Creating a Healthier World


Creating a Healthier World

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A renewed focus on health

Recently, several people have asked members of our team about our approach to wellbeing in the built environment. Reflecting upon these inquiries helped us to clarify Terrapin’s focus on ‘creating a healthier world’, so we thought we’d take a moment to share our perspective on health and the far-reaching implications of this focus.

As we have worked to address sustainability issues and climate change over the past ten years, our focus has always been the people living in, working in, and experiencing our projects. We’ve long believed that when we design buildings and communities that are beautiful and enjoyable for their occupants, they will become part of the community and last for many decades and reduce long-term environmental damage. In 2012, Lance Hosey articulated the inherent necessity of beauty in sustainable architecture in his book, The Shape of Green. Over time, we expanded our approach to not only address user enjoyment, wellbeing, and human performance at the building level, but to extended the focus to all scales of development.  

The larger building industry has also begun to focus more on human health and productivity related metrics. This has included the sustainability movement, which originally focused on energy and water metrics, measures that are no doubt important but don’t address other aspects of buildings that affect human health. Today, many sustainability standards include indoor air quality measurements, advanced lighting criteria, and post occupancy studies to address health more comprehensively.

The one danger of this shift is that instead of continuing to expand and create greater value for building users, we begin to ignore some criteria, such as energy and water metrics, because they are perceived to not address this ‘new’ focus. Productivity and wellbeing are complex and valuable issues to address in the built environment, but they must be addressed at all scales to be impactful. This includes addressing the larger issues of climate change, resource efficiency, equity, and community resilience.

Productivity and wellbeing are complex and valuable issues to address in the built environment, but they must be addressed at all scales to be impactful.”

At Terrapin, we are working toward one goal – the sustainable wellbeing of our community. This requires a systems approach to wellbeing. We can’t be improving respiratory health by providing excellent indoor air quality while ignoring the vast amounts of outdoor pollutants that people breathe when they leave their building. We also can’t be implementing technologies that simultaneously make buildings healthier and accelerate climate change because these health impacts (e.g., heat stroke due to heat island effect; asthma due to air pollution) will overwhelm the nuanced health improvements provided by buildings. These types of interconnections and repercussions are manageable with a comprehensive strategy that recognizes their interconnectedness instead of attempting to focus on individual components. The systems approach requires that we address issues at the global and regional ecosystem scale, at the city and neighborhood scale, and at the individual buildings and spaces scale in order to create a thriving regenerative community.


health at the regional and global scale

Health at the global and regional scale

We must support a healthy regional and global ecosystem in order to ensure that the basic needs of fresh water, fertile soil, and a stable climate are available to everyone. We depend on the planet’s ecosystem services to provide all of our raw materials, food supply, climate regulation, water purification, and nature-based cultural activities. We need to develop our communities, manage our agricultural activities, and take care when extracting natural resources in order to support the complex biological systems that provide these ecosystems services on which we depend.

Climate change no doubt poses the largest threat to ecosystems and their life-sustaining services and therefore must be our primary focus at this scale. In a recent article, Ari Bernstein, Associate Director of Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, stated that he considered reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere one of today’s most critical public health interventions. This is because of the dire and far-reaching health impacts of climate change related to increased temperatures, extreme weather, reduced air quality, and vector-borne diseases. The good news is that ecosystems have remarkable abilities to moderate extreme weather and actually reverse climate change by capturing the greenhouse gases that cause it. By supporting regional ecosystems and eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, we can reverse climate change and mitigate the severity of its impacts.

By supporting regional ecosystems and eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, we can reverse climate change and mitigate the severity of its impacts.”

At the regional and global level, Terrapin supports efforts to reduce carbon emissions, mitigate the risks of climate change, and improve regional ecosystem health. Much of our work is focused on net zero carbon buildings and the development of innovative bioinspired technologies that can help to reverse climate change. Because climate change is already impacting our daily lives, we also help communities and companies implement strategies to develop resiliency to the changing climate and the disruption of supply chains. A major part of this effort is the development of Built Ecosystem Reference Standards (BERS) that provide a roadmap for buildings and communities to function in alignment with the capacity of the ecosystem in which they exist. BERS also provides resiliency and supports the protection of regional biodiversity, natural resources, and ecosystem services.


Community health

Health at the city and neighborhood scale

The resources we need from these regional and global ecosystems arrive to our communities as fresh water from our reservoirs, healthy food in our supermarkets, and clean air in our streets. Within the city, we must manage these resources carefully to maximize their value and ensure everyone has access to them. Cities have a unique role where due to their density and the number of citizens they support, they have to manage and facilitate access to a large number of resources, creating strong feedback loops when problem arise. Urban citizens also bear the brunt of climate impacts due to the density of cities, their proximity to bodies of water, and their microclimate.

A fundamental value of cities is the implicit mutual agreement between government and citizen to support and care for our communities and ensure economic and ecological resilience to protect all citizens. We need to work together to manage our resources in a manner that is respectful to the limits of the regional ecosystem while providing abundance to the community. Along with this, we must envision how services should be delivered and the form our infrastructure should take in order to improve quality of life, resiliency, and efficiency. If we can create a future transportation system without internal combustion engines, we can improve outdoor environmental quality and reduce asthma, allergies, and other respiratory illnesses. Most importantly, we must reexamine the urban form of our cities to ensure that we are adapting to the realities of climate change in a timely manner in order to protect the citizenry. A community enriched with parks, streets that prioritize people and biodiversity over vehicles, and buildings shaped to ensure everyone has access to daylight and natural breezes will be a healthy and happy one.

We need to work together to manage our resources in a manner that is respectful to the limits of the regional ecosystem while providing abundance to the community.”

All of Terrapin’s work at the city level helps to create a healthy context for building a community that can thrive. These efforts include integrating biophilic design into the urban fabric of every project to ensure the urban experience is supportive of mental wellbeing. Many of biophilic design features also support green infrastructure strategies to manage stormwater, improve air quality, moderate the urban heat island effect, and support biodiversity. Tim Beatley’s Handbook of Biophilic City Planning and Design connects the improved health of children and adults living in a community connected to nature. At the neighborhood scale, we can reenvision urban infrastructure to be more efficient, resilient, and supportive of larger ecosystem. This includes community solar systems with battery storage to reduce reliance on the brittle electrical grid, anaerobic digesters and other natural systems to eliminate waste, and diverse transportation networks to improve human health and local air quality. At this city scale, our Built Ecosystem Reference Standards (BERS) provide metrics and guiding principles to align the city with the regional ecosystem and ensure resource flows and human health.


Health at the individual scale

Health at the building and individual scale

Once these larger scales are under proper management, we then need to focus on the direct exposure and activities within buildings and spaces that impact our wellbeing. Based upon an early 1990s study, we know that Americans spend roughly 87% of their time indoors exposed to a variety of compounds in the air and finishes of buildings. The form, shape, and materials of these spaces influence our behavior and overall health. People living in a rowhouse will climb more stairs than someone in an elevatored apartment building. Someone living in a well maintained building will be exposed to fewer allergens than someone who isn’t cleaning their home regularly. Working in a windowless basement will be much more damaging to your mental and physical health than working in a bright sunny windowed office. In the end, creating beautiful, daylit and inviting spaces with superior indoor environmental quality and without toxins (from clothes, food, building materials, etc.) will lead to improved human experiences.

We have to move beyond just limiting exposures to pollutants and toward integrating features, materials, and experiences that improve our productivity and wellbeing on a daily basis. Scientific discoveries are increasingly deepening our understanding of our health and connection with nature. Let’s leverage this to rethink the basis of design for the places we live, work, and play in order to fundamentally reshape our environment, not just install the latest tech gadget. In doing so, we must also balance the economics of first cost, operations, and long-term costs of the buildings, interior furnishings, and health impacts in order to bring forth a better world for all.

We have to move beyond just limiting exposures to pollutants and toward integrating features, materials, and experiences that improve our productivity and wellbeing on a daily basis.”

To support individual wellbeing, we have worked on a number of diverse projects implementing multiple strategies to improve wellbeing within buildings. We helped to develop biophilic design patterns to improve human wellbeing through reconnecting people to nature. We work with designers to integrate high quality daylighting and active design strategies. We help to improve the indoor environmental quality of buildings by addressing daylighting, acoustics, thermal comfort, and material toxicity. Each of these efforts can be measured to validate improvement but in the end, it is the physical and psychological wellbeing of everyone within the community that is the true measure of a thriving community.

A comprehensive approach to supporting health & wellbeing

Often in the building industry, when we speak of health we are either speaking of a strategy to improve an individual’s wellbeing, such as daylighting, or speaking of policies that impact public health, such as a no smoking policy. In reality, we must be bolder and take action more broadly if we want thriving communities. We must address health at the global, neighborhood, building, and individual levels in order to ensure a liveable planet and a prosperous future for all. This requires that we systematically reenvision multiple components of the built environment at all scales. It won’t be easy, but we have a responsibility to create healthy and prosperous communities for all.

At Terrapin, we are working every day ‘creating a healthier world’. Join us.


*All images displayed are under a Creative Commons Zero lincense

As a partner, Chris is an architect and sustainability leader focused on systemic thinking to address challenges in the built environment. Chris believes we can learn how to live on this planet if we start listening to nature again.