountain biking, hiking and walking is close. The property has diverse open spaces: there are rock gardens, flower gardens, tree gardens and southern sunlit area for a food garden.

Natural outdoor spaces are abundant on the lot: lavender field. hanging bed under a walnut tree, private patios with stellar views of nature.

A House with Built-in Human Connection

Low window sills are an intended feature (dogs can view nature), as are fully openable window-doors.

Large sundecks allow you to see people go by, on their way to the trails. There are frequent reminders that neighbors enjoy a healthy lifestyle.

Noticing Nice Spaces in a Minimalist Dwelling

Elegant Organic Home is a form of artwork, but also showcases the arts. Lighting is arranged to highlight features.

There is no "dead space" in this uncluttered home!

Cars slow down in front of the home to take in the property, visually. The architecture encourages a pleasant curiosity, and yet there are enough privacy landscape features to filter kind-hearted interest.

The views: a lake view with no man-made structures in the way. Mountains: east and south.

Physical Activity Close to Home

Elegant Organic Home is a home to an active family and pets. The layout inspires movement and health: lake and mountain sports, wine tours, walks between cafes and galleries near a stretch of public lakeshore.

There's spaces for quiet swimming or floating, and multiple spaces for yoga and gardening. Circulation throughout the property is an enjoyable experience with many mindful rewards.

Healthy Indoor Environments include Lighting and Fresh Air

Natural light is abundant, here. Harsh light is refracted by the wall textures. Window placements allow low-angle sunlight in winter but exclude searing summer sunlight. Lighting is dimmable throughout, and intentionally excludes blue-hue or flickering bulbs.

The thick walls insulate from wide temperature variances. The home stays passively cool in summer, passively warm in winter. Textured stucco walls soften sound, and moderate humidity.

Ventilation is secure (windows lock in tilt position). There are excellent cross-flows of pine-freshened air.

Clay walls diffuse light gently.

Open Concept Spaces Contribute to Social Capital

Design is intended to recreate the warm hospitality and for quality social interactions from sauna to kitchen.

The open concept kitchen seats 12 guests. Outdoor eating space is warmed by an outdoor fireplace. There are conversation areas pool-side and shady patios. Introverts may opt out upon outdoor swinging beds.

Healthy Architecture Inspires Continual Learning

There are designated spaces for creativity, sound-dampened areas for music, a library for reading, a roof-top patio for stargazing, a quiet studio attic for writing.

The home has proven to stimulate continual learning as the occupants have developed their multivalent interests, through both self-directed study, and formal education.

Heal Estate Means Movement and Accessibility

The quarter acre property, and its driveway and pathways are all flat but there are staircases!

The interior flow is open-concept for air flow. The eating areas are beautiful theatres of relaxation and enjoyment, totally open and free-flowing between hosts and guests.

Choice Architectural design nudges positive behaviors, not by making a comfortable and controlling environment,

but by providing a range of suitable stimuli for behavior change." (1)


For further reading check out this extreme, less-elegant example of Choice Architecture:

The Bioscleave House by Gins and Arakawa, intends to "‘strengthen life by challenging it… It achieves this by, amongst other things changing floor-to-ceiling heights…uneven…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”.

This article draws heavily from the following reference.

Major kudos to the authors & researchers:


All else: © Låna Brown 2017

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