Home: a vehicle for wealth and investment or a social good?
Thoughts on healthy housing
The capitalization of the housing market has changed the concept of home from a necessity to a luxury commodity. As a result, creating a home has become unaffordable, “a vehicle for wealth and investment rather than a social good (Taylor, 2019),” or even “a commodity instead of a human right (Dolack).” In this insight article I’d like to focus on a topic which some of us might even have had first-hand experience with: looking for a house that fits health standards or “healthy housing.” In other words, instead of going into the lack of affordable housing, money laundry or foreign investments, I will be exploring the process of looking for a house through an environmental psychology perspective.
New to environmental psychology? Read a brief article on what it is and why you should care here.
Although some of us may know about the ‘Maslow Hierarchy of Needs’ and be aware that shelter is one of the basic needs for all human beings, the main approach toward housing tends to emphasize financial aspects rather than humanitarian ones. There are many reasons and factors underlying this approach in urban development. One of these factors, which I had a chance to experience myself while looking for housing through real estate agents, is the lack of knowledge.
I have studied the impact of living in substandard spaces on people’s health and well-being and am familiar how in the long run these health issues can expand from psychological ones to sometimes detrimental mental health issues. The agents that worked on my case tended to look at the concept of “home” as a future sellable investment opportunity in a good location with a nice view rather than a place that meets my basic needs.
How environmental psychology can help with making healthy housing choices.
Challenges in finding healthy housing
Particularly as an environmental psychologist and architect whose expertise is on the design of homes, I found the experience of working with these real estate agents in Toronto frustrating. Two of the four agents on the listing were not aware of the direction of the sun rise; most agents did not know whether the unit was south or north-facing. Instead they worked with a rule of thumb where the direction in which the front door opens was apparently the direction the property faced. I literally had to take along a compass to some properties to show and convince my real estate agents that this rule of thumb isn’t exactly absolute. In the end, not all entrances were aligned with the positioning of the windows and most listings on the websites were incorrect. So just relying on real estate agents, however helpful they may be, isn’t enough to confirm whether there’s enough natural sunlight filtering through the window positionings.
Why is it so important to know whether your potential home-to-be faces South, North, West, or East?
Let me explain.
Every home need operable window, sunshine, natural lighting and a good view. These are necessary for our health and wellness and especially important if we have little ones at home.
According to research, for example, North American adults spend about 87% of their time indoors, and operable windows or proper ventilation systems are crucial to ensure they decrease the amount of biological and chemical contaminants (Dales et al. 2008) they are exposed to. The first important function of windows is to provide natural air circulation and ventilation which often decreases the amount of CO2, VOCs and formaldehyde and increases the indoor air quality (The Well Standard, 2019).
I was surprised when I read in the ‘Happy City’ book, that Vancouverites prefer views to the North and West but not the South. Charles Montgomery talks about this local obsession with views and says: “almost nobody in the city wants to face south, where the sun occasionally appears through the rain clouds” (p118, p2). How did Vancouverites come to the conclusion that views were more important than sunshine and natural lighting?
Seems to me real estate plays a role here.
Why? Since they are the ones responsible for selecting a property (Kethley et al., 2002) and not all of them are equipped with the professional knowledge of standard housing. They are historically considered to act as salesmen for the housing industry (Jude & Frew, 1986) and not scientists.
A window to the heart and health?
Natural views, lighting, exposure to Vitamine D & air quality
Studies have shown that natural views in particular can have restorative effects. There’s no doubt about that, but architecturally speaking, not opting for south-facing windows with sunshine is simply wrong, unhealthy, and far from energy-efficiency unless we are designing for a hot climate. South-facing windows can provide natural and free heating and thermal comfort and save energy. Sunshine has cleansing properties that’s good for homes with little kids and pets.Especially during the COVID19 pandemic it’s important to benefit from natural air-circulation and solar irradiation through windows as they can help cleansing the environment. Historical evidence of former pandemics has indicated that fresh air and sunshine can speed up recovery from viral infections (Hobday, 2020). A human’s body needs direct sunshine on the skin to enable the production of Vitamin D3. So even if we don’t have a garden, or a balcony, having an operable south-facing window is necessary to store our bodies with Vitamin D3. Harbolic says: “Only 20% of our vitamin D is meant to come from our diet with the remaining 80% is provided by our skin from UV-B exposure to the sun.”
Most of us in North- America or the UK have experienced Vitamin D deficiency and know how it can disrupt our physical and mental functioning and, in return, our quality of life. We need to expose our skin to the direct sun because through glass our skin cannot produce Vitamin D3. The British Journal of Psychiatry (2018) published a meta-analysis which shows vitamin D deficiency can contribute to depression.
Windows are not just about sunshine and thermal energies, they can improve air quality, provide views and refuge for people. In addition, they have relaxing and restoration properties if they look out on natural sceneries. There is a long list of research studies in environmental psychology that illustrates the benefits of windows on well-being and mental health. I believe it is the responsibility of architects and environmental psychologists to inform people what the characteristics of healthy spaces for living are. Furthermore, I think we have an active duty to inform the real-estate market or uneducated builders about healthy housing standards and unnecessary population risks. Raising awareness about these kinds of themes is very important to me. This is why I decided to design an online course and guide on how to identify a healthy standard home for home seekers. I’m hoping this will benefit buyers, renters, students and especially real estate agents to identify healthy spaces which can respond to the personal needs and safety standards all humans need to function. I’ll keep you updated once the course is up and running on EnDesignSED school, so sign up for the ePSIch newsletter and stay tuned!
Written by Dr. Negin Minaei, edited by Kübra Zehra Kaşıkçı
Dales, R., Liu, L., Wheeler, A. J., & Gilbert, N. L. (2008). Quality of indoor residential air and health. Cmaj, 179(2), 147-152.
Dolack, P. (2017). When Housing is a Commodity Instead of a Human Right, https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/05/12/when-housing-is-a-commodity-instead-of-a-human-right/
Jud, G. D., & Frew, J. (1986). Real estate brokers, housing prices, and the demand for housing. Urban Studies, 23(1), 21-31.
Harbolick, B. K. (?). Vitamin D Deficiency. https://www.medicinenet.com/vitamin_d_deficiency/article.htm
Kethley, R. B., Waller, B. D., & Festervand, T. A. (2002). Improving customer service in the real estate industry: a property selection model using Taguchi loss functions. Total Quality Management, 13(6), 739-748.
Montgomery, C. (2013). Happy city: Transforming our lives through urban design. Macmillan. https://thehappycity.com/
Taylor, R. (2019). Housing as a Commodity. https://toughnickel.com/real-estate/Housing-as-a-Commodity
WELL. (2019). WELL Building Standard, https://standard.wellcertified.com/well
Dr. Negin Minaei
Director EnDesign, Social Environmental Design