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Architecture and well-being

Interview with Professor Elizabeth Burton, Institute of Health

Published July 2010

The impact a building has on how we feel is a common emotional experience, but has only recently come to be recognised as a genuine scientific phenomenon. In 2004, Elizabeth Burton, Professor of Sustainable Building Design and Wellbeing at Warwick's Institute of Health, founded the research group Well-Being in Sustainable Environments. Her research provided new insights into how the design of built environments can help improve quality of life.

Victorian buildingAnyone who has ever felt oppressed or depressed by the building they live or work in—and has wanted to wring the neck of the architect who designed it—will feel a breath of fresh air gust over them when they hear the views of Professor Elizabeth (Libby) Burton. She is a woman with a vision; a woman with a mission.

“When I trained as an architect, I was astonished to be told I had to stop thinking about people. My idea is ambitious, but I want to provide an alternative to traditional architecture, which is design for people, design for wellbeing—informed design,” she says. Prof Burton arrived at the University of Warwick in September 2009, becoming Professor of Sustainable Building Design and Wellbeing at the Institute of Health. She brought her research group, Wellbeing in Sustainable Environments (WISE), with her, which she had established and run for 5 years previously at Oxford Brookes University.

WISE has a substantial track record of conducting research into how the built environment—from buildings through to whole cities—affects the wellbeing, mental health and quality of life of residents and other users. Recently completed projects have included work on how design of the outdoor environment can help to improve the quality of life of older people, including those with dementia.

The built environment does affect people, whether we like it or not, so we have a responsibility to them.

By establishing a centre of excellence for knowledge and practice, using an evidence-based approach, Prof Burton aims to put these principles into practice. She hopes that the pinnacle—eventually—will be to house the new centre in a building that demonstrates all the best features of “informed design”.

In her view, architecture has completely lost its way, and lost sight of the impact that buildings and the built environment can have on people. “Unlike a piece of fine art hanging in a gallery, which people can choose to go and see or not, people have to live and work in buildings. The built environment does affect people, whether we like it or not, so we have a responsibility to them,” she says.

The modernism movement, which resulted in the tower blocks of the 1960s and 1970s, profoundly effected architectural practice. She explains: “The modernist architects did want to make life better for people—they wanted their tower blocks to raise people into the sun and fresh air. But the problem was, they got it wrong. They based these designs on their own ideas, not on any evidence base.” As a result, she concludes, architects retreated from having a social role and described themselves as artists instead. At the same time, new approaches to building such as design-and-build and the advent of project managers who were not architects have further undermined traditional ideas of what an architect does.“

“Architects have been pushed into showing that they can do something that no one else can do, leading them to mystify the subject and make it inaccessible to people,” Prof Burton adds. In order to counter this unhelpful trend, her aim is to establish a multidisciplinary set of professionals—like-minded architects, engineers, urban designers, occupational therapists, public health doctors and so on—who will work with her and her colleagues on new courses and new research projects. Students will soon be able to apply to take a Masters course in Health, Wellbeing and the Built Environment. This course will begin in September 2012. There are few similar courses on offer anywhere in the world. In the US, the Centre for Health Design offers a certification system for architects in evidence-based design for health-care facilities. London South Bank University runs an MSc in Planning Buildings for Health but this is also limited to the design of health-care facilities.

Architects have been pushed into showing that they can do something that no one else can do, leading them to mystify the subject and make it inaccessible to people.

In this virtual disciplinary vacuum, Prof Burton has found it difficult to get research projects off the ground, and, particularly, to obtain funding: ”The multidisciplinary nature of the work presents a stumbling block when it comes to seeking funding. A reviewer from a public health background, for example, may not appreciate some of the finer points of engineering theory that a research proposal refers to. Problems such as these may lead Libby to locate her efforts more closely in one particular discipline—perhaps in public health. Collaborations, regardless, will be key. Prof Burton has already worked with Scott Weich on a study that looked at the relationship between the characteristics of housing and people’s mental health (including depression and anxiety). She says: “Interestingly, we found that—after controlling for all other key variables— people were more likely to be depressed if they lived in a block of flats that had deck access—in other words, if they reached their flat along an outside open or semi-enclosed corridor rather than from a corridor within the building. We don’t know what the mechanism for this correlation is, or whether it is causal. We would like to be able to explore that finding further and do similar studies.”

A link with Professor Alan Chalmers from Warwick Manufacturing Group provides the opportunity for possibly one of the most exciting ventures. “Alan is an expert on virtual reality and simulation,” Prof Burton says, “so we are working on developing a project that would allow us to simulate urban environments and put people in them, to study the effects on them of changing certain design parameters.”

Let’s hope that none of the architects responsible for some of the worst design mistakes of the 60s and 70s will be taking part in that experiment. The temptation to lock them into an unfriendly virtual urban environment and throw away the key might be just too much to resist…


Professor Elizabeth BurtonProfessor Burton was founder and director of the WISE (Wellbeing in Sustainable Environments) research unit within the Oxford Institute for Sustainable Development. Her research investigated the social aspects of sustainable urban form, in particular how the built environment (architecture and urban design) influences people's wellbeing, quality of life and mental health. An expert in ageing research, including dementia-friendly design, Professor Burton worked within both the School of Engineering and Warwick Medical School. Libby sadly passed away in November 2014 after being diagnosed with cancer.