The history and appearance of our cities has been shaped by epidemics: the plague in the Middle Ages; smallpox in the 17th century; and cholera and yellow fever in the 19th century. And the pandemic caused by the coronavirus may well change the way we design and build our homes, giving priority to aspects related to our health.
The homes in which our lives are currently confined are inextricably linked to our health. Aspects such as ventilation, light or thermal comfort all impact on our physical and emotional wellbeing. We discussed all these points during our interview with Sonia Hernández-Montaño, an architect and founder of the Arquitectura Sana studio and Health Coordinator for the Architects’ Association of Catalonia (COAC).
As Director of the postgraduate course in Architecture and Health at the Sert School, you have published a series of recommendations to ensure a healthier home during the lockdown. Do you think that the current situation will make us reflect on the way our homes affect our health?
This pandemic is truly devastating, but my hope is that it will highlight the close ties between architecture and health that have existed throughout history. Indeed, urban planning and architecture have evolved in parallel with public health and hygiene. Today, homes have become temples of health, as they are our safe haven, whilst public spaces project a sense of hostility. Needless to say, this is not actually the case, but our vision of the home and the public space will shift towards the naturalisation and regeneration of the environment, which will also extend to the scale of territorial and urban planning.
What is the connection between architecture and health?Architecture is our third skin. The design, building and maintenance standards of our homes and workplaces will determine our biological system, and by extension, our health. Taking health as a factor for consideration when planning implies creating spaces adapted to our physical, chemical, biological, energy and our emotional needs in order to improve our quality of life. Working in the field of healthy architecture requires including health considerations in the design process, the choice of materials and building systems and installations, as well as aspects such as maintenance and the useful life of the space.
What are the key features of a healthy home? What role does wood play in all this?
Homes have to be efficient and minimise their use of resources. Yet focusing exclusively on the environment and energy is not enough to guarantee a healthy home. It also requires optimal ventilation and measures to prevent the spread of fibres, particles, chemical products and biological agents (fungi, yeast, viruses, allergens, bacteria, etc.). Attention must also be paid to the electrical and telecommunication installations in order to minimise radiation exposure. The layout should also be flexible, tailored to cater for each family’s needs. The spaces that sustain life (the kitchen, bathroom, laundry room, etc.) should also be given the consideration they deserve, rather than being relegated to residual areas.
Wood is an excellent material in many regards: its lifecycle, texture, the fact that it is an organic material and easy to handle, as well as the opportunities for local sourcing, the perfect combination of insulation and heat accumulation. Yet a wooden structure doesn’t necessarily mean that a home is healthy. That requires the combination of multiple factors such as the design, the other materials used, the installations, etc.
What kind of deficiencies in our homes can cause illnesses?
The ‘Sick Building Syndrome’ is mainly associated with office spaces, but it can also occur in the home. It’s a combination of causes such as deficient ventilation, damp, acoustic problems, lack of natural lighting and poor artificial lighting, thermal discomfort and a high presence of synthetic materials and faulty electrical systems. Some of these parameters are visible to the naked eye, but others are not so obvious and therefore require a specific analysis by a professional.