Ben Channon has worked at London-based Assael Architecture for over six years, adding his expertise to a number of different projects.
More recently, however, his efforts have been focused on the well-being of the people who live inside all of our architectural creations. As well as co-founding the Architects' Mental Wellbeing Forum, Ben is a qualified Mindfulness Practitioner and his first book, Happy By Design, was published in the autumn of 2017.
In what ways do our surroundings affect our mental health, both in the short and the long term?
When I started researching the book, I was genuinely surprised to discover the extent to which buildings impact our mood and happiness - and subsequently (I believe) our mental wellbeing.
Everything from the material choices, colour palette, proportions of spaces, and even the levels of biodiversity around us, can have a large impact on how we feel at any given time.
As anyone who has suffered with their mental health will know, these are not problems that can be easily fixed, and often last many years. Creating an environment in which people feel safe and happy - and therefore helps to support good mental wellbeing - can as a result play an important role in our long term state of mind, as well as just in the present moment in which we experience the building.
What responsibility does the construction industry have to keep us mentally healthy?
I believe that the industry has a huge responsibility to support people’s mental well-being and happiness. As we spend over 80% of our time in buildings, and over 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities, we are spending more time than ever in and around the built environment.
Once you accept that this built environment has an impact on how we feel, for me it is a no-brainer that we must try to create places that make people feel better, in whatever ways we can. This was the main reason I wrote the book - to help people to better understand how the buildings they create are affecting people.
Given that 1 in 4 people suffer from a diagnosable mental health problem every year, I would argue that we all have a vested interest in improving this. Furthermore the government recently estimated the cost of poor mental health to UK businesses at £99 billion annually, so there is a strong business case for designing better workplaces too.
Why do you think your role as Mental Well-being Ambassador is so important within your field?
To me it’s really important that we combat mental health on two fronts: firstly within the industry itself, and then through the buildings we create. If we don’t get our own house in order first, how can we hope to support those we design for?
What is clear is that it is a big problem in the construction industry, which has one of the worst suicide rates of any employment sector. Architects are no exception - and it seems sadly to be getting worse - 1 in 3 architecture students revealed they are having problems with their mental health in the AJ 2018 student survey, up from 1 in 4 just two years ago.
I am very lucky to work at Assael Architecture, a practice with an incredible record when it comes to caring for staff. Last year John Assael and I founded the Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Forum, which I now chair. This forum has gathered together some of the best architectural employers in the country to share knowledge and explore new ways to support staff throughout our industry. I would urge all architects to follow our progress.
What one change would you make to our cities that would be the most positive for our mental well-being?
If I was going to be really radical, I would argue that banning (or restricting) the use of cars in city centres could potentially have a huge positive impact. When you look at some of Europe’s most amazing cities - Venice, Copenhagen or Amsterdam for example - these are all places dominated by pedestrians or the bicycle.
The possible upsides of restricting car use are enormous. It would mean more personal space for city users (a lack of which is shown to be closely connected to our fight or flight response). We would have the opportunity to plant trees in dense urban environments, and gain the enormous psychological benefits of being surrounded by nature. People would be encouraged to walk or cycle more, releasing feel-good endorphins. And perhaps most importantly, they wouldn’t be stuck in traffic in their cars, increasing frustration levels and releasing stress-inducing chemicals that take hours to dissipate.
But, really, anybody can help us to improve this situation, whether it’s through suggesting positive changes to a scheme you work on, or through asking a colleague “How are you - really though?” Attitudes towards mental health are changing, but every one of us has an important role to play.
You can by Ben's book from RIBA Bookshops and on Amazon
How do you view your city? We'd love to hear intereresting perspectives on the built environment for this series. To get involved, email info@theNBS.com