Healing Homes: The Science of Wellbeing and the Art of Nature
For our series following wellness in interiors, SBID spoke with Interior Architect and Creative Director, Ann-marie Weekes, who’s extensive 17-year career in Interior Design and Architecture saw her amongst William Russell’s Architectural team designing Alexander McQueen’s international boutiques; working on multi-million pound projects from M&S’s environmentally sustainable flagship store in Cheshire Oaks to Dunhill’s grade 2 listed Bourdon House in Mayfair, London. She also works very closely with the Orassy in London, who have an Integrative Medical doctor and health practitioners who seek to understand the complex nature of ill health, whether it be mental, physical, emotional or environmental. With experience in both the interiors and the wellness sectors, Ann-marie shared her thoughtful perspective on introducing concepts of wellness into the designs of our homes to in turn, help us improve and remove toxicity from our modern day lifestyles:
When Kate Burrows made mainstream headlines last year with the title ‘allergic to modern life’, my go-to word ‘wow’ blurted out. Rather loudly! As I read her story I could not help but say ‘at last these people are being heard’, for although there was an air of humour and slight tongue in cheek mockery of this poor woman’s plight, we at our health centre, the Orassy, knew exactly what was going on with her psychologically, mentally, physically and emotionally due to her environment.
Kate Burrows and her husband were being evicted from their off-grid self built mud hut in the middle a Devon forest. Their local council had issued the demolition of their home due to breaking planning laws. Kate had escaped the city life as she claimed her debilitating ailments were being caused by the myriad of toxins and emf’s (electromagnetic fields) found within modern homes and towns. She was left unable to move for days in bed with extreme fatigue and flue like symptoms, of which she could find no cure.
Their case against the demolition order cited MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity) of which North Devon Council refused. Unfortunately, Kate Burrows is not the only one to suffer extreme responses to our modern way of life. We have seen a vast number of people seeking answers to their fibromyalgia symptoms, extreme fatigue or hypersensitivity due to excess ‘electromagnetic smog’, toxicity, pollution and lesser known frequencies; only to sometimes discover relief by making slight changes in their home.
Now to be clear – due to lack of conclusive studies, it cannot be said that these modern day factors are definitely causing these ailments. But what we and many groups are finding is that it is this ‘cocktail’ of conditions that are exacerbating symptoms, and finding one solution for one client may be completely different for another – which makes it even more difficult to identify and resolve!
So what has this got to do with us interior designers?
From our experience at the clinic, we believe we need to extend the wellbeing movement from the workplace into our homes. Of course, a very large and important part of our life is our home; our place of safety and comfort. Currently wellbeing at work is being championed by a number of groups including the charity Mind, who recognise that ‘wellbeing in itself describes how you are feeling and how well you can cope with day-to-day life’.
The International Well Building Institute looks at raising the standards of building design on our wellbeing and have already implemented protocols for doing so. With a large number of stats and data it proves to be a very useful resource for those wanting to look deeper into the science, policies and strategies for making spaces more conducive to good health.
We believe that the route to wellbeing is by making our homes restorative and regenerative sanctuaries. Places where our bodies are able to relax and rejuvenate from the excesses of our towns and cities. One where the biological and chemical makes ups of our internal systems can reset for enhanced health.
We as designers can go a step beyond the form and aesthetic requirements of a project and help our clients improve mental clarity, provide emotional and physical support, through spaces where the outer environment inspires the inner being.
So what can we do? There a number of approaches we can take.
This may be a very tall order but our homes are laden with toxins. New Scientist magazine revealed that a typical sample of carpet dust contains high levels of pesticides, heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and lead levels sometimes 18 times the official safety threshold. Non-toxic carpets are available.
If there is one place we suggest making as healthy as possible is the bedroom, so if your client has particular allergies recommend a vegan mattress. Vegan mattresses are made from natural materials without the usual fire retardant toxins, yet are still fire retardant.
There is also scientific ‘indication that children are more susceptible to toxin exposure than adults’ study by, US. National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health, so clients with young families will appreciate your care for their little ones.
VOC free paints:
Now it used to be said that these natural paints don’t quite live up to the durability and colour preservation levels as well as their low-VOC counterparts, but things have come a long way. Natural and organic paints are not only better for our health they are also better for the environment.
Minimise electric wiring routes:
Ask your electricians to reduce the cables routes around the home and avoid metal conduits. This reduces interference from the electromagnetic fields of cables with our own body’s subtle electromagnetic field.
We love the idea of biophillic design and welcome it in the arena of interior environments. Based on the principle that humans have an innate connection to nature and when aspects of nature are brought into our surroundings our wellbeing increases. Cue…Kate Burrows – in her healing mud hut – in the middle of the forest!!!
So yes, encourage adding plants into the design of your clients homes, particularly those that also help to remove pollution. Areca Palm, a common house hold plant (the Rubber plant), I’m sure will bring back memories from your grandparents house! Well, they got it right. And Philodendron’s, a plant adorning many wallpapers at the moment, but the real thing works wonders in clearing the air.
However it’s not just plants that make a space biophillic, it’s the collective story of how you interweave nature into the home, using natural elements, materials and flow. Observe nature itself if you want to be inspired.
This is a process developed and is continuing to develop at our health clinic the Orassy. Konstantin Pavlidis, the centre’s founder and property developer states ‘we fuse the principles of understanding where a property is located and what’s going on inside with standard scientific devices. For example we measure in decibels sound waves, because they can be conducive or destructive to people’s cellular biology. We measure the particles present in the air, the quality of the water, the electromagnetic frequencies, currents and radio waves.’ With so much electrically dependent technology in our homes today, ‘if a home is not properly earthed with the right materials this can cause a degeneration to anyone’s health, including pets. So it is vital to look at creating properties that are structurally sound in terms of balancing out these negative impacts.’
Remove psychological barriers:
Now these can be tricky. It means having a really in-depth conversation with your client and getting to the nitty gritty of what makes them tick. Uncover the nuances that create that niggle, or twitch. It’s the things that can go unnoticed with an ever so slight dislike of something. Why? Because little bothersome twitches bother the subconscious mind. Those little nuances create little stressors that activate chemical reactions that in turn create stress, which in turn in the long run can impair the immune system. So if a client says, I really hate that colour in the bathroom, but it’s not a priority to change it right now. Change it!
Create a space of sanctuary:
I’m sure a number of your clients are yoga or mindfulness practitioners. Even if not, there’s something to be said for a space that is a mini haven; a mini ‘me spot’ that houses scents, flowers, objet d’art, or even loved ones photos where clients can stop, reflect and get quiet inside to support internal rebalance and wellbeing.
Understanding the components that enhance wellbeing, really is a science of understanding what is the human makeup and how life and the environment impacts that. Connecting to nature is an art of observing its simple beauty and flow. This can be reflected in homes creating a sanctuary for restoration. If client’s work in a stressful job, in a office that doesn’t inspire, with a boss they struggle to communicate with, why not create a home just like a recent client of mine requested; ‘when I come home I just want to say, ahhhhhhh……’
As for Kate Burrows, her simple mud hut home simply helped her to heal. Nature at its best.