Neuroscience and Architecture: What Science Teaches Us About Designing Buildings for Mental Health and Well-Being

by Jim Kehoe

I am excited to be working as a consulting architect with Caddis Collaborative. I have known Bryan Bowen, principal architect at Caddis, for 25 years. Our paths have frequently crossed, and I have always been intrigued by the work Bryan and his colleagues are doing. Now I am bringing my expertise in architecture and neuroscience to Caddis’s multifamily projects. Working together, we are creating housing that attends to residents’ mental health and well-being. 

Above: Bryan Bowen, principal architect at Caddis Collaborative, and Jim Kehoe, consulting architect, collaborate at Caddis’s office in Boulder, Colorado.

I was first introduced to the connection between architecture and neuroscience in 2014 when I attended the Academy for Neuroscience for Architecture conference at the Salk Institute. Polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, who had personally experienced the powerful connection between the space he was living in and his well-being, endowed an institute for the exploration of the connections between architecture and neuroscience. 

What I learned at that conference and in research since is that we can and should create spaces that are more restorative and that help us reduce chronic stress on a daily basis. Such environments lower blood pressure and reduce heart rate, spurring better cognitive function, attention, and memory. With 90 percent of all human experience occurring within the built environment, neuroscientists are digging deeper through brain scan technology (fMRI) and wearable monitoring devices to measure mind-body reactions. 

I’ve taken these concepts into two areas of my work. First, I have designed a number of public buildings, such as police stations, courthouses, fire stations, and city halls. My goal is to create buildings that welcome members of the public (who by the very reason they are visiting the public building may be highly stressed) and to support the workers who are interfacing with the public. Second, I’ve incorporated these concepts into multifamily residential dwellings, such as the Virginia Placer project for seasonal workers in Telluride, Colorado. 

Key design principles join these two areas of work. “Daylighting” – that is, making sure those who are in a building have access to windows, vistas, other sources of daylight – helps worker performance and enhances residents’ health. Wider corridors and higher ceilings in public buildings create a greater feeling of safety and ease. Enhanced air flow helps workers, members of the public, and residents relax. All of these elements keep us from becoming bored and thus help us restore our sense of mental balance involuntarily: an enriched architectural environment with generous daylight and connection to nature restores us without our needing to think consciously about that.

The Ouray, Colorado, courthouse I redesigned is an excellent case in point. It was built in the late 1880s, and the original architect intuitively incorporated many of these principles. Beauty, functionality, connection to the outdoors – all were part of his design. My job was to bring those elements back into the forefront of the refreshed building through a restoration and addition.

All of these design principles are essential to human mental health and well-being. These elements should not be luxuries but should be integrated within all places designed for human habitation. I bring these concepts into all of my architecture projects right from the start, and I emphasize to those who are hiring me – whether it’s a municipality or a housing developer – that emerging science is proving what the Ouray courthouse architect knew well over a century ago. Being able to point to the neuroscience behind these principles helps me make my case, and I am happy to report that clients embrace this approach. 

In the past year, I’ve been collaborating with Caddis, a company that is also beginning to understand and embrace the biological and cognitive effects of the built environment. We are working on Riverfront Village, a new neighborhood of condominiums and townhouses being developed in downtown Ridgway, Colorado. We are also responding to requests for proposals to design affordable housing in western Colorado. Together, we are utilizing design methodologies and approaches that promote occupant health and well-being.

The work we’re doing is fascinating, but I’ve also been so enlivened by the Caddis office and the Caddis team. The office, located in Boulder, is within a beautifully designed mixed-use neighborhood site, incorporating many of the neuroscience and architecture principles that have come to be so important to me. Caddis is a firm of happy people working on great projects, and it is a delight to be working with them on meaningful architecture that will enhance and sustain other people’s well-being and flourishing.

Above: A rendering of Riverfront Village, a new neighborhood of condominiums and townhouses being developed in downtown Ridgway, Colorado. 

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