Human beings build and design buildings based on their needs. But, in a way, these constructions also shape us.
We spend most of our lives indoors. About 90% of it, according to the National Human Activity Patterns Survey (NHAPS) in the United States.
This means that by age 40, you will have spent approximately 36 years indoors (multiply your age by 0.9 to make this count).
However, we hardly question how these spaces affect our physical and mental well-being.
How do they change our feelings and behavior? What effects do they have on our health? How do they influence our productivity and relationships with others?
These are issues that neuroscientists and psychologists have been studying for decades —among other things, through the so-called “environmental psychology” or “spatial psychology”—and which in these times of quarantine and confinement are more relevant than ever.
Science journalist and writer Emily Anthes began researching the topic before the covid-19 pandemic.
His analysis gave rise to a book published in June 2020: The great indoors: the surprising science of how buildings shape our behavior, health, and happiness (“The Great Interior: The Amazing Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness.”
Anthes, a graduate in the history of science and medicine from Yale University in the US, explores the “ecosystems” that make up our homes, places of education and work, and how redesigning these spaces could help improve our quality of life.
The book invites us to rethink the environments in which we spend most of our time, to question the extent to which they satisfy our needs and to look for solutions to make us feel better within the walls in which we live.
The following is a summary of the BBC News Mundo telephone interview, a BBC Spanish service, with writer Emily Anthes.
BBC News Mundo – Indoor spaces gained more importance with the pandemic, but the subject was not new to you. When did you start researching the topic and why did it catch your attention?
Emily Anthes – Yes, it was before the onset of the pandemic, about five years ago.
I’m a science journalist, so I usually spend a lot of time reading about science subjects.
I started reading studies of environmentalists who entered buildings and wrote about the ecology of interior design. I also saw psychologists talking about the psychology of interior design.
Everything scientists were researching about these spaces caught my attention.
BBC News Mundo – What are the main lessons we can learn from your analysis of indoor spaces?
anthes – The big general idea is that the design and distribution of indoor spaces affects almost every aspect of our lives, sometimes in surprising ways that we normally don’t think about.
A lot of this has to do with environmental psychology, but there are many other disciplines and fields involved, such as microbiology and sociology.
The view from the window can affect your stress level or your ability to concentrate.
Your office layout can influence the people you interact with at work and on professional social media.
Indoor spaces affect our everyday life in many ways and often go unnoticed or not sufficiently considered.
BBC News World – Confinements and quarantines due to the coronavirus force us to spend more time at home. What would you recommend to improve this interior space, from a scientific point of view?
anthes – There is a lot of scientific evidence showing that including elements of the outdoor environment inside the home can bring a multitude of benefits.
We know that exposure to the elements of nature can help us a lot to reduce stress and improve concentration and productivity.
My main recommendation is to “bring” nature into the home. If you don’t have a view of a natural landscape from your window, you can add more plants. In fact, there are studies that claim that even photographs of plants and natural landscapes bring benefits to our health.
Light also influences this a lot. It’s best to keep the curtains and blinds open to get the most out of it, especially in the morning.
If there is a place in the house that receives more light in the morning, it would be good to start the day or spend a few hours in that part of the house, because exposure to this natural light is very important.
Another tip is to open the windows to let in fresh air, not only to purify the environment, but to reduce stress.
BBC News World – Are these measures that you yourself take working from home during the pandemic? Did you notice a difference?
anthes – Well, in my case, I worked from home before the pandemic, so that aspect of my life hasn’t changed that much.
But yes, these are things that I put into practice myself and I notice that they make me feel good.
BBC News Mundo – One of the conclusions drawn from your book is that the best way to create a healthy indoor environment is to include elements of nature. Why is it important and how can it affect us?
anthes – It is scientifically proven that the proximity of nature or the simple fact of observing it can help us to restore our mental capacity and attention. It allows us to relax brain activity so that we feel more rested and refreshed when we resume an activity.
The same applies to fresh air inside buildings: it can stimulate our cognitive and learning abilities and positively affect our performance.
However, many corporate buildings do not have windows that can be opened to let in fresh air. It is vital to reflect on how we can improve these spaces.
BBC News World – Do you think we are now more aware than before about how indoor spaces affect us?
anthes – The pandemic highlighted the importance of creating healthier workspaces to reduce the spread of the virus. Regardless of social distancing measures, including elements of nature can benefit us.
We’re also reflecting more on how to recreate spaces at home —often converted into an office— that make us feel better.
I believe that this period will provide much more interesting research and studies on the subject that will allow us to also answer questions for which there is still no conclusive scientific answer.
For example: How does being separated from our co-workers affect our productivity?
Are we more productive because we have fewer distractions or, on the contrary, does it cost us to be more productive because we are isolated from our colleagues? It will be interesting to find out what science says about this.