“Nature is a life-giving force that has a lot to do with our well-being. That’s why we ask for a table at the window,” instructs architect and wellness advocate Cee Cee Hodgson with c.c. hodgson architectural group.
Nature: A Room with a View
The following are excerpts from a CCRC LifeCast interview with one of North America’s leading experts on designing for wellness. Here Cee Cee shares some of her principles of good design.
We like a room with a view, whether it’s where we dine-out or live-in. Daylighting is important for the connection with the daily cycle of light and darkness. But it’s not just the daylighting.
Spiritual Wellness and the connection to nature
“Daylight is important, but daylighting with views. You know some people think that skylights suffice. You have to have the physical connection [with the outdoors] and be able to observe the natural views and also have natural light coming in.”
We first encountered the spiritual importance of that visual connection with nature in hospice design. When people are not able to move out into the natural environment, the ability to see beyond the windows and be connected to life, even if only by the view, the breeze, the sound, may be even more important. It’s an essential feature of design for spiritual ease and satisfaction. Kavanagh House Hospice in Des Moines is nestled along a wooded ravine adjacent to the in-town freeway, a difficult, theretofore neglected building site. The plan positioned all the patient rooms facing out towards the natural view — into the private, sheltered ravine. The administrative and staff functions all face the parking lot entrance and the noise of modern life. The residents have an entirely natural view on the world that barely hints at its urban location.
Cee Cee describes recent projects of similar inspiration. “We just completed a hospice project and those were some of the key features. We’re just starting on another one that actually sits right on Lake Erie. Talk about a wonderful and frankly sacred feeling space. It is just an ideal location for a hospice.”
A lot of us have the experience of being spiritually moved being out in nature. One of our personal favorites is Chimney Rock cliffs while canoeing down the Upper Iowa river on a perfect early summer day. We experience the cycle of life in the evolution of seasons, the changing weather and roaming wildlife. We see the fabulous complexity of the natural world in a blaze orange sunset or the dappled shadows of a forest glen. It’s a common human spiritual experience and stirs deep emotions.
Cee Cee concurs, “That right. And that’s part of what is getting played out with the spiritual dimension of wellness. Yes, many [faith-inspired CCRC] communities need their chapel, their meditation space. They need that physical symbol. But their walking trails and grounds may also be a spiritual experience. . . When we were doing Kendal at Oberlin, we had designed a community pool with lots of glass. In the post-occupancy review, one of the residents said, ‘I get more spiritual satisfaction out of swimming in the pool on Sunday morning, being connected to nature than I would be going to church.’ So you know there are people who are playing out spiritual wellness in many different ways today.”
Cee Cee explains that wellness is a very individual experience. Designing for wellness means creating more than one way to experience that spiritual connection and inspiration. We all need to feel there is something important, larger than our self. It’s not an either-or question. It’s not the chapel or faith services versus natural light and a connection to nature. It’s all that and more.
Our own experience says it is critically important to plan spaces to accommodate planned uses. Success depends upon the up-front time and effort to plan the principles and programming expressed in the physical design.
We asked Cee Cee for some of her personal touchstones of great design.
“I have a very clear idea of how light and nature affects the building and how it makes people feel. It’s everything from how did you site the building to take advantage of the best views, or ameliorate some poor views, to what is your experience as you drive up and walk in the door? What are you exposed to? An asphalt parking lot, or is there some fountain, pond or garden that can be beautiful year round? . . . Study how do you move into the building. And then once you get inside, how soon is it before you are again exposed to an exterior view?”
Commercial spaces are often designed with few windows and cavernous interiors for flexibility. Our homes are not. We want to see and access the outside.
“One of the projects we worked on [for a corrective design] was a very typical “x” shaped building and a high-rise. You walked in the front door. There was a nice big rotunda, but you never saw daylight again until you got into your own apartment and looked out your windows. Everything public was all interior. A totally missed opportunity. . . I love to be able to move into a building and immediately look outside to a garden or fountain or walking path.”
That sounds to us like one of Thomas Jefferson’s rules of great architecture, embodied by his home Monticello. You should always have natural light and views from more than one wall or direction.
“That exactly it. Once you’re within a residential corridor it is so easy to just do an ordinary double loaded corridor [with door after door on both sides of the hallway]. No natural light there. Nothing to orient us to the outdoors. [In our designs, w]e don’t want to go past four apartments without having some way of getting light into that corridor. It’s orienting. It provides wayfinding. It tells you what time of day it is. It is all these kinds of healthy things. Being connected to nature and landscape is crucial. So that is a key starting point in terms of wellness design principles.”
The natural connection — creating rooms with a view — is Cee Cee’s first principle. Requiring an outside view after every four consecutive apartment doors is a demanding design standard, but would surely feel less institutional or commercial.
A second principle considers human behavior and responds to it.
“The other key point is, having studied behavior, what are those thing that we’re doing to avoid diminishing the user experience. If a resident has an issue with aging, how can we support them?”
We recalled an earlier example that long hallways may be inevitable in large communities. Failure to include regular opportunities to rest and socialize is not inevitable or required. Good design plans for intuitive wayfinding and resting along the way. Cee Cee gave another example.
“Let me give you just a very simple example. A meeting room. Not one of these big auditoriums that have multiple doors by fire code, but just a large meeting room that holds maybe 20 or 30 people. You have someone presenting at the front of the room. Good design requires that you have two access doors or exit doors and as remotely as possible, at opposite ends of the room. Why? Because over and over, I’ve seen places where people don’t want to get too far into the space. Particularly true if they have a mobility device or if they may have to exit quickly to get to the bathroom. They don’t want to disrupt everyone else.”
Design should respond to the users. If whole-person wellness requires accommodating and encouraging our social dimension, we shouldn’t kill our desire for group experiences by bad design. Don’t trap people in single entrance rooms or discourage them from ever entering in the first place. Residents are conscious of imposing on other people. Designers should be too.
“That’s right. And so here’s something. Can we design to ameliorate that? Yes! You have multiple doors so you can get in this way, get out that way. It makes the circulation easier. Reduces any level of embarrassment. There are just some nuances of that sort that support wellness. If I don’t want to go too far into the room I may decide to not even go that day because I’m concerned or self-conscious. It’s just a very simple design thing than can support issues like that. And it all goes back to wellness. If I don’t feel well or right in the space, then there is something wrong with the design.”
Conclusion. Cee Cee Hodgson reminds us that good design that empowers spiritual and emotional wellness should feature large windows with a view of and connection to the natural world. It should celebrate the landscape and natural environment and encourage visual and physical connections to life beyond our four walls. Good design should factor in the programming planned within the space. And good design should consider human behavior and ameliorate, not exacerbate, the challenges of aging.
We’ve been excerpting highlights from our discussion with Cee Cee Hodgson, of cc hodgson architectural group, and an active thought leader in designing for wellness in senior housing.