How design impacts well-being and happiness

Portrait of DP Architects, Director, Frven Lim

So, we caught up with Frven, the Director of DP Architect UK to talk about happiness and well-being particularly in the office space, design, and the wider architectural sphere. Read or watch the full interview below!

My name’s Frven. I lead the London office of a large practice called DP architects, and we are headquarters in Singapore. The London office is a very exciting small team and works on interesting design projects that push boundaries.

Why do you believe that wellbeing and happiness is connected to the built environment, and have you got any experiences around that?


That is a good first question. Because statistically, if we recognise, and it is pretty factual that a typical person in the modern city or even some rural environment spends 90% of our time indoors, obviously, indoors refers to all kinds of built enclosures may be just pavilion shelter, or your home or your workplace.

So surely, by counter-argument, whether one is in a good mental state, or not, indeed, whether one feels comfortable or anxious, has a huge relationship to the built environment, because if it has not, it would in fact, be pretty odd. So, by looking at it that way, you know, it has been evidently shown and demonstrated that Architecture and the built environment are in conditional space does have an impact on whether it could become someone’s nurse or whether you can make someone feel less concerned or less worried. So, the same logic and argument, we do not really need to wait for the moment where a building or facility is meant to help someone recover from damage to them. Using architecture and the built environment to do good, we could be elevating the baseline to make everyone healthier, get in a better state, both physically and mentally.

Why is it important for business leaders, that they/ you know, what is in it for business leaders and that they think about these things when it comes to their staff?


A typical business leader, you think that is challenging, isn’t it? This means that I have got to throw more money into the carcass of where I placed my staff, must invest more, what kind of return am I going to get from it? What is the ROI? But these are the wrong question.

The right question to ask is how can a leader or a manager get the optimum performance and output from their team?  You get the maximum output and productivity from your team by enabling them to be in a good state of mind. It almost seems ludicrous that one would be prepared to pay commissions and fees to head-hunters to look for exceptional talents but to box them in into a horrible space and let them feel extremely uncomfortable to treat their work as similar to stacking shelves.

So, the managers/leaders need to change their question to ‘How I can make my team very, very comfortable, feel secure, like there is a strong camaraderie and feel like the boss really care about them? So that they could then blank away from the other annoyances and, be really passionate in doing the work that they were meant to do. And guess what? That is a fact, the only way that you are going to get the maximum output, i.e., whether revenue, sales or any kind of business performance.

On the contrary, it is obvious. If incredibly talented people come into the team, and they lose the passion, and they realise that whoever is meant to be overseeing their work, has zero concern for their well-being. Guess what?! They would not be incredibly happy, comfortable or focus 100% of their attention to be on the outputs you are hoping to get.

So, case in point, the right thing for managers or bosses to do is to place the well-being and the ability to get your team to be happy. And in so doing, they become motivated, and they give you the best results. That is the only way that you are going to get the best results.

Have you got some examples of things that can be done just for business leaders that might be watching this as a takeaway? Or what could they consider, maybe a few top tips?


Yes, so maybe one or two suggestions.

The workplace should not be a place that is meant for work in the traditional sense. I mean, it is a great way you do produce work, it’s a place where we, you create value, however, it should be a place where human beings interact and learn from one another. There is symbiotic and there is kind of serendipitous, elevated outputs.

So, how can you do that? For example, if you do have in the event that one is comfortable enough to have in the workspace, the provision of something that is akin to like a pantry. I mean, as we are all very reasonably flexible in that you could have a tablet or laptop, you could be using technology, but so you could plant your laptop or your tablet on the pantry table, or you could even not have it you could be discussing. But how amazing is it if you are talking about work, almost like a side topic when you are preparing a salad together to have healthy food – for example. Or one of my pet details will be the staircase, and I am very keen on introducing staircases in a brand-new way. The staircase could be the traditional staircase, or it could be steps, which functions as storage as well, or even the half landing could become a library or a small pantry or breakout area. This does magic because it induces and creates a catalyst for physical activity.

One of the key killers in modern society because of our sedentary lifestyle is that inactivity is the fourth killer. Primarily, we are talking about inactivity being the main root cause of dementia, obesity, diabetes, and to some extent, even cancer. So, if you can encourage people to move and the reason, they want to move is there is something really attractive. When you move you meet someone else that you have not met before you move actually just to get drinks to distract yourself, and that could be another detail that can be introduced into offices, and the kind of furniture that provides the flexibility of allowing someone who is working to the standing as well as sitting. So, you know that blood is circulation, and, you know, very, very inert, and very subtle muscles are all working is one of the key techniques of elevating physical health.

The reason physical health also has a relationship to mental well-being is that these two are intrinsically linked anyway. You cannot really disassociate and say, I am physically really, really fit. But I am mentally unwell. It does not work like that, you know, and if you are mentally strong, you will have a strong likelihood that you are able to kind of live in a fairly healthy way and to keep fit. So, it goes hand in hand. They are kind of inextricably linked.

I have given a few loose examples. Not actually visibly, I am aware but they kind of give some suggestions that some of these things could be like mini breakthroughs, none of them are rocket science. But no one’s really taking it seriously to do it and as we, in life, sometimes some of the best things are really small things.

What about real-life project examples, can you think of any? Have you designed any buildings where well-being was really at the core of the design? And how did you go about that?


Yeah, I will cite two examples. One of them is our projects. The other one is not our project. But I think it is performed well.

So, in we have a large hospital, a public hospital, called Sengkang Hospitals and embodied within the hospital, is a strong concoction of outdoor spaces, including a sensory garden. So, gardens really stimulates the various senses. And Singapore has very different climatic conditions. So, people are not so keen to be in the sun because it is hot, humid, sticky, and uncomfortable.

But at the same time, Biophilia still plays a strong role, the way that you can do passive design and encourage very gentle, subtle breezes, the way that we can use sensorineural treatments, to elevate or to quicken the recovery process. Those really work, and it is factual as it works both for the patients who are in the hospital, and the staff.

Another example that has worked brilliantly well will be in the UK, the Maggie centres. So initially when they conceived, they are meant to be like centres for, cancer treatment and for people who are really struggling with the impact of cancer to come together, but of late the side effect, and is that it becomes almost like a place for even the family members to come together to support each other.

So, we are human beings, the thing that we must remember is, human beings are completely different from machines. It is because we have got this supercomputer between our ears, and we are not just calculators or processes, but we have emotions, we have intangible logics of relationships, and we have this amazing power from our brains to control the way that we feel and the way that we respond to external stimulus. I think the way that architecture can really solve and have a real positive impact is not just the physical, technical, technological comfort, but also the ability to create a culture, a comfortable ambience, for people to come together to be able to relate to each other. Without, almost like removing the veils and not feeling like as if there is anything to hide.

Listen to DP’s podcast episode – The Science of Wellbeing through Biophilic Design, where our architect from DPA London sits with landscape architects and urban planners to discuss the relationship between design and wellbeing as well as the relatively new realm of neuroarchitecture, in greater detail.

Read our blog on the Benefits of biophilic design in the workplace and The 12 environmental features of Biophilic Design to learn more about biophilic design.

Just maybe a final takeaway, if you were to give business leaders a single piece of advice, what would it be?


I am going to be a bit more ambitious; I will give two pieces of advice.

So as a reasonable person, my first piece of advice is the reckoning that, happy teams produce the best results. To put briefly, I would say if a business leader were a kind, gentle, loving, considerate and intelligent person, he/she will be able to emotionally and in a very intuitive way connect with the team and make them feels comfortable, committed, passionate, and make them feel like they are ready to conquer the world.

But if a business leader is not so concerned about that and is only interested in financial performance, results, and revenue of sales, right, he/she should be very passionate, very caring and very considerate to his team so that the team will be happy and produce the best results. So, which means that in both scenarios you need to be truly kind, considerate leader/manager, and to really demonstrate to your team that you place their well-being at the topmost because that is the only way that your team will be happy, feel at ease and feel comfortable to be doing what they are capable of doing.

Leaders need to act, and the actions need not be shoot moves, the actions can be very subtle, and very subtle moves can have a huge impact too. So, I think that in the realm of workplace design, furniture design, by contemplating and looking at the right kind of furniture, the right kind of setting, the ability to have offices that have viewed or get fresh air, these are all vivid and very specific demonstrations that the manager cares for his team. The physical and actual details are interwoven with the gesture of that bond and that connection. I mean, if we have more people who were happy, I cannot see how this world would be a worse place.

That is one. The second one is two words, walk today. So, I am not referring to what I was mentioning earlier, so much about, like moving versus inactivity. But when I say that, I mean, walk the talk, like if you do, even if a leader or a boss really do agree and reckons, like what I mentioned as my first takeaway, make sense, then deliberate. I mean, I hesitate normal, just walk the talk. But do not procrastinate because, by sheer procrastination, you are just short-changing yourself of the results that you are hoping to achieve from your team.