One of the most interesting long running studies on the effect the natural and built environment can have on human behaviour and health was conducted by the Australian Antarctic Division. A large number of authors have described Antarctica as the greatest available laboratory for experimentation into human behaviour, offering immense opportunity for the study of human phenomena which have significance beyond the Antarctic continent.1
For me, the interesting part of the research has been how quickly one can become unbalanced when removed from our ‘normal’ environment. Antarctica is immediately thought of as extremely cold and remote, and of course these are a part of the equation. The disturbance of circadian rhythms, change of access (both increased and decreased) to sunshine and daylight, and a restriction in the spheres of activity can create some of the most interesting and compounding physical and psychological effects, even in robust individuals.
For more than 30 years the program was under the direction of the Head of Polar Medicine, Dr Desmond Lugg,2 who on retirement from the Antarctic division in 2001 became the chief of NASA’s Medicine of Extreme Environments Department. The study has involved the wintering personnel being monitored in every aspect of life, including physical and mental health, work output and social situation.
The Australian Antarctic Division, being extremely aware of the effect of the relationship between the built environment and the wellbeing and productiveness of their staff, set about formulating what could be the best built environment for those on expedition.
In his research Dr Lugg formed the counterintuitive view that the best living environment for health, wellbeing and work production was not a single mega building entirely protected from the outdoor elements, but instead a series of disconnected buildings which would force the expeditioners to have everyday contact with the outside, however uncomfortable it may be.
What lessons can be drawn from this?
Having observed the effects changes in access to sunshine and daylight had on fit and healthy expeditioners, two observations for our suburban environment may be made.
In spite of having abundant sunlight, many in the community suffer a from lack of access to appropriate levels of this sunshine, since our lifestyle is more internal. In fact much sport is carried out inside or under lights. At the same time, more and more of our buildings are built of glass, as if intuitively trying to compensate for the body that craves for what it needs. Although we may ‘feel good’ when we are in a glass building, it is a cruel trick that while the glass building feels to be what we need, glass actually filters the sunlight, thereby excluding the good rays that assist vitamin D and letting in the cancer-causing rays.
A more specific cohort of people are those who have little control over their circumstances and environment by being in residential care. In some of the more secure dementia care facilities, residents are actually locked inside their buildings on a daily basis, being allowed out only if staff have the time to escort them. Even if doors are unlocked, it is observed that residents do not venture outside of their own accord unless there is something specific to draw them.
Two aspects of recent concern are the extent of depression and the lack of vitamin D in residents of aged care facilities. The figures are national and clearly measurable, indicating that 25-30% are depressed and over 90% suffer from lack of vitamin D.3 The general reaction is that these are old people and they probably will be depressed and suffer a lack of vitamin D; so what can you do? The simple solution has often been to add two more pills to the daily pill intake.
For the past 25 years Wintringham Specialist Aged Care and Allen Kong Architect have employed a management and building practice which has proved successful in ameliorating the above two conditions. The care facilities have been designed in such a way that the residents must move outside the building in order to travel from bedroom to living area.The result has been a vastly reduced rate of depression and a great reduction in challenging behaviour. Vitamin D levels have been measured and fewer residents have had to be routinely prescribed vitamin D.4
These outcomes are consistent with the outcomes observed in the Antarctic research. Clearly, in order to be healthy we need to critically examine what many intuitively believe about our environment.
1. Incoll, PG 1991, ‘The influence of architectural theory on the Design of Australian Antarctic Stations’ , Australian Construction Services, p301.
2. Lugg, D 1991, ‘Current International Human Factors Research in Antarctica’, From Antarctica to Outer Space Harrison Clearwater McKay, pg35.
3. We acknowledge that the topics of vitamin D and depression are complex matter and depends on numerous health factors.
4. Helen Small, General Manager Operations, Wintringham.