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Architectural Techniques: Rethinking Modern Construction for Environmental and Mental Wellbeing

Courtyard, Isi Parente @isiparente from Unsplash

Covid-19 has forced many of us to spend a lot of time indoors this year. For someone like me, who has an affinity with nature and finds it beneficial for my mental wellbeing to be outside, being inside has heightened my levels of anxiety. The question this has raised for me is why are homes and other built spaces confining rather than comforting?

I think one reason structures can be restraining and therefore contribute to mental and even physical distress, is because they are often built quickly without much consideration to local climatic conditions. Rarely is thought given to light, air, sound, and green spaces to make our homes feel natural and calming. Rather, we are required to have heating and/or air conditioning systems in our homes to keep them comfortable. Yet, many heating and cooling devices generate noise and contribute to carbon emissions and environmental degradation. This also means that to conserve the conditions they create we have to close curtains and windows to keep the heat or cold from escaping our homes. Ultimately, this inhibits the movement of fresh air and illumination from natural light, elements of which environmental psychologists argue are conducive for generating happiness and a relaxed and calm mind.

David Pearson wrote a book about creating a natural house that is informed by the Gaia architectural movement, which is named after the ancient Greek earth goddess, Gaia. Gaia architects design buildings with the local climate in mind that are healthy, environmentally sound, and harmonious. They aim to incorporate elements into their buildings to make them feel part of, rather than separate from, nature.

Covid-19 has forced many of us to rethink our living environments. Although this situation has been difficult and absolutely frightening at times, it has also created a wonderful opportunity for us to rethink our modern lifestyle and the role our architecture plays in it.

The architects also explore historical and anthropological examples of construction techniques to ascertain how people traditionally built with local materials and attempted to make structures that were conducive to both climatic factors and human health. To be clear, not all construction techniques are/were environmentally sound. For example, the ancient Roman use of fire braziers to heat rooms would have produced a lot of smoke, which is bad for the lungs. Even the Romans claimed that this form of heating was unhealthy because it smelled noxious. Foul smells to the Romans were an indicator of insalubrious spaces. In comparison, Gaia architects have found other traditional techniques, such as wind shafts to be very beneficial. These shafts, along with thick walls, are used in desert climates to keep houses cool without the need for air conditioning, eliminating the use of chemical coolants and cutting down on electricity use. An added benefit of these is that they are silent, so they do not contribute to noise pollution.

As an anthropologically trained historian, my research into ancient medicine has also made me aware that in the ancient world the construction of buildings was considered vital to the health of the inhabitants. In particular, ancient authors often wrote about the need for fresh air, gardens, and green spaces in or surrounding their houses and public buildings. Thus, I am particularly curious about how they incorporated these elements into their homes.

The Roman architect Vitruvius, (first century BC), wrote about how and where to build homes that benefitted the wellbeing of the inhabitants. He advised that the air should be free flowing, there should be good natural light, greenery, quiet sounds, and pleasant smells. Thus, the sensory experiences of being within them were soothing, all of which benefited the body and mind. Since his architectural designs were intended for the Italian/Mediterranean climate where he lived, he suggested that certain areas of houses were best suited for different seasons of the year. For example, shady, cool rooms or areas of the garden were best for hot summer days, and sunny spaces with natural light kept people comfortable in the winter months. This indicated that spatial use was flexible and rooms could have multiple functions.

Surviving ancient Roman houses from the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum were similar to the designs Vitruvius described. The houses were built side-by-side with shared walls so that they were inward facing. Although they had little outdoor space, green areas were incorporated within them. Enclosed gardens are found at the back of many of these buildings. At the front of them, it is common to find a central courtyard that was surrounded by different rooms, open to the sky, and had a pool of water called an impluvium beneath the opening. Sometimes evidence for plant pots placed in the courtyard and around the water feature is found. Paintings of gardens and natural landscapes are also seen on the walls of these rooms. Both added to making the courtyard space seem like it was part of the natural environment.

This style of construction allows fresh air to circulate through the house and natural light to illuminate rooms that would otherwise be dark, even with windows (remember there was no electricity). The water features were pleasant to behold; they were cooling on warm days, and if the house had a fountain, it presented a calming atmosphere. Not all Romans lived in these types of spaces. Some inhabited cramped, dark, apartment blocks, that were insalubrious. These structures were likely to have been a catalyst for the ancient writers to comment on healthy places. Many Romans also spent a lot of time in their homes, so it was important that they were pleasant.

Covid-19 has forced many of us to rethink our living environments. Although this situation has been difficult and absolutely frightening at times, it has also created a wonderful opportunity for us to rethink our modern lifestyle and the role our architecture plays in it. It is possible that even after this pandemic wanes, our working environments may change so that many of us will be spending more time in our homes, much like the ancient Romans, and perhaps even travelling less. Thus, we will want to be in houses that make us feel good, are comfortable, and are environmentally sound.

It is unrealistic to expect that most of us can build a new eco-home. However, we can ask ourselves how we really feel when we occupy our houses and what steps we can make to improve them for both ourselves and future generations. Do we want to continue to live in spaces where we have to close ourselves off from the natural world? Or, would we rather live in pleasant, sustainable, and harmonious homes?

If you are interested in learning about the history of ancient gardens, buildings, and health and want to consider what we can learn from the past to help with environmental sustainability today, then please sign up for one of my courses, soon to be advertised with dates.


I am Founder of Pax in Natura an online teaching forum that explores what we can learn from the past to help with environmental sustainability issues today. I specialize in the history and archaeology of Greco-Roman medicine, gardens, and environments. I received my PhD from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and was formerly an Assistant and Associate Professor at the University of Kent and a visiting Professor at Virginia Tech. In addition to my academic work, I am also a freelance floral designer who works with environmentally sustainable materials. I have also consulted on historical recreations of ancient gardens. Aside from academic and artistic work, I can be found sailing my Byte, crewing on Dart catamarans, or dancing ballet.



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