How to Make a Happier Home
Many current housing design trends ignore what science has consistently proven is best for our emotional comfort and well-being. Fortunately, there are ways we can make our dwellings more restorative, mimicking the natural environments in which we evolved to thrive.
By Lily Bernheimer published February 13, 2020 - last reviewed on March 3, 2020
The house is the primordial human structure, the building from which all others evolved.
“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” Winston Churchill observed. But humans have been around far longer than buildings. And before we started constructing our own spaces, the elements and environments of our natural habitats shaped our minds and bodies in ways that remain core to our well-being today.
Research from environmental psychology—the wing of behavioral science studying how built and natural spaces affect our health, mental processes, and social interactions—consistently suggests that buildings support us best when they echo the scale and tone of the natural world, through pattern, dimension, light, layout, and sound.
The design elements that make us feel most comfortable often hearken back to features from our evolutionary past. Ever wonder why you loved your great aunt’s rambling old Victorian so much? Why the best conversations at the party always take place in the kitchen? Or why, for all its rational perfection, the minimalist aesthetic leaves you cold or, worse, stressed?
Unfortunately, many leading trends in residential interior design today don’t align with what research finds is best for our mental health. A 2019 systematic review identified especially compelling neurophysiological and self-reported evidence supporting the beneficial emotional impact of design tactics such as the five that follow. Together, they form a blueprint for happier, healthier homes.
The pressure to build more sustainable and affordable homes today presents a critical opportunity to put this blueprint to use. In cities from Los Angeles to London and in the suburbs surrounding them, people face severe shortages of affordable shelter. In 80 percent of the United States, home prices are rising faster than wages, according to a report from ATTOM Data Solutions. Climate change is affecting housing choices as well. As more communities seek to house residents in more closely connected and less oil-dependent settings, many experts believe that our future dwellings will be smaller, denser, and higher in the sky.
Such predictions may fill our heads with science-fiction visions of minuscule spaces, with beds that retreat automatically into walls and robotic food trucks hovering outside our windows. But the rise of moderately dense housing developments, known as the “missing middle,” can also play a major role in easing these economic and environmental ills. A healthy helping of townhouses, duplexes, and three- to four-story apartment buildings can transform suburbs as well as cities.
Shrinking residential space doesn’t mean that our homes have to be reduced to “machines for living,” as 20th-century Swiss-French modernist architect Le Corbusier famously advocated. In fact, if the answer to our housing crisis is to build smaller and denser, it’s more vital than ever to design living spaces in ways that support human happiness and well-being. Fortunately, we can make choices designed to do just that.
Wood Is Good
Traditional wood floors largely gave way to wall-to-wall carpets and linoleum in American homes during the 20th century, and today vinyl rules the roost in multifamily construction, according to architect Mark Hogan, principal at OpenScope Studio. Why? “Honestly, most of this interior stuff is just completely driven by fashion,” Hogan says—and, of course, by cost.
The move away from wood flooring is especially unfortunate, because research suggests that having this natural material beneath our feet offers up a buffet of benefits. Spending time in rooms constructed with a moderate balance of wooden surfaces has been linked to decreasing diastolic blood pressure and to a general sensation of comfort. These results aren’t surprising, given our growing knowledge of biophilia—the power of even visual contact with elements of the natural world to both reduce stress and sharpen concentration. Gazing at a living tree can swiftly reduce blood pressure and the production of stress hormones.
In a 2017 study led by Xi Zhang at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, participants were less stressed and fatigued in wooden indoor spaces than non-wooden ones. Using measures that included blood pressure, skin temperature, near-distance vision, and heartbeat, the researchers concluded that wood-filled environments had positive benefits for the respiratory and nervous systems and helped facilitate restoration after work—something most of us desire from our homes.
The good news is that wood-flooring options don’t need to add much to the total cost of a new building, Hogan says. And any additional up-front cost of sourcing sustainable materials like engineered wood, cork, or bamboo tends to pay out in the long term. A well-constructed wood floor, for example, can last a century with proper maintenance.
Inexpensive vinyl may look tempting when you need to replace your carpet, but consider that wood may be the better investment for your home and family. That said, be sure to choose sustainably sourced natural materials with no VOCs (volatile organic compounds, such as formaldehyde), to avert harmful off-gassing.
In bathrooms, Hogan suggests investing in tile, which can last as long as 200 years with re-grouting, rather than vinyl or fiberglass, which tend to need replacement in as little as 10 years.
Higher Ceilings Give Us Headspace
House and apartment hunters obsess over horizontal square footage but often overlook the importance of vertical space. The U.S. federal building code sets the minimum ceiling height for habitable spaces at 7 feet, but research suggests that we generally prefer our ceilings higher.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, middle-class homes were typically built with ceilings at least 10 to 12 feet high, but this came to be seen as wasteful and inefficient in the postwar era of mass production and modern architecture.
Intrigued by the classical, Euclidean approach to beauty, Le Corbusier meticulously designed his buildings around the dimensions of an “average man,” somehow arriving at the notion that the ideal ceiling height was one allowing this paragon to reach the ceiling with his hand. Le Corbusier’s calculated ratio prescribed a mere 7-foot, 5-inch (2.26 meter) ceiling height for his 1952 Unité d’habitation in Marseille—the apartment complex that launched the Brutalist style and became a model for residential buildings from Brazil to Berlin.
Contrary to that modernist vision, 1978 research led by John C. Baird found that people’s ceiling height preference increased steadily from 6 feet up to 10, but declined after that. In 2015, an international team led by Oshin Vartanian at the University of Toronto found that high-ceilinged spaces were considered more beautiful. Using fMRI scanners to gauge participants’ reaction to photos of different types of interior spaces, the team discovered that high-ceilinged spaces stimulated brain structures related to visuospatial exploration in the neurological pathways aiding visual navigation and behavior.
Higher ceilings don’t simply appeal to our sense of beauty; they also influence how we behave. As rooms get smaller, the amount of space we desire—our personal space “bubble”—ironically expands. Men in particular seem to crave larger personal space bubbles when they find themselves in low-ceilinged environments and are more likely to act antagonistically when they feel cramped.
Researchers believe this response derives from our evolutionary preference for spaces that provide refuge from potential predators, as well as prospect, the ability to see foes (or food sources) before they see us. If you imagine a time when we were being chased by lions and men with spears, small dark places like caves and underbrush would provide refuge, while climbing up a tree or mountain would provide prospect.
Studying responses to images of rooms categorized as enclosed versus open, Vartanian’s team found support for the notion that this sense of refuge and prospect influences our spatial preferences today. Participants were more likely to express a desire to exit enclosed spaces—those not featuring windows or doors to the outside—which also activated a part of the brain associated with handling fear, the cingulate gyrus. A sense of being enclosed, then, seems to stimulate our fight-or-flight response.
While the optimal ceiling height for well-being tends towards the higher, it also varies with our desire for refuge and prospect in different areas of the home. Baird and his colleagues found that preference for high ceilings depended somewhat on what activity people imagined they would be doing in a room, with lower ceilings preferred for reading, dining, and talking.
Our personal space bubbles expand and shrink in relation to where we are and who we’re with, and the smallest bubbles are reserved for more intimate and informal settings. The casual but limited space of a kitchen may be more conducive to snug and boisterous socializing than more formal living and dining rooms, which may help explain why the kitchen always seems to be the heart of a party.
Another classical approach, promoted by the 16th-century architect Palladio and traditionally practiced in Japan, is to establish a ceiling height proportional to room length—a sort of golden ratio determined by a measurement between width and length. It’s wise, under this model, to avoid long, skinny rooms with tall ceilings; they end up feeling like tunnels. Architectural historian Grant Hildebrand has suggested that the enduring popularity of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs is partly due to his cunning use of refuge and prospect: The architect varied ceiling height throughout his buildings, with shadowed, low-ceilinged refuges opening up to brighter, airy expanses.
After having dipped down to an eight-foot standard in the postwar era, the average American apartment today is more likely to have a ceiling height of 8½ to 9 feet. This extra 6 to 12 inches “makes a big difference psychologically,” says Gennifer Muñoz, founder of GEN M Architecture. Nine-foot ceilings add to construction costs and heating bills, but they also allow natural light to penetrate further into a building, potentially returning some savings. In a future when more of us will live in modest-size dwellings, those extra few inches of height could go a long way toward enhancing our sense of space, light, and livability.
Embrace Your Curves
Nature tends not to be characterized by straight lines, and yet contemporary residential spaces lean rectilinear. “Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line,” mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot wrote. But open any contemporary interior design magazine today and you’ll find pages full of clean lines, rectangular windows, and sharp-cornered countertops.
When it comes to exteriors, people tend to prefer structures encompassing decoration, curved lines, and articulated facades, like the Chrysler Building, where the complexity of the structure is revealed in the elaboration of the surface. This preference for curvature and complexity seems to extend to interiors as well.
A 2017 study led by Maryam Banaei at Iran University of Science and Technology found that rooms with curvature were rated more pleasurable and stimulating than rooms defined by angular geometry. This finding has been confirmed by researchers, including Vartanian and his colleagues, who found that curvilinear rooms activated the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, a region dealing with emotional learning and motivation. Rectilinear spaces did not. Curvature may delight because it reminds us of pleasant natural forms like eggs, plums, and puddles, while sharp shapes may invoke thorns, fangs, and jagged rocks, things we associate with riskier situations.
This is not to suggest that we start building Hobbit houses. “I don’t see a lot of curvilinear spaces in my work,” Muñoz told me. And with good reason: Curvilinear spaces are more complicated and more expensive to design and build, at least on a scale larger than yurts and igloos.
Perhaps we can reach a happy medium between our desire for curvature and the constraints of contemporary building by incorporating angular—yet not strictly rectilinear—features like the time-tested bay window, which adds some complexity to rigid, rectangular spaces. Kitchens can be softened with curved edges on counters, stovetops, and handles. Interior decor choices of furnishings, artwork, and lighting fixtures all offer avenues to enhance a home’s curvy figure, whether you’re a renter or a homeowner.
Think Twice Before Going Minimalist
In homes worldwide, Scandinavian modernism has taken hold, with light colors, sleek forms, and uncluttered open plans that promise a blueprint for an uncluttered mind. The style has only grown in popularity with the arrival of the minimalist movement of Marie Kondo and her followers, a “less is more” lifestyle and aesthetic recently critiqued as just another form of conspicuous consumption, one obscured by moral superiority.
While Scandinavian modernism may be warmer and furrier than other flavors—often featuring cozy throw-rugs and glowing lamps—it shares a disdain for ornamentation. “If we’re talking affordable or cheaper market-rate apartments, I think we’re seeing a trend, at least in California, toward more modern interiors,” Hogan says, “where you don’t have a lot of ornate moldings being added around doors or crown moldings.”
Austrian-Czech modernist pioneer Adolf Loos controversially likened architectural ornamentation to what he considered the moral corruption of tattoo art. His 1910 essay, “Ornament and Crime,” suggested that any tattooed Westerners who died unincarcerated simply hadn’t had time to commit their crimes yet. Modernists like Loos and Le Corbusier believed that ornamentation, such as moldings around door and window frames, was frivolous and unnecessary, advocating a stern, spare aesthetic that forever changed the face of architecture.
But is ornamentation really so frilly? Growing up in a 1908 Arts and Crafts house with a good dose of decorative detail, I never questioned why humans in the Western world took so much trouble to decorate window frames with these oddly shaped structures. Researchers like Andrew Crompton at the University of Manchester believe such forms are not random. Inherited from the entablature that sat atop the columns of Greek and Roman buildings, moldings seem to have been either consciously or subconsciously crafted in fractal forms.
Fractals are found throughout the natural world, but can be difficult to define, even for those who study them. They can be seen clearly in trees like maples or oaks, which repeat self-similar forms on multiple scales—with large branches mimicking the form of the overall tree, as do smaller branches, twigs, and even leaves, roughly. Naturally occurring fractals tend to be statistically self-similar, rather than the exact self-similarity seen in “fractal art” posters resembling tie-dyed wormholes.
While clouds, mountains, coastlines, trees, and other natural elements cannot be accurately modeled with Euclidean geometry, they can be expressed with fractal mathematics, as Mandelbrot discovered. Because our visual perceptual system evolved to function in a fractal world—and is itself defined by fractal-like properties—environmental psychologists like Yannick Joye believe it may simply be easier for us to process such forms, helping to explain the calming yet mentally stimulating effect of exposure to the natural world known as environmental restoration.
What does this have to do with the millwork around your closet door? Crompton’s research has demonstrated that the generous use of small-scale features creates a “cascade of detail” that can display fractal characteristics in their relative scale. Buried deep in our subconscious, these elements bring a bit of the fractal, natural world we left behind into our more rectilinear indoor existence. The flared form of moldings may even bestow a subtle sense of refuge, mimicking in miniature the flared silhouette of trees that sheltered our ancient ancestors.
Don’t let me rain on your parade if your house looks more fit for an IKEA catalogue. At its best, Scandinavian Modernism’s natural materials display inherent self-similarity from the micro scale to the macro, further enhancing the well-being benefits of wood-based flooring. But the watered-down, vinyl-floored version of the Scandinavian style expressed in everyday apartments today may miss out on the best of both worlds.
While Modern interiors are trending in cities, suburban apartments are more likely to feature ornamented moldings and a country kitchen vibe—even though faux traditionalism makes many architects cringe, as both Hogan and Muñoz point out. Beyond Modernist moralizing, ornamentation also declined in the 20th century because of rising labor costs—an ornate window frame is costlier than a bare, mass-produced equivalent. This all means that domestic ornamentation hasn’t much evolved since the baby boomers were born.
Today, 3D printing technology and innovative material reuse could enable us to ornament our window frames and building facades once again, at little additional expense—and potentially in more contemporary and creative ways. Firms such as Rael San Fratello are using materials like sawdust and recycled coffee grounds to print textured hexagonal tiles that double as succulent plant pots and “knitted” ceramic cladding materials designed to vary organically—each piece is similar yet unique, like the leaves on a tree. Such innovations avoid the cookie-cutter counterfeit feel of pastiche architecture, while turning a new page in the biophilic potential of ornamentation.
Windows: Seeing Is Relieving
Eyes are said to be windows to the soul, and windows are the eyes of our homes. Windows deliver a variety of well-being benefits into our interiors, which will be more critical to optimize as we build denser dwellings. These portals to the outdoors can bring us daylight, air flow, prospect, natural views, and a sense of control—each of which is independently beneficial.
Research has shown that we prefer natural ventilation to the highly processed, controlled air delivered by the ventilation, air-conditioning, and heating systems of modern buildings. Greater variability in air flow and temperature is more similar to natural conditions and has been linked to greater well-being, concentration, and comfort. Operable windows are mandated by code in low-rise buildings, but high-rise construction techniques like fixed curtain walls often leave windows inoperable, preventing occupants from letting in fresh air and cutting them off from the outside world.
Windows with a view of natural features like trees have long been known to have especially strong restorative power. Recovering from surgery in a room with a view of a tree (as opposed to a brick wall) can shorten recovery time and decrease the experience of pain, Roger Ulrich demonstrated in a groundbreaking 1984 study. Visual access to nature has also been linked to positively influencing overall happiness, mood, and attitude.
More recent research has suggested that vistas with more visible sky can enhance the restorative impact of windows in dense urban living spaces. A 2018 study led by Sepideh Masoudinejad at Shahid Beheshti University in Iran found that views that included window boxes, distant cityscapes, or mountains were judged as having greater restorative potential. If your windows don’t happen to look out upon any treetops or mountain ranges, you can bring a bit of biophilia into your view with a window box—another point in favor of including at least some operable windows in any apartment.
Making Housing a Verb
Many economists suggest that we must build as quickly and simply as possible to relieve our housing crisis. But the impact of the height, placement, and massing of new construction on views of the sky and nature for those who live in and around these buildings is a valid concern in an increasingly urban world.
Urban planners in your town hall may have the final call on issues like sightlines and curtain walls. Still, much can be done at the scale of your own home.
We won’t all find the perfect cocktail of tall ceilings, wood flooring, and juicy views in our next rental or first home purchase, but we can choose furnishings and finishes that bring in more natural materials, curvature, and complexity. The five factors covered here are certainly not an exhaustive list. Even restricted renters can use lighting to emulate the sun’s warmth, position furniture for refuge and prospect, and ornament bland spaces with shapely plants.
Moreover, the simple act of making a space your own has psychological perks. “Housing is a verb,” architect and advocate John Turner wrote in 1972. Whether it’s personalizing your own dwelling or supporting affordable development in your community, taking a creative role in housing yields benefits for all.
Lily Bernheimer is an environmental psychology consultant and the author of The Shaping of Us: How Everyday Spaces Structure Our Lives, Behavior, and Well-Being.
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