Book Reviews

Book Review: Constructing Health by Tye Farrow

Tye Farrow, a renowned Canadian architect, began exploring the relationship between architecture and its effects on people’s health early in his career. In an interview for the Venetian Letter published last year, the architect revealed how this interest has shaped his professional journey. Now, he shares his extensive knowledge and professional insights in his newly published book.

Published in May, Farrow’s “Constructing Health. How the Built Environment Enhances Your Mind’s Health: An Exploration of Generous Architecture, Through the Neurological, Psychological, and Emotional Benefits of Enriched Environments” is a profound and essential read for anyone interested in the intersection of design and health. 

This book meticulously examines how our built environments can actively foster health and well-being. As someone with a background in medicine and working at the intersection of neuroscience and architecture, I found Farrow’s insights both enlightening and actionable, providing a comprehensive understanding of how intentional design can enhance our mental, physical, and emotional well-being.

Farrow’s writing style is engaging and accessible. He conveys complex scientific concepts in a way that is easy to understand, making the book suitable for a broad audience. His passion for the subject is palpable, keeping readers interested throughout the book.

He opens the book with a series of thought-provoking questions that immediately capture the reader’s attention and set the tone for the entire work: “What if health were the basis for judging every public space and building?”, “Why haven’t we identified 8,000 causes of health or symptoms of wellness that lead to a healthier society?” and “What if we stopped tolerating design that causes boredom, dis-ease, and depression?” These questions challenge conventional thinking and invite readers to reconsider the fundamental principles of architectural design.

The Sensory Diet

In the introductory chapter, titled “Place, Health, Wellbeing, and the Mind,” Farrow explores the foundational idea that our environments provide us with a continuous “sensory diet.”

According to Farrow this diet can either nourish or deplete our mental states, significantly influencing our cognitive abilities, productivity, social interactions, memory, and overall well-being. His argument is clear: architecture and design are not mere neutral backdrops but active participants in shaping our health outcomes.

The author delves into the concept of “planetary health,” which includes the health of natural ecosystems and the built environment. He references the Rockefeller Foundation and The Lancet’s definition, highlighting the interconnectedness of human and environmental health. This holistic approach underscores the necessity of designing spaces that support both human and ecological well-being.

One of the core arguments Farrow makes is the necessity of shifting from a pathogenic to a salutogenic perspective in design. The pathogenic approach, common in modern Western medicine, focuses on diagnosing and treating diseases—essentially, it looks at what makes people sick. In contrast, the salutogenic approach focuses on what creates health and well-being, looking at factors that actively promote good health.

Farrow introduces the concept of a “sense of coherence,” originally developed by Aaron Antonovsky, which includes comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness as crucial factors for enhancing mind and body health. Farrow aligns his architectural principles with these ideas, advocating for a shift away from merely preventing illness to actively designing spaces that promote overall health and well-being.

Another core concept explored by the author in ‘Constructing Health’ is the idea of enriched environments, originating from mid-20th-century psychologist Donald Hebb. Hebb’s studies on mice revealed that environments rich in stimuli and opportunities for engagement significantly enhance cognitive function and brain development.

Separate book chapters are dedicated to various contexts, demonstrating how salutogenic principles can be applied across different settings.

City Making

In the chapter on city making, Farrow discusses a model of health that comprises “many circular, interwoven layers of health actions that enhance social, cultural, ecological, economic, and mind health as a result of placemaking.” One project he examines is the Venice Archipelago Project, which addresses Venice’s challenges through a saluto-systemic approach to urban design.

Farrow’s investigation into Venice focuses on what he calls the “twin floods of Venice”: the intensifying water floods due to rising sea levels and the overwhelming influx of tourists straining the city’s infrastructure. This research and planning were part of the collaborative work he conducted from 2019 to 2022 at Iuav University in Venice, alongside Professor Davide Ruzzon, Claire Daugeard, and Carolin Vogelei. 

His practice has since developed and continues to evolve the plan. This approach illustrates how thoughtful urban design can address complex challenges while enhancing the overall health and well-being of city inhabitants.

Living Places

In the chapter on living places, the author emphasizes the importance of creating homes that embody Person-to-Place Domestic Relationships, characterized by qualities such as being welcoming, generous, open, authentic, full of variety and vitality, and intimate. Farrow’s discussion on the Theory of Constructed Emotions and how we form person-to-place relationships is particularly intriguing. 

He posits that our interactions with the built environment are akin to our interactions with people, forming emotional bonds that can either enhance or detract from our well-being. This perspective is crucial for understanding how spaces can be designed to support mental health and foster positive emotional experiences. Farrow writes: 

“The qualities of light and shadow, how light falls on a surface, the surface depth, sheen, or reflectivity of materials, the way sound reverberates or is absorbed, and the shape and form of a space all affect how we experience home. We ‘listen’ with all our senses to the spatial language of home with our bodies, within our bodies, and beyond our bodies.”

Learning Environments

The chapter on places of learning highlights how educational environments can be designed to enhance learning, connection, and overall well-being for both students and teachers. Farrow delves into the concept of brain plasticity, the brain’s remarkable ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. 

This adaptability is crucial for learning and development, as it allows the brain to adjust in response to new experiences, skills, and information. A key mechanism underlying brain plasticity is long-term potentiation (LTP), a process where neural networks become stronger and more efficient as a result of repeated actions, ideas, and behaviors. LTP enhances synaptic transmission, making it easier for neurons to communicate with each other, thereby solidifying learning and memory.

By designing educational environments that encourage repeated positive interactions and stimulating experiences, schools can leverage brain plasticity to foster a more effective and enriching learning experience. The author’s insights emphasize that well-designed spaces can significantly contribute to the cognitive and emotional development of students, providing a foundation for lifelong growth and well-being.

Healthcare Architecture

The chapter on healthcare environments offers compelling insights into how hospitals and clinics can be designed to foster healing, alleviate stress, and enhance patient outcomes. Farrow believes that we must shift from viewing hospitals as “Centers of Excellence” in pathogenetic healthcare to recognizing them as salutogenic “Centers of Influence” that promote optimal health and well-being. 

Shaare Zedek Helmsley Cancer Centre in Jerusalem by Farrow Partners. Image: Archive of Tye Farrow

A key element Farrow discusses is the importance of co-creation in the design process. By involving patients, staff, and the community, designers can better identify essential principles that impact privacy, art, light, nature, sound, temperature and ventilation control, signage, and layout. This collaborative approach ensures that the resulting environments are attuned to the specific needs and preferences of their users.

For Farrow, successful healthcare design hinges on achieving the three critical components of Antonovsky’s sense of coherence: comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness. He illustrates this with examples of healthcare facilities that have embraced these salutogenic principles, showcasing how thoughtful design can lead to remarkable improvements in patient recovery and staff satisfaction. Through these real-world applications, he vividly demonstrates how architecture can transcend its traditional role to become an active participant in the healing process.

Farrow Partners’ Projects

Throughout the book, Farrow uses examples from his own projects to illustrate how these principles can be applied in practice. In our conversation, he clarifies, “We have, at the end, used some examples of our own work in the book. Why? To show that they are the greatest examples of neuroscience applied to architecture? No. But to show how a practitioner is attempting to intentionally apply the concepts to his work; whereby the reader can make up their own opinion, and hopefully use it as a way of imagining how they might apply it in their own surroundings.”

Farrow’s ability to blend scientific research with practical examples makes “Constructing Health” an invaluable resource. For instance, he discusses Sechelt Hospital, a project designed by Farrow Partners in collaboration with Perkins & Will located on the Sunshine Coast, northwest of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. 

This project embodies a desire for a home-like atmosphere and a sense of familiarity, incorporating elements of local culture and traditions into its design. By reflecting the community’s unique identity, the hospital fosters a sense of belonging and comfort for patients, staff, and visitors alike. This approach not only enhances the healing environment but also reinforces the cultural and emotional connections that are vital for overall well-being.

Another project, the Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, emphasizes the integration of natural elements, including broad, tree-like shapes incorporated into the design to evoke feelings of protection and encouragement. By bringing elements of nature indoors, the hospital creates a soothing and supportive environment that enhances the healing process and promotes a sense of tranquility for patients and staff alike.

Farrow also references Roxborough House, a residential project in Toronto, Canada, which transforms a traditional brick house into an innovative living space that seamlessly integrates nature and architectural elegance. By carving out the center to create a full-height enclosed courtyard, Farrow crafted two connected living areas linked by bridges and a central staircase, enhancing natural light and interior views. 

The design predominantly uses white materials and back-painted glass, capturing changing light and creating a dynamic, nature-connected atmosphere. This approach fosters a deeper connection to the environment, heightening residents’ awareness of daily and seasonal changes.

Overall, “Constructing Health” is a well-researched and thought-provoking book that challenges architects, urban planners, and policymakers to rethink how they design spaces.

Farrow’s insights into the neurological, psychological, and emotional benefits of enriched environments provide a compelling case for placing health and well-being at the forefront of architectural design. This book is not only a call to action but also a guide for creating environments that enable us to flourish and prosper rather than merely survive.

One of the book’s most compelling aspects is its originality. Farrow’s interdisciplinary approach seamlessly blends insights from neuroscience, psychology, and architecture.

This comprehensive perspective not only illuminates the profound impact our surroundings have on our mental, physical, and social health but also highlights the necessity for a paradigm shift in architectural design. His thorough research makes a compelling case for integrating health-focused principles into the fabric of our built environments.

Additionally, the book is beautifully formatted, featuring rich illustrations and immersive images that enhance the reader’s understanding. Farrow’s projects, ranging from hospitals and schools to urban design concepts, are showcased in a way that highlights their innovative and health-promoting qualities.

The visual appeal of the book makes it a pleasure to read. It is designed to be explored rather than read from beginning to end, inviting readers to engage with it over multiple sittings.

In conclusion, “Constructing Health” by Tye Farrow is a landmark work that will undoubtedly influence the future of architectural design. It provides a clear and compelling argument for the importance of designing environments that promote health and well-being. 

Farrow’s insights and recommendations are essential reading for anyone involved in the design and construction of the spaces we live, work, and play in. This book is a powerful reminder of the profound impact that our built environments have on our health and well-being, and it provides a roadmap for creating spaces that support and enhance human flourishing.

To delve deeper into Farrow’s vision, I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions. When asked what advice he would give to architects and designers who want to incorporate salutogenic principles into their work, Farrow responded: “First and foremost, architects and designers need to understand the profound impact their work has on health.

They should prioritize creating environments that enhance well-being by incorporating natural elements, ensuring ample light and air quality, and designing spaces that foster social interaction and a sense of community. It’s also crucial to think about how a space can be adaptable to different needs over time, promoting resilience and long-term health.”

Ultimately, “Constructing Health” is more than just a book; it is a call to action for a paradigm shift in how we conceive and create our built environments. Farrow’s comprehensive approach, combining rigorous research with practical applications, offers a transformative vision for the future of architecture.

By embracing the principles outlined in this book, we can move towards a world where our surroundings actively contribute to our health and well-being, ensuring that the spaces we inhabit are not just places to live but places to thrive.You can now get the book here.

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Natalia Olszewska is a Researcher and Practitioner in Neuroscience Applied to Architecture. Being a graduate in medicine (Jagiellonian University & Tor Vergata), neuroscience (Sorbonne Université & ENS), Brain and Mind studies (UCL) and ‘Neuroscience applied to Architectural Design’ (IUAV university) she works between disciplines and creates insights for people-centered environments.
At work, she combines her deep care for people and their well-being with her passion for architecture and design. Natalia is a co-founder of IMPRONTA, behavioral science and neuroscience consultancy for architecture.