Innovation Leader Nicole Imberger on Health and Wellness Within the Built Environment

In an increasingly wellbeing-oriented world, devising a framework for developing buildings that support health and happiness is integral. Our homes are where we spend most of our time. This, coupled with ever-increasing clarity and knowledge around the mental and physical impact of our homes, has meant that the conversation is drawing in more and more people from consumers and local councils, to architects, urban planners and developers.

A recent MTalk brought together a panel of pioneers — Neometro and Smiling Mind Director James Tutton, Clinical Psychologist and CEO of Smiling Mind, Dr Addie Wootten, Lecturer and Registered Architect, Kirsten Day of Norman Day + Associates, and Customer Experience and Innovation Leader, Nicole Imberger — in the health and wellness space in the context of the built environment. We spoke further with Nicole to gauge her powerful insight into how we can recognise and implement opportunities that put residents’ wellness front and centre of residential development.

Open Journal (OJ): What role do our homes play in our overall health and wellness?

Nicole Imberger (NI): Genetics account for just 10-15% of our health outcomes. Our homes, communities, and surrounding environment directly affect our daily behaviours and lifestyles, and together these determine up to 80-90% of our health outcomes.

Our environment has a massive impact on our wellness. Unfortunately, it’s an increasingly negative impact, reinforcing some of the greatest health risks we face today - sedentary lifestyles, lack of physical activity, poor diet, stress, loneliness and alienation, pollution and uneven medical care. Our built environment favours driving over biking, sitting over walking, riding in elevators over using the stairs, texting over face-to-face conversations, and screen time over outdoor recreation.

Trillions of dollars are being spent every year on sick care, pharmaceutical, medical technologies, and biomedical research to fix health problems being enabled by these environments rather than treating them, starting with home, as an investment in our wellness. There is a quote from the Global Wellness Institute which I love. “Buildings and infrastructure are as important as immunisations; pocket parks, paths, and plants are as beneficial as prescriptions; friends and neighbours are more important than Fitbits.” It reinforces that our homes – their location, configuration, the materials they are made out of, access to natural elements, their connection to the community, etc., play such a significant role in determining how much we move, what we eat, how we sleep, stress levels, our social networks and therefore, our health and wellness outcomes.

OJ: From a Customer Experience and Innovation perspective, how does your vocation drive reform or research around health and wellness specific to residential architecture and design?

NI: Customer Experience (CX) uses human-centred design thinking as a problem-solving approach that is applied to many different domains including residential development and/or health and wellness. It emphasises an evidence-based understanding of the end-user’s needs and employs divergent thinking to generate innovative solutions in an effort to create better products, services and experiences.

As people increasingly prioritise their health and wellness and have more awareness of how their consumption choices impact wellness outcomes as evidenced by the growth of the global wellness economy (valued at $4.4 trillion in 2020 and rising rapidly), CX is being employed to solve wellness challenges across many industries. Real-estate development happens to be the area that I focus on.

OJ: There was a lot to talk about advocacy during the recent MTalk.You touched on there not yet being a language to talk about wellness. How do you suggest we might establish one?

NI: Yes, this is super important! Currently when people shop for a home they tend to focus on ‘features’ such as numbers of rooms, orientation, location, etc. Homes are marketed with lists of features. People don’t think of a home in terms of the benefits it could provide. I believe that if the industry starts to change the conversation from features to benefits and provides evidence of benefits that can be achieved from healthy building design, demand for healthy buildings will accelerate.

As an example, according to a recent Mindbody survey, sleep is one of the top health concerns of Australian adults. What if a bedroom, instead of just having the same standard dimensions that everyone uses, was optimised for sleep – with acoustic treatments to dampen noise, circadian lighting designed to regulate the biological clock, etc.? That would be a compelling value proposition.

As an industry we can help people understand, with all the scientific evidence we have now, how a well-designed house can actually help you sleep and eat better, get more physical exercise, feel less stressed, learn better, be more creative, have better relationships, and reduce your exposure to toxins.

For example, we know that views of nature are more than nice, they have measurable health benefits. In a study of patients recovering from gallbladder surgery, all things being equal, those with bedside windows looking out on leafy trees healed on average a day faster and needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer post-surgical complications than patients who saw a brick wall.

OJ: How might government/industry equip consumers with knowledge around what they should be asking for in new build homes?

NI: By providing more information about the negative impacts that poorly designed and built environments have on the health of our communities. And conversely, promoting the benefit of healthy homes. As well as education, the government could promote healthy building through incentives such as rebates. Health spending in Australia accounts for more that 16% of total government expenditure and is increasing due to more people experiencing chronic and complex diseases. Shifting resources into creating healthy homes and communities will give us better returns on our health in the long run.

OJ: Outside of our own homes, how might social wellness within the community be cultivated?

NI: Cultivating social wellness within the community involves fostering connection, promoting inclusivity, and creating opportunities for meaningful engagement and collaboration among community members. My top three areas to focus on are:

Walkability – research shows that every 10mins spent commuting results in 10% fewer social connections. As much as possible we want to people to be able to walk or bike to where they are going so that they are out and about with other people. Part of creating a pedestrian friendly environment is reducing walls and fences along boundaries to create neighbourhoods where people see and engage with their neighbours.

Diversity and inclusion - ensuring quality housing options are available within neighbourhoods which include multi-family housing, workforce specific and affordable housing enables people of a range of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds to live and work within the same community, reducing discrimination and fostering social cohesion.

Participation – opportunities for people to participate in community activities. Participation gives people a sense of accomplishment and belonging within their community, as well as giving rise to opportunities to make friendships and connections with people they might not otherwise meet. One of my favourites is food swaps (localfoodconnect.org.au) in North East Melbourne where people meet-up to swap excess homegrown produce.

OJ: What are three key health and wellness elements that every new home should promote? (I.e. Air circulation beyond needing to physically open a door or window. The use of low VOC materials etc.)

NI: Mine would be:

Minimising environmental impacts on health such as reducing toxic substance exposure; blocking external light sources or sound disturbances that might interfere with sleep or cause stress; and promote earth-friendly practices.

Supporting behaviour change and healthier lifestyles by encouraging movement, an active life-style, mind-body health, and healthy eating. This includes using nature to improve mental/psychological wellbeing.

Fostering a sense of place, community, and belonging. The employment of smart design that encourages social encounters, increases community interactions, and builds trust and civic engagement.

OJ: What are three things we can do to improve the health and wellness properties of current homes?

NI: Increasing access to natural light during the day, particularly in the morning keeps our circadian rhythms or biological clocks set to the right time which promotes better sleep. Also, sunlight produces serotonin which boosts mood and productivity. There is evidence that students in sunny classrooms have higher test scores.

Connection with nature such as views to nature, indoor plants and even images of nature have physiological and psychological benefits including reduced pain, reduced stress, lower blood pressure, and stronger immunity. Also looking at nature gives our brains a break which restores attention.

Microbiomes play a crucial role in maintaining overall heath. Microbiomes refer to the diverse collection of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microbes, that inhabit a specific environment. The average home has 2,000 types of microbiomes. Some originate outside, some grow in our homes and on us. Different areas form distinct habitats – kitchen counters, dishwashers, doorways, pillowcases. We obviously want to avoid exposure to harmful pathogens e.g. moulds and fungi by keeping things dry. However, other microbiomes have lifelong health benefits which strengthen the immune system, preventing allergies, autoimmune disorders, and other immune-related disease. We can increase our exposure to environmental microbiomes by avoiding antimicrobials, bringing the outdoors in, opening a window or getting a dog.

Special thanks to Nicole Imberger for her insights and inspiration. Interview compiled by Tiffany Jade.