Building for better mental wellbeing

BuroHappold Engineering has just released the higher education white paper ‘Are university campuses designed to support student mental health?’ Cathy Parnham explores some of the key issues and background research

While there are many complex factors that may cause and trigger mental health issues, from transitioning to a new home with unfamiliar faces, to the much-documented student debt and exam stress, the environs also play a pivotal part in encouraging good mental wellbeing.

It is inconceivable that students do not have access to a universally accepted mechanism for assessing and comparing the state of a university’s buildings  – Dr Mike Entwisle

As part of BuroHappold’s survey of 5,000 students from the UK and USA, 44% consider the design of university facilities to be average or poor. This is in context of alarming student mental health statistics. According to the 2019 Insight Network’s online survey:

  • 21.5% of UK students have a current mental health diagnosis
  • 50.3% have contemplated self-harm
  • 21% have reported feeling lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’.

It is BurroHappold’s belief that spaces in and around university should be designed to “provide the best possible opportunities for people to thrive in good mental health”.

Student survey demographics

54% of respondents were male and 46% female

74% are UK students and 26% international

54% live on campus and 46% in the city

The number between non-Russell and Russell group students is evenly split 50/50

The impact of the built environment

Furthermore, BurroHappold is pressing for university league tables to include the impact of HE estates on students’ mental health and wellbeing.

Dr Mike Entwisle, global higher education sector lead and partner at BuroHappold Engineering and board member of the UK Higher Education Design Quality Forum, explains:

“In a world where it is increasingly clear that the built environment can directly impact mental health and wellbeing, it is inconceivable that students do not have access to a universally accepted mechanism for assessing and comparing the state of a university’s buildings, the way they facilitate social interaction and their impact on mental health – whether that’s teaching facilities, student accommodation, or the campus or city set-up as a whole.

“Current league tables allow students to review satisfaction with teaching standards, courses and student-to-staff ratios, so why not satisfaction with the built environment too?”

This call to action is based on extensive engagement with higher education influencers including vice-chancellors, directors of estates, student welfare officers, psychologists, mental health charities and architects.

At University Business, we have seen a real shift in the design of buildings and learning spaces, putting student wellbeing at the heart; for example, with more spaces to connect more easily, outdoor spaces for contemplative thinking or for spontaneous games playing, chill-out rooms and rooftop terraces.

The importance of such spaces is key and is evident from the research conducted – most notably, the five main areas the survey respondents identified as needing the greatest improvement. (See the box below.)

The top 5 things students would improve in the university estate

1. Physical connectivity

How easy and pleasant is it to get from home to campus and around the university? One of the biggest requests is for more informal learning spaces where students can ‘be together’ while they work

2. Sustainability

Most student unions have sustainability reps, and the growth of organisations such as the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) shows how the sector is acknowledging this.

3. Refurbish/Renovate

Students seem open to high-quality refurbishments as a pragmatic solution to estates issues.

4. Architectural quality

The ‘look and feel’ of the campus was also a priority for many students.

5. Interior environmental quality

Perhaps tied in with the lack of ability to control their buildings, many students felt that their buildings were gloomy, stuffy, too warm in summer or too cold in winter.

Information extracted from BuroHappold Engineering / Higher Education / White Paper 2019

You might also like: Mental health & wellbeing: the need for a blended community

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