Designful

Wellbeing

There’s no denying that our relationship to the spaces we inhabit is changing, and given recent world events and the direction of design and behavioral trends, the quality of those spaces is more important than ever. And as Mphethi Morojele, founder and managing director of Johannesburg-based architecture firm MMA Design Studio, says, in response to changes in the world, we are now “more conscious of our wellbeing on a personal, physical, and emotional level.”

But the guidebook on how to do respond to that is still being written. “I’m not aware of any shared guidelines regarding wellness,” says Krisda Rochanakorn, principal of Bangkok-based Habita Architects. As architects strive to deal with the impact of urbanization, overcrowding, pollution, and sanitary concerns, they are having to develop an entirely new language of design.

Tri Vananda by Habita Architects

It’s a topic that Rochanakorn and Morojele recently discussed in a KOHLER Bold Talks session, hosted in partnership with Design Anthology magazine, together with Erin Hoover, Director of Design for Luxury Space at Kohler Co. Hoover related the topic back to our 2020 Perspective of the Year, Dimensions of Wellbeing — and the corresponding fourth edition of KOHLER Magazine — which she described as “looking at the connection between physical spaces and personal wellbeing, how we interact with a space, and how it responds to our needs.” Together, the speakers shed light on the path towards making wellness an integral part of design — a path that begins by reconnecting to the natural environment.

Granite House by MMA Design Studio
Granite House by MMA Design Studio

“Our natural environment is now a built environment,” says Morojele. In many countries — especially since the start of the pandemic — the average person spends the vast majority of their time indoors. Morojele’s own work has explored ways to mitigate the consequences of all this enclosure. It’s something he calls “mental hygiene,” which until recently has not been a focus of architecture. “The intention is to reinforce what we call the psychosomatic nature of wellness — in other words, the connection between mind, body, and spirit, which is often forgotten about in contemporary world architecture,” he explains. 

Maropeng Visitor Centre by MMA Design Studio
Maropeng Visitor Centre by MMA Design Studio

Morojele is particularly fascinated by traditional cave dwellings, which he says offer “a sense of womb-like safety” combined with the “freedom and imagination provided by the prospect of long-distance views.” As British Library architect Colin St. John Wilson notes in his book Architectural Reflections: Studies in the Philosophy and Practice of Architecture, the key to architecture that promotes wellness is combining these two seemingly contradictory qualities of space. The Maropeng Visitor Centre, designed by Morojele’s firm and GAPP architects / urban designers for the the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, achieves  the aforementioned combination of womb-like safety and freedom and imagination by inserting itself into the landscape through a large earthen mound. Another one of his projects, the Granite House, translates this idea into a domestic suburban setting by approaching the living space as if it were “a piece of hollowed-out granite.” The house layers indoor and outdoor spaces in a way that makes it feel at once open and enclosed.

Rochanakorn hoped to accomplish something similar in his work on Six Senses Laamu in the Maldives. The resort’s seaside villas are nestled into a large rock formation along the shoreline, and each is built of natural materials: bamboo, wood, and stone, with thatched roofs made from coconut palm fronds. It’s an approach that draws from biophilic design — the use of natural forms and materials — which studies have linked to improved mental and physical health. 

Six Senses Thimphu Bhutan by Habita Architects
Six Senses Thimphu Bhutan by Habita Architects
Six Senses Thimphu Bhutan by Habita Architects

Another one of Rochanakorn’s projects, Six Senses Punakha — one of five lodges that makes up Six Senses Bhutan — references the architecture of farmhouses in the nearby mountains, tapping into the patterns inherent in vernacular design, which are both mentally stimulating and reassuring, as Sarah Williams Goldhagen documented in her book Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives. In Six Senses Bhutan, it’s a question of reflecting not only the natural environment but also the built one, so that the resort avoids feeling like an artificial imposition on the landscape.

Both Rochanakorn and Morojele draw from traditional design principles that foster a sense of safety and protection while also maintaining a connection to the outside world. It’s a thoughtful, intuitive approach to design that considers wellness as much of a priority as aesthetics and functionality. But both architects say there’s more to be done, especially with new technology that allows them to better evaluate how users actually respond to a space. “Technology can assist through the use of wellbeing apps and wearables — sensors worn on the body — that can measure and monitor emotional indicators such as heartbeat, brain activity, and the nervous system,” Morojele says. “These can help us better understand how environments affect our physical and emotional wellbeing, and thus design better buildings.”

Mphethi Morojele, founder and managing director of MMA Design Studio Right - Krisda Rochanakorn, principal of Habita Architects
Mphethi Morojele, founder and managing director of MMA Design Studio. Krisda Rochanakorn, principal of Habita Architects

If there’s ever a time for that, it’s now. “Past epidemics have changed how spaces are designed,” says Hoover. The diseases of the 19th century led to modern-day bathrooms with running water and flushing toilets. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 encouraged architects to design their buildings with better natural ventilation. It’s impossible to say exactly what changes the COVID-19 pandemic will bring to design, but it seems clear that one of them is a growing focus on wellness.