Designing for Equity and Well-Being in the COVID-19 Era

Hana Kassem, principal at KPF, and Jonsara Ruth, cofounder of Parsons’ Healthy Materials Lab, outline the effects of the built environment on our well-being.
Kpf Hves Combined Final

KPF designers’ and architects’ sketches depicting their work-from-home spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. A renewed focus on well-being must guide our design responses to COVID-19, the authors write. Courtesy Louis Sullivan/KPF


Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent stay at home orders, arguments for wellness-driven interior design were commonplace, anchored in the estimation that most Americans spend about 90 percent of their time indoors and that indoor air is typically two to five times more polluted than outdoor air. Now with so many people working, learning, and socializing from home, it is safe to assume that some people living in urban areas are spending 98 to 100 percent of their time indoors.

In order to balance this confinement, ease of access to quality public, green spaces have become critical to managing mental health. And although cities are attempting to reopen the public realm safely, this pandemic has clearly highlighted the importance of healthy interior environments for all, especially low-income Black and Latinx communities that have been historically underserved in both public and private spheres.

According to the World Health Organization, the built environment accounts for 19 percent of factors that affect our health and well-being (almost equal in the impact of genetics which accounts for 20 percent). Leaders in exposomics and environmental psychology further underline the impact of our environments on our health, cognitively, psychologically, and physically. Lately, “wellness” has taken on a heightened meaning for everyone on the planet. And along with the urgency of maintaining good health, there is a resurgence of the value of connecting with nature and having access to daylight.

Phml Color And Material Swatches For Nycha East Tremont Child Care Center, The Bronx, New York 2016

The Parsons’ Healthy Materials Lab worked with the NYCHA East Tremont Child Care and Development Center in the Bronx on selecting healthier materials for their space. Courtesy Healthy Materials Lab


Aside from those fortunate enough to have a second home in the countryside or those whose jobs mandate their physical presence, the majority of the urban population is spending most of its days in apartments, in a non-varying space, with only occasional direct contact with the outdoors and often limited access to daylight. Due to this extended indoor stay, we are lacking the variability of environmental stimulus, normally afforded by daily movement throughout our cities. We are also exposed, over longer periods of time, to harmful chemicals emitted from the substances and materials that surround us.

We know that the rates of COVID-19 are rising disproportionately for people living in low-income neighborhoods and in public housing. We also know that there are severe negative impacts on people’s health when they are continuously exposed to air pollution because they live in places adjacent to power plants, factories, bus depots, highways, and other sources of pollution. (Importantly, though, we know many affordable housing developments are built in close proximity to these locations.)

However, the less discussed source of air pollution is from inside our homes. Indoor air pollutants come from a variety of sources including typical building materials, biological contaminants such as mold and bacteria, gases, and heavy metals. The public housing stock in New York City, home to 1 in 15 New Yorkers, is in an alarming state of disrepair due to deferred maintenance and lack of funding. Residents of low-income housing developments are forced to live in unacceptable conditions with mold due to leaks, inadequate ventilation, and lack of temperature control due to outdated electrical wiring compounded with underperforming facade systems.

Most materials found in affordable housing interiors date back to decades prior to awareness of certain materials’ toxicity or are the lowest cost products due to budget constraints. High-VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) paint, vinyl tile, and particleboard cabinets are examples of low-cost products that contain many harmful chemicals including Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs), which can impair immune systems and can lead to serious chronic diseases. When a material off-gasses or sheds harmful substances into our interiors, our bodies can absorb them through our skin, inhalation, or ingestion—damaging our endocrine and respiratory systems. Health practitioners and scientists have called this a silent epidemic.

Phml New Playroom East Tremont Child Care Center, The Bronx, New York 2016

The Healthy Materials Lab revamped the interior of a NYCHA early child care center with healthier choices in paint and flooring. Courtesy Healthy Materials Lab


A simple example is the ubiquitous plastic shower curtain which pollutes our interior spaces with phthalates. Phthalates, an EDC, are intended to make plastics soft and pliable, but when absorbed into our bodies they can wreak havoc on our hormonal systems. Young children are particularly vulnerable as early exposure to phthalates is linked with asthma and allergies as well as cognitive and behavioral problems. Not surprisingly, rates of asthma are elevated in residents of public housing developments and underlying chronic diseases (such as asthma) put people at higher risk of dying from COVID-19.

For people living in underserved housing, vulnerabilities are compounded by other factors such as overcrowded spaces with impacts on overall mental health. Studies in environmental psychology, biophilia, and neuroaesthetics investigate the aesthetic and experience-based impacts of spatial organization, form, color, pattern, and texture on our physical, emotional, and mental health. We now know that certain visual patterns have been found to affect one’s mood, stress level, and heart rate, and that exposure to particular colors has been shown to affect performance. But how often are these factors considered in the design of low-income housing? Not often enough.

As we venture into an uncertain world, a sense of trust and safety in our homes, learning spaces, and workplaces are even more essential. It is the responsibility of the designer and architect to understand the impact of our immediate surroundings on our cognitive, physical, and emotional well-being and to employ this deeper understanding in their design work. Now more than ever, we should be called upon to make healthier material selections that eliminate the risks of toxic substances. Within our design approach we also need to consider environmental variability and sensory stimulus—now sorely missing from our daily lives. Most importantly, these services should be provided regardless of budget constraints and the economic status of the stakeholders.

Wellness-driven design ought to be demanded, especially when the project affects a great number of people, whether it be in public housing or public space. It becomes a matter of equity, not privilege, that the places in which people are spending close to 100 percent of their time are supporting, not degrading, their well-being—especially for those populations which have for so long been underserved. The pursuit of health and happiness is an essential human right and design can play a role in attaining it for all.

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Categories: Interiors, Materials