Design Engine Building Happiness

Building Happiness

3 July 2024

We all know buildings need people, and truly successful architecture is not just uplifting in itself, but also provides a positive backdrop to life and human experience.

In a time of increasing awareness of neurodiversity and the concept of well-being, what are the limits of design to help and influence these? How can we harness the current interest in order to shift the focus of project commissioning towards placing more importance on what makes building inhabitants feel, well, happier? 

Design Engine Building Happiness
West Downs Campus by Design Engine Architects. Image credit: Jim Stephenson 2021

At Design Engine, our ‘Building….’ series illustrates how we place people at the centre of our work – the client, the pupil, the inhabitant, the visitor.

The Building Stories book shows a collection of our projects set around themes of Place, People, Craft and Theatre. It illustrates the importance of narrative to drive a project: engaging enough to inspire Clients, funders, users and Planning Authorities. This narrative needs to be robust enough to ride the storms of lengthly programmes, brief changes, financial constraints and unexpected hurdles. The aim is to conclude a project with initial concepts and Client relations intact, aspirations un-compromised and expectations exceeded.

Our Exhibition Building Together illustrated our approach through an exploration of a series of projects for one Client. The buildings, completed over two decades, tell the story of both a growing University, and a growing Design Practice.  

A family of projects have emerged across the campus to meet the demands of changing teaching pedagogy, challenging sites and external pressures in uncertain times. Each one is specific in personality and reflective of their purpose and time, but there is a strong underlying thread of common values and understanding, forming a backdrop for students, staff and visitors to feel at home, uplifted and energised.

West Downs Building Together Exhibition
The Building Together Exhibition held at the gallery within the West Downs Building. Image credit: Design Engine Architects

Our recent talk ‘Building Happiness’ grew out of reflection on well-being in education, and how our buildings can encourage and nurture it, in response to the increasing recognition that feeling good in a space encourages its use, and ultimately improves the lives and productivity of its users.

Our West Downs Centre for the University of Winchester was an excellent case study for this. It had a complex brief and is used by many individuals and groups. The building is not only open and available for students and staff, but accessible to the local community. The University’s well-established values of sustainability, equality, and student and staff well-being were at the forefront of positive collaboration throughout. This resulted in a well-loved and uplifting building.

Significantly, the University wanted to target WELL accreditation, a performance-based rating system for measuring, certifying and monitoring features that impact human health and well-being in the built environment. (The ten measurable concepts are: air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind and community.)  Whilst we strive for all our projects to integrate these measures, the WELL standard target ensured that the principles remained at the top of the agenda throughout the process.

The West Downs Building sits on a prominent site on one of the main routes into the city, and is local to our main studio.  Since its opening in 2021 we have visited often and can see which spaces are popular.

Humans – children and young people especially – tend to vote with their feet, and it is clear that a choice of spaces is key; from the buzzy to the silent, inside and outside, open and enclosed. This provision is essential for the building as a whole to be inclusive to its multiple users, and for their experiences to be uplifting and positive.

There are lots of ‘spaces in-between’, including break-out and social learning areas, cafés, and variety of individual study zones.  The ‘no doors’ policy between spaces, other than teaching rooms and WCs, ensures open and welcoming accessibility.  

The building elements are arranged around a tranquil central landscaped courtyard, complete with water feature and a returning family of ducks.  It can be seen or accessed from nearly every part of the building, providing a focus that aids orientation as well as allowing visual and physical link to a calm natural sanctuary in an otherwise busy urban environment.

West Downs Ducks
Blurring the boundaries between the interior spaces and nature at the West Downs Campus. Image Credit: Land Use Consultants

The intriguing Contemplation Space was originally included in the brief to ensure all faiths and non-faiths could find a space to use at the heart of the new building.  As the project developed, it became clear that this space was also well-suited to allow students and staff ‘time off’ from the stresses of university life.

Through a number of workshops, the space developed into a series of different shaped ‘people pods’ which can be accessed by all, including wheelchairs users. The pods are organised around a flexible central room offering a place for discussion, yoga and quiet contemplation. It was a leap of faith on the part of the Client, but one that paid off. The pods are always occupied and the University say they could fill the space twice over. 

We are conscious that there are limits to what a building can do. Nonetheless, we can design considered spaces to think, gather, collaborate, grow, and learn.

The interstitial and undefined spaces in buildings are often where interesting things happen. Their informal nature allows for unplanned interaction and serendipity, which in turn feed into the more formal purposes provided elsewhere.  There is an obvious value to that – evidenced in finding, upon revisiting, people choosing to be there, happy. 

Tamsin Thomas – July 2024