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Architecture and Wellness

We might not be able to pinpoint exactly when wellness became Wellness, when it became a category, like light, or space, or air, but the qualitative aspects of how people live has been present in our thinking since the earliest days of our practice. When situation our practice and our approach, we think about the myth of sun seekers, about the mythos of California and the way in which projects like the Lovell Health House, designed by Richard Neutra and built in 1929, were just precursors to every house now being, at least potentially and however subliminally, a Health House.

Lovell Health House

As designers who have been working in California since 2006, we’ve been influenced by the way in which the state, more than any other, has always seemed to be on the leading edge of ideas about health, the emphasis on fresh air and light. “California modernism,” while it doesn’t directly inform some of the more formal elements of our practice, exists in our emphasis on blending inside and outside, and incorporating the elements of nature—an attention to the natural rhythms of the day and night, an attunement to the way in which birds, trees, and other animals participate in our worlds, an acceptance of how not everything can be controlled but much can be managed—into each and every one of our projects. We see architecture as a method for providing the best possible life for each person who interacts with the house, whether that’s a client asking for us to help them design their life-long dream house, a developer interested in expanding their basic understanding of how wellness can become Wellness, or a child’s guest, coming over for a playdate. We want our work to have enough space and capacity and openness to be able to formulate a supportive environment for anyone and everyone who comes into contact with our projects, whether they’ll ever step foot inside or simply walk by.

We rely on openness and understanding, and on a continued return to the idea that our lives are lived on the intimate scale. It’s so compelling for architects to think on larger scales - of the city of the planet, of the urban fabric. But it’s also crucial to think through the scale of the body. In order to be able to do that, we think about houses and how our designs relate to architectural history; we find contemporary references and historical moments in the work that we do. Sometimes, we think in formal terms, finding ourselves invested in making the ideal gable shape, or wondering how the sun will hit a stretch of wall, but what we do through all of it is continue to return to the scale of the person, the moment, the second in which they open their eyes and begin to take it all in. Other times, we think more pragmatically, about a person’s desires, drives, needs. We always think about wellness as a holistic category, another word we might not have used until recently but that, when we look back on our work, has also informed everything we do.

Switchback house

Over the course of our decades of experience, we have broken Wellness down into four design categories:

  • Circadian Rhythms (bedrooms, bathrooms)

  • Social Connectedness (urbanity and social spaces / living and entertaining spaces)

  • Health and nutrition (kitchens & dining)

  • Mindfulness and Environmental (indoor/outdoor spaces)

Circadian Rhythms

We think about light in a deliberate way and as more than a formal exercise. The control of light gives us a way to shape the rhythm of a daily lives of our clients. For example, we might have clients with different bedtime preferences, where one likes to go to bed early, dimming the lights and waking to the sunshine, and where the other wants to stay up later, working and thinking with illumination brought to life by the creativity of others - using lamps, and lighting, bulbs and coils, to keep the day going just a little bit longer. When we are designing a home, we wonder what the first half hour of someone’s day is going to be like. Do they wake up, bounding out of bed full of energy, delighted that the sun streamed in through the east-facing window? Or do they wake up groggy, needing a second to take their sleep mask off, letting their eyes adjust, grateful for their north-facing bedroom that lets them slowly, slowly, slowly get used to being in the world? Do they sleep with someone or alone ? Are they absolutely in love with their partner but cannot sleep if there’s someone else in bed? Are they someone who needs the presence of another, even if another is someone who routinely stays up and sleeps in two hours later? Or do they not know, and need us to draw it out?

The beginning and the end of the day are both about light. About creating architectural conditions for light to be deployed and controlled and thought about, about processing light through windows or walls. For example, we worked with a couple who had one good sleeper and one challenged sleeper; our intervention was to design the primary suite almost like a movie theater, introducing a turn and a corner so that one person could wake up, slip out of bed, turn the corner and use the bathroom, turning on the light and making a tiny bit of noise without ever waking their partner. That choice was deliberate, one that took all of our architectural skills to figure out how to do, but that now simply feels intuitive, thoughtful, carefully placed.

Social Connectedness

The last year and a half, of course, have brought us into such profoundly close communion with our living spaces. So many of us have worked from home where we used to commute to offices, have learned how to have the places that we maybe used to spend a few hours in, most of them sleeping, have become our everything - our place of restoration, our place of enlivenment, our date night go-to, our kids’ school, our art studio, our all of it. And with that renewed attention and the new pressures and difficulties of living through the time that we’re living in, we’ve come to realize as a practice how deeply essential the residential built environment is, how we can’t cut corners or not think through everything as deeply as possible. We rely on each other as social animals to keep cueing the ways in which we can live our healthiest lives, no matter what’s going on outside, and we as designers and architects rely on listening to our clients, our partners, our friends, to tell us what really matters. Buildings connect to the urban and rural fabric, and we think deeply about how our projects meet the sidewalk, the ground, the condition.

For one of our projects, we flipped the plan so that the public spaces were on the top floor and the private ones on the ground. Usually, houses are reversed - with public spaces accessible right when you walk in and bedrooms tucked far into the second or third floors. Here, we chose to do this, and to keep an open plan that connected balcony to kitchen to sunken living room to back porch, so that we could begin to integrate guests and visitors into the building’s sense of home. Needing to walk upstairs and then enter a long open space that included a kitchen, dining area, and living room changes the relationship between hosts and guests, and invites a more intimate sense of connection.

Health and Nutrition

So central to the functioning of a home—and as the Swiss modernist Le Corbusier said once, a home is a machine for living in—is the kitchen. Some clients feel like they live most of their home lives in the kitchen, cooking elaborate meals with their children or just with each other; others feel like the kitchen is there more for display, or to help them support rich and varied lives outside of the home. Some clients plan on having large families and want a kitchen that can be spacious and flexible, and that connects to the rest of the home. Others know that they’ll either be relatively solitary or in a two-person family for the rest of their lives, and might want something more refined and elegant, less nimble and more static, but still supportive of their morning coffees and their afternoon power smoothies, their experiments in vegetarianism and their return to careful omnivorousness. We think deeply about the organization of kitchens, planning the space so that whatever the clients want is at hand, whether that’s a massive refrigerator stocked with four peoples’ needs or a small hidden pantry, tucked away behind a seamless wall of cabinetry. We are concerned with air flow and range hoods, with what someone will see outside of her window while she does the dishes; we know that kitchens are also deeply emotional, that food—its production, its sourcing, its consumption—is so primal and elemental to so many of us. Nourishing ourselves is an act that is both physical and spiritual, and we take that responsibility with the seriousness and profundity it deserves.

Mindfulness and Environment

It’s been said, and is always worth repeating, that the realest luxury is health. So many of us focus on what we do outside of our homes - on the jobs we’re getting, on the client meetings we’re preparing for, on making sure our children and our families are well cared for, and have everything they need. The internal stability we need in order to be able to accomplish our big lives is a renewable resource, but a resource that needs care and a supportive environment. One of our biggest points of focus is how to create a sense of mindfulness, moments of pause and restoration that invite people to really notice what’s around them. Sometimes that means taking space that could otherwise be used to add more interior office space and transforming it into an outdoor courtyard visible through panes of glass, that moment of illumination and connection to nature reminding us of the way in which looking at a tree, a blade of grass, a bird, can bring us back into the present moment, which is all we have. Providing spaces for pause and reflection, for slowing down, doesn’t only mean providing spaces that are blank or neutral backdrops; it means coming up with the right relationship between good stimulus and observation, and among all of our senses. Nature has been shown to bring us into better relationship with ourselves, and part of what we do as architects who are fortunate to work in the kind of climate in which we work is to always emphasize direct and indirect connections between the human body and nature. We make sure that windows provide more than light, but also fresh air; we think deeply about the distance between an inner sanctum and outside traffic and how to create, through the design program, a sense of true apartness from the bustle of daily life and at the same time true connection with larger, bigger, more eternal experiences. We know how important sunlight is to our bodies and our minds, and so we orient our projects to absorb as much sun as possible but not so much that it hurts; we also understand, conversely, how important it is to have a space of dark for rest and introspection. Connecting the indoors with the outdoors goes far beyond having a single patio or a single balcony; it’s about how we use apertures, front doors, and incorporated outdoor space to continue to remind everyone who's inside that there is also a brilliant outside.

Our ideas are simple and they are also difficult. We listen to our clients when they tell us what we want, and we listen when they aren’t quite able to. We absorb the culture, soaking it in like the sponges we need to be to do our work well, and what we have absorbed lately, through our friends, the media, and all the social platforms in between, is that we are in dire straits, and that those dire straits need care, and attunement, and attention, and constant presence. We want to create stories that become buildings that can support the lives that we all want to live, that go beyond introducing a sauna or a courtyard but that also, in so doing, help us to begin to understand what it is to live a life worth experiencing, worth investing in. We see architecture as the ultimate foundation for a life well-lived, for a life of wellness.

We’ve often thought of buildings as movies, and us as film directors, scripting the scenes of daily life that our clients move through, long after they’ve forgotten their work with us, the day-to-day selection of finishes, the thoughts about program and layout, the worries about construction costs. We’ll be writing about that more, soon, but in the meantime, that idea is the foundation for so much of how we think about the ways in which lives can be lived in architecture. There’s a beginning, middle, and final act in the ways in which people can begin to proceed through a space, and that sequence can be temporal, emotional, personal, intellectual. And it’s working through and finding the exact right sequence that transforms architecture from a backdrop to an essential element of Wellness.


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