Healthy Buildings

Research is increasingly highlighting the adverse effects of poor quality housing on our health and wellbeing, making it clear that we should be designing for health from the outset, and this should be embedded into every design.

Barbara was a speaker at the annual ASBP Healthy Buildings conference in 2017 and these are the ways Straw Works add considerations for health into all their designs:

  • Humidity regulation – by using natural plasters
  • Hygienic – lime plasters help prevent bacterial growth and moulds
  • No toxic off-gassing – use of natural materials
  • Fresh air – use of passive/active ventilation combined with breathable wall systems that allow passage of vapour and air exchange from the outside without creating draughts or losing heat
  • Ambient temperature – thermal storage in straw bale walls with lime/clay plasters
  • Peace and quiet – excellent sound insulation from plastered straw bale walls
  • Quality of light – graduated by deep rounded reveals, plenty of daylight
  • Beautiful surroundings – simple organic finishes
  • Ownership – participation in the build

Further reading: ASBP have a number of informative briefing papers. These are great summaries of some fundamental principles of construction that we follow in our natural, healthy designs: Airtightness, Vapour Control and Breathability; Natural Fibre Insulation; Formaldehyde

The concept is greater than materials alone however, and there are an array of factors at play. Below, we look at how the concept of healthy buildings is relevant at all stages of a building’s life cycle, from its initial design right through to its eventual end-of-life.


While there are a number of sustainability standards which integrate health and wellbeing in the design phase, we have found the Living Building Challenge to be the most rigorous assessment tool out there.

One of the Challenge’s petal’s, ‘Health & Happiness’ lists Biophilia as a key element of design. Biophilia describes our innate, evolutionary pull to nature and has been adapted as a design tool in architecture. Biophilic design integrates nature into a building and creates opportunities to (re)connect occupants with the natural world. This has been found to elicit positive, restorative responses in humans, such as reduced stress levels, improved cognitive functioning and creativity.

Straw Works have designed the UK’s first registered Living Building Challenge project – the Cuerden Valley Park Visitor Centre. While we have always designed with nature in mind, this was the first project in which we actively integrated the 14 patterns of Biophilia into the design.

You can read more about the project, which was shortlisted for the ASBP awards in 2018 here.

Further reading: Terrapin Bright Green’s report ‘14 Patterns of Biophilic Design’ explains how to apply biophilic design in the built environment.

‘Health and Wellbeing in Homes’ report from the UK Green Building Council is a useful document aimed at those with a role in developing, designing, delivering or managing housing.

Training and construction

The construction process itself can be hugely beneficial to both individual and community wellbeing.

At SNaB, we think everyone should have the opportunity to experience the joy derived from self-building. The natural building courses we run are a testament to this, being community-minded, inclusive and fun. We have found there is always a great sense of ownership and reward in completed buildings.

Research from the brilliant organisation, Down to Earth, have published findings which support the use of natural building as a green prescription to manage mental health. The skills and knowledge acquired from the building process can improve self-esteem and self-confidence. When combined with increased social connectedness and time spent outdoors, this was found to lead to improvements in anxiety, depression and resilience.

Further reading: Down to Earth have a variety of learning and wellbeing research on their website here.


There are direct positive consequences of designing for health. For example, using natural, breathable materials along with a ventilation system creates good indoor air quality. This reduces exposure to harmful pollutants which can cause skin irritation, headaches and respiratory conditions like asthma. When combined with design that integrates natural daylighting, this can regulate our circadian rhythms, improve sleep, mood and cognitive functioning – basically making us feel and function better!

There are also more indirect and intangible benefits to natural buildings. People often describe a certain organic atmosphere and sense of tranquility inside straw bale buildings but can’t quite put their finger on what or why this is… This is down to the sensory experiences they stimulate.

The materiality of buildings – that is, how we interact with the materials they are made from; how the building looks, feels, sounds and smells – can generate positive emotions and affective states.

Rooms built with straw and clay for example, have softer, more insulated acoustic qualities than a room created with more heavily processed materials. Touch too is important – the feel of exposed timber beams or the texture of clay plaster on the walls. Sight – the gentle colours from natural finishes, the filtration of daylight through windows or views out onto green spaces. All of this sensory engagement is something that we unconsciously respond to and which can lead to an improved state of wellbeing.

Further reading: Professor Jenny Pickeril, who is an academic at the University of Sheffield, writes about the intersection between design, our bodies and the environment. Her book ‘Eco-Homes: People, Place and Politics’ (Zed Books, 2016) is an interesting read.

Happy by Design’ by architect Ben Channon (Riba Publishing, 2018) is a good resource to help us better understand the relationship between buildings and happiness.


Natural materials can be reused, recycled or composted and returned to the earth once we’re done with them. By designing for deconstruction and eliminating toxic materials from the outset, the dismantling process is safe for both the natural environment and the people who are carrying out the work. By responsibly managing the end-of-life process, this also reduces material consumption and closes the loop on the circular economy.

Further reading: To learn more about the circular economy, the Ellen McArthur Foundation has fantastic resources on their website.

Set within the context of the UK construction industry, ACAN have produced a nine part Circular Series which looks at how to apply circular economy principles at each RIBA stage.