University of Maryland Physical Sciences Complex

Moments of Awe in the Built Environment

Mental Health Awareness Month allows everyone to reflect on a topic that, as a behavioral and mental health architect at HDR, I think about every day. While most of my time is spent strategizing ways healthcare facilities can improve behavioral and mental health delivery, I often come across inspiring articles — like this one from The New York Times, “How a Bit of Awe Can Improve Your Health” — that helps me step out of my hyper-focused healthcare role and consider mental health in the context of broader project typologies and their impact on people. 

In The New York Times article, Dr. Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, describes awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world,” which can sometimes be associated with “dramatic, life-changing events,” like the birth of a child, but can also be found in moments of observation in everyday life, like noticing acts of kindness. In his research, Dr. Keltner suggests that training our brains to look for moments of awe is critical to our well-being as it comes with “tremendous health benefits that include calming down our nervous system and triggering the release of oxytocin, the ‘love’ hormone that promotes trust and bonding.”

When I think about this in the context of design, awe-inspiring moments are all around us. Moments of awe can be sensing the warm touch of daylight inside buildings, being struck by views of nature, feeling inspired by visual art, or the inherent sense of knowing one is in the right place when entering a new space designed to instill positive first impressions. Professor Gary W. Evans, an environmental and developmental psychologist at Cornell University, explains in the article “The Built Environment and Mental Health” for the Journal of Urban Health that “design has direct and indirect effects on mental health,” regardless of whether we are conscious of it or not.

I encourage people to notice moments of awe in the built environment — quality daylight, connection to nature, culturally-inspired art, and strong first impressions — and demonstrate the value to building owners of integrating a combination of these elements in the design of their buildings to simultaneously improve occupants’ mental well-being and help them meet their bottom line.

Quality Daylight 

Daylight is integral to life and an essential design element. However, it’s not as simple as punching holes in walls and calling it a day; we must know how to control it and when to let it go, understand when it’s appropriate for people to bask in the sunlight, and take care of those who may be overstimulated. As noted in the article “Design for Mental Health: Integrating Daylight and Nature into Campus Spaces,” published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it’s essential to “consider the negative effects of glare and thermal discomfort” in design, which requires “the use of methods of diffusing and directing natural light such that one gets all of the benefits of sunlight without the glare and heat,” hence, my emphasis on integrating quality daylight instead of abundant daylight in design to elicit positive mood outcomes, including “better affective states, higher hedonic tone and energy levels, and lower tension levels.”

Connection to Nature 

How we notice, think about, and appreciate our surroundings is critical in supporting mental health. A 2021 publication by the UK Mental Health Foundation defines connectedness — a term used by researchers to describe ideal relationships — in the context of nature as “the way we relate to nature and experience nature,” noting “we can develop a new relationship with the natural world by noticing nature, and that doing so has been found to bring benefits in mental health.” The report shares that “people who are more connected with nature are usually happier in life and more likely to report feeling their lives are worthwhile,” reinforcing nature’s ability to facilitate concentration; generate positive emotions, including calmness, joy, and creativity; lessen depression and anxiety levels; and promote pro-environmental behaviors like recycling and buying seasonal food. 

Culturally-Inspired Art 

Art facilitates a sense of belonging and provides inspiration in built environments by broadening our perspectives and understanding of the world. Considering art as an awe-evoking tool aligns with how Sharon Salzberg, a leading mindfulness teacher and author, defines awe as “the absence of self-preoccupation” in the beforementioned article by The New York Times for its ability to help people forget themselves, even if only for a moment. 

An article published by the University of Arizona Global Campus states that “the brain actually goes through changes when we look at a beautiful art piece,” and sites research from The Telegraph, which found “looking at a gorgeous painting, sculpture, or other artwork increases blood flow to the brain by as much as 10% — the equivalent of looking at someone you love.” Further, an opinion article backed by research published by Frontiers in Psychology concludes that art stimulates the brain’s reward system, promotes mental-wellbeing and social inclusion, and supports mental health recovery and resilience. 

Strong First Impressions 

Regardless of a building’s function, its design must instill a positive first impression to evoke feelings of trust, compassion, and understanding for building users or those passing by to know that a building serves a purpose and is here to help people and the community at large. 

An ArchDaily article states, “As with any introduction — to people, places, or products — first impressions are critical … there’s no denying the link between what the brain picks up in those first few seconds … and, by now, we know that once humans are set in their ways, it’s very, very hard to change them.” What’s more, a study conducted by Chalup et al., referenced in an article published by Design Make Studio, found “that building facades are detected similarly to faces,” and shares that “architecture affects us emotionally before we consciously understand it.” 

The common denominator between these four design aspects is that they encourage people to feel their emotions, an essential component of mindfulness and healing. The one takeaway I hope readers carry with them is an understanding that there are endless opportunities in the built environment and natural world that they can find and use as medicine to improve their mental well-being. 

I’ll end by reiterating a line from Dr. Keltner in The New York Times article that I found particularly compelling, “People who find awe all around them are more open to new ideas. To what is unknown. To what language can’t describe.”

Brian Giebink HDR
Behavioral and Mental Health Practice Leader