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Have you ever wondered how, aspects of the design of a home and its neighborhood, affect people’s well-being? Elements such as the height and architectural style of a building, the construction materials of a house, the density of the city, and the presence of public spaces, among others, are an elementary part to be considered by anyone working in urban planning and architecture. However, is there empirical evidence on how design impacts aspects such as health, satisfaction, and the opportunities to improve people’s living conditions? And also, what practical lessons can we learn from the IDB experience?
The Relationship Between Social Housing Design and Welfare
The recent publication on housing of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), “The Relationship between the Design of Social Housing and Welfare“, answers these questions.
The study has two parts. First, a bibliographic review of more than 200 academic references has been carried out, extracting lessons on the possible impacts of design on different dimensions of people’s well-being. Second, a retrospective review of social housing projects financed by the IDB in the last 20 years is presented, to understand how decisions on housing design have been made in practice. It also addresses how its impact has been measured.
Regarding the literature review, the findings were divided into two large categories. First, the study focuses on the neighborhood scale, which includes design aspects such as density, access to transportation, public and green spaces (so important in view of the impacts of COVID-19), and decisions about the use mixed and urban design. Second, the research addresses design issues present at the housing unit level: materials and structure, and unit size and type. Likewise, cross-cutting factors such as ‘walkability’, security against crime and violence were investigated.
The design of the house can generate positive benefits in the well-being of its occupants… but it is difficult to determine how and why
From the literature review, it is concluded that the design, indeed, generates positive benefits in the well-being of people. However, this conclusion has nuances.
First, the design-well-being relationship is most evident at the level of the housing unit. Much of the literature reviewed focuses on aspects of design that are comparatively easier to measure, such as the thermal and ventilation characteristics of the house. It also considers how improvements in these aspects positively affect specific dimensions of well-being, such as respiratory and mental health.
Impacts become much more difficult to measure and understand as you move from the level of the individual unit to larger scales, such as the neighborhood. An example is urban density. Studies highlight both negative and positive impacts. In some cases, there is evidence of a decrease in the quality of life with respect to the environment, while other studies identify a positive correlation between density and physical health, and in particular, the tendency of residents to walk more. In any case, the conclusion of our study is that density, by itself, cannot have positive impacts if it is not considered as part of the general quality of the neighborhood or city.
Difficulties in knowing the relationship between design and well-being
The difficulties that the publication identified in determining the impacts of design on well-being are due, in large part, to methodological limitations inherent to the subject. First, the welfare effects that are analyzed as a product of the design are difficult to appreciate in the short-medium term. Similarly, the effects are mediated, or interfered with, by many other factors, such as sociodemographic, cultural, and economic characteristics of the communities that occupy the dwellings. This complicates measurement and makes it difficult to go beyond correlations to specific causalities between design and well-being.
That said, difficulties present great opportunities for research that:
- use more ‘relational’ approaches; that is, it is not simply assumed that physical and environmental factors, by themselves, determine results in a unilateral way
- are enabled by technological innovations, such as interactive urban models combined with traditional surveys
- seek to capture in a more dynamic way, the way in which people relate to each other and to the places and elements of their environment
Other study findings: how to measure the impact of housing and the importance of participation in design
As a result of the analysis of 26 social housing projects (within a universe of 1,600 loan operations) implemented by the IDB between 2009 and 2019, the study includes an important finding for the future. Government entities and leading institutions in affordable housing financing such as the IDB, could rethink the prevalence of certain impact metrics, particularly the increase in property value. Likewise, it would be good if they considered how this approach prioritizes design elements associated with said metric, such as the size of the house. These design elements could be complemented with those that in the literature show great promise in terms of impacting other dimensions of well-being (beyond an economic impact). Examples of these dimensions are the perception of safety, ventilation and indoor air quality, green spaces with low maintenance requirements, thermal comfort, lighting, among others, and how these also influence the symbolic value of the living place.
Likewise, in the IDB investigation there are two additional and interrelated findings that are worth highlighting. The first is that, to measure the result and impact of design decisions on people, it is necessary to think from the beginning about how to combine objective and subjective measures of well-being. In this way, it aims to have a comprehensive vision of how the material elements of the space impact both the perception of people, as well as the tangible effects on their health, social relations, and economy.
The second finding is that the design criteria should not only reflect the beneficiary’s satisfaction with the dwelling and its neighborhood as a final product (use stage). It would be more appropriate to start from the satisfaction with the residential environment that comes from the role that the people themselves have in its conformation. Hence the importance of the participatory design approach, which is already an element that is very present in IDB operations. In short, these debates should inform the way in which physical design criteria are incorporated in the conceptualization of housing and urban planning interventions.
It is time to take action to improve well-being in homes
The impacts of COVID-19 have redirected the conversation about what can be considered adequate housing. Aspects such as the quality of materials, habitability, access, and design appropriate to the context have become very important. This is because they allow households to preserve and improve their physical and mental health, avoid domestic violence, and maximize cognitive activity in children and adolescents who study from home.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, empirical research is limited, but widely in demand to better inform decisions and design criteria. We invite the reader to comment and, above all, to add to this agenda with their own contributions!
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