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Architecture, sustainable living and our future well-being

Professor Elizabeth Burton, School of Engineering and Warwick Medical School

Published in July 2013

What is architecture or, more precisely, what is architecture for? Aside from the aesthetic, it is the discipline that gives rise to the buildings we use each day – our homes, our offices, our schools; our cities. Professor Elizabeth Burton looks at the way we design the urban landscape. Is it time to design differently?

The social and emotional aspects of sustainability are often overlooked when considering what makes a sustainable city. Increasingly, however, we now see that energy-efficient housing is not going to be successful unless it is attractive to people and contributes to their quality of life. At one time, commentators focused on the healthy city – health being a crucial aspect of sustainability – but now we have shifted in our thinking towards the idea of wellbeing, ill-defined as it may be. Given a choice, most people would choose happiness over good health. And who wants to live a long life if that life is of poor quality?


I am an architect by background, but I became disillusioned with the subject when, during my training at Cambridge University, I was advised to stop thinking about people and to view my building design as sculpture. There is a growing gap between the designer and user. In the past, we built our own homes – we instinctively knew how to create places that suited our cultural and social needs – but those who are responsible for delivering our environments today are often far removed from the people who will eventually inhabit them. Even if architects want to design for wellbeing, they don’t necessarily know how to do it. Despite having social goals, the Modernists failed to promote wellbeing in their designs because they were based on ideas about what might work rather than tried and tested solutions. The emphasis in architectural education and practice is on being original; designs which mimic the past are generally lampooned.

I have never lost interest in the built environment and I believe, now more than ever, that it has a significant impact on our lives. What I have been seeking to do, since I founded the WISE (Wellbeing in Sustainable Environments) research unit in 2004, is investigate how the built environment affects our wellbeing, in order to generate design guidance and build an evidence base for design practice. The research community in this field is steadily growing and we are beginning to identify the characteristics of housing and neighbourhoods are likely to be beneficial for residents. There are many challenges, particularly in how to do sound research – it is almost impossible to carry out experiments or trials and there are many aspects of building design that are difficult to measure.

What is needed is not only this research knowledge, or evidence, but a change in the way places are designed – a new approach which puts people at its heart. Further, to encourage developers to take on board design-for-wellbeing principles I am advocating a new kitemark or rating system for housing. We need to do the same for wellbeing as we have done for energy efficiency. House buyers should know how their new homes are likely to affect their wellbeing over the long term. Armed with knowledge, they can be more demanding, and this may stimulate the creation of better-designed places that help us to flourish. Only then can a city be considered truly sustainable.

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Professor Elizabeth BurtonProfessor Burton was founder and director of the WISE (Wellbeing in Sustainable Environments) research unit within the Oxford Institute for Sustainable Development. Her research investigated the social aspects of sustainable urban form, in particular how the built environment (architecture and urban design) influences people's wellbeing, quality of life and mental health. An expert in ageing research, including dementia-friendly design, Professor Burton worked within the School of Engineering and Warwick Medical School. Libby sadly passed away in November 2014 after being diagnosed with cancer.

Image: Parkour Foundations by Thor (via Flickr)