Rombald green texture

Healthy and healing environments

28th January 2022

Author: Dr. Theo J.M. van der Voordt, Associate professor in Corporate Real Estate and Facilities Management, Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Architecture, Department of Management in the Built Environment

Our health and wellbeing is dependent on many influencing factors, such as our genetic blueprint, age, income, education, job characteristics, life style, mindset, living circumstances and care system. The impact of the built environment is important as well.

In the world of Universal Access and Inclusive Design a distinction is being made between handicapping and enabling environments. People get handicapped i.e. hindered in their activities by high thresholds, steep stairs, narrow doorways, poorly readable signage, poor speech intelligibility in meeting spaces, etc. On the other hand, users of the built environment can be supported by well-designed environments that take into account the needs of a huge variety of different users, including people with physical or mental impairments (‘inclusive design’). A similar distinction can be made between sick buildings and toxic environments versus healthy and healing environments.

Design concepts for health and well-being

Various concepts are used to identify a positive contribution of the physical environment to health and wellbeing.

  • Healthy office: a concept that covers environmental adjustments such as healthy lighting (daylight, bright artificial light, installing a circadian-friendly schedule), and incorporating nature (e.g. by potted plants and flowers and view on nature), and stimulating healthy choices, e.g. by offering healthy nutrition, facilitating mental balance by providing rooms for meditation, yoga, naps and chair massages, and “active workspaces” that stimulate physical exercise (e.g. treadmills at desks, sit-stand desks, walking meetings).
  • Healing office: a design method that has been developed by design studio D/DOCK in the Netherlands, which defines ten design qualities with positive effects on happiness and health: diversity (functional and a good balance of complexity, mystery, coherence and legibility), connectedness, (day)light, contact with nature, sense of ownership of the workplace and personal control, sustainability, physical activity, opportunities to re-energize and recover from fatigue and stress, and healthy food.
  • Healing architecture or healing environment: a concept that is used in the health care sector to emphasize the healing effects of daylight, plants, appropriate indoor climate and outsight view (preferably on nature).
  • Health Promotive Building Design:  a concept  that is also strongly connected to health care settings. The World Health Organization defines health promotion as ‘the process of enabling people to increase control over and to improve their health’, e.g. by encouraging public participation by individuals and communities, taking a socio-cultural perspective, emphasizing equity and social justice, fostering intersectional collaboration between health care organisations, taking a holistic view of health, and focusing on enhancing health and not simply preventing problems.
  • Biophilic design: a concept that is based on human love for nature and innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms, and focuses on strengthening the connection with natural light, views on nature, pictures of nature, plants, water, natural materials, textures and patterns.
  • Salutogenic design: a concept that puts emphasis on factors that support human health and wellbeing, in contrast to the pathogenic approach, which is primarily concerned with prevention of factors that cause disease.

Concepts that refer to a negative contribution of the physical environment to health and wellbeing are for instance:

  • Sick Building Syndrome: a concept that refers to poor indoor environment quality and other factors that contribute to symptoms related to the mucous membranes (i.e. the eyes, nose and throat), dry skin, headache and lethargy.
  • Toxic workplaces: physical workplaces that are harmful to employees on a day-in and day-out basis, e.g. by a bullying atmosphere or a poor Indoor Air Quality.


The issues mentioned above can be used to support flourishing, i.e. the experience of life going well. Flourishing is a combination of feeling good and functioning effectively. Nowadays a growing body of knowledge is available that empirically supports conceptual thinking on physical, social and mental health and well-being and a positive multi-sensory experience. It shows that appropriate design and management of the built environment can substantially contribute by a spatial layout that fits with end user needs, well-thought ambient aspects such as acoustics, light, and indoor climate, attractive interior design, social-psychological aspects like territoriality, culture, social interaction, privacy and contextuality, and careful maintenance.

An interesting concept in salutogenic design is sense of coherence, i.e. individual perceptions regarding the extent to which events occurring around them are structured, predictable, and explicable (comprehensibility), the extent to which the individual perceives sufficient resources to meet the challenges posed by the environment (manageability), and the extent to which events are perceived as challenges worthy of investment and engagement (meaningfulness).

Due to the variety of subjects, an integrated and holistic approach is needed. This requires the involvement of different stakeholders like clients, customers, and end users, and cross-disciplinary collaboration between designers, building physics, corporate real estate and facility managers, human resource managers, health experts and so on.

A holistic approach will not only contribute to people’s health and wellbeing, but also to better organisational performance, higher end user satisfaction, and cost-effectiveness, and adds value to society as a whole as well.



Jensen, P.A. and Van der Voordt, T. (2020). Healthy workplaces: what we know and what we should know. Journal of Corporate Real Estate 22(2), 95-112. Special issue on healthy workplaces. DOI 10.1108/JCRE-11-2018-0045.

Related papers:

Van der Voordt, T. (2021). Designing for health and wellbeing: various concepts, similar goals. Gestão & Tecnologia de Projetos. São Carlos, 16(4), 13-31. DOI 10.11606/gtp.v16i4.178190. Special issue on healthy habitats.

Van der Voordt, T. and Jensen, P.A. (2022). The impact of healthy workplaces on employee satisfaction, productivity and costs. Journal of Corporate Real estate. DOI 10.1108/JCRE-03-2021-0012. Published online 24-11-2021.


Clements-Croome, D., Turner, B. and Pallaris, K. (2019). Flourishing workplaces: a multisensory approach to design and POE. Intelligent Buildings International, 11(3-4), 131-144. DOI 10.1080/17508975.2019.1569491.

Huppert, F. A., and So, T.T. C. (2013). Flourishing Across Europe: Application of a New Conceptual Framework for Defining Well-Being. Social Indicators Research 110(3), 837–861. DOI: 10.1007/s11205-011-9966-7