Architects Need to Consider Human Health When Designing Any Structure

Tye Farrow does wonders with wood, creating places where people can thrive.

A forest of glulam

Farrow Partners

Building with wood has become more common as of late, with new technologies and changes in building codes. We often note the benefits of reduced carbon emissions and speed of construction. Tye Farrow of Farrow Partners Architects started working with wood before we worried about storing carbon. He did it because he thought it would make people healthier.

layers of timber

Tye Farrow / LinkedIn

I have known Farrow for many years, but I haven't been following his work closely since we covered an early project many years ago: the Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Ontario. Recently, while moving away from Twitter, I have spent more time on LinkedIn, where Farrow regularly publishes extraordinary photos of his work, mostly related to health and education, and often expressed in amazing forests of wood.

He explains on his website:

"Experiencing nature—in ways as simple as a stroll in the woods—is proven to improve physical and mental health in myriad ways. The natural experience lowers blood pressure, reduces heart rate and muscle tension. It reduces anxiety, increases emotional resiliency and boosts the sense of well-being. Architecture and design that is inspired by nature and the natural world can bring these health-promoting advantages to visitors. Examples include the use of natural light, natural materials, and shapes and structures that are reminiscent of natural spaces."
Thunder Bay Hospital

Farrow Partners

I spent an hour on Zoom with Farrow, who explained that the journey started with a hospital in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where the economy revolves around trees. By today's standards, there's not that much wood. But at the time, it was revolutionary because the building codes were not that evolved. But it got him thinking about wood again.

He told Treehugger: "And so we got into that project, we sort of fell in love again with the material, and then moved on to that Credit Valley project that might have been about four or five years later. And it was beginning to explore. The thing about the material, from my standpoint, it was the one material that you could affordably build forms that were more sculptural, that were more complicated to do out of concrete or steel."

Credit Valley Phase 1

Farrow Partners

Credit Valley was a wonder; nobody had ever seen anything like it. It's sculpted out of glue-laminated timber (glulam) or what some now call GLT. It had never been done at that scale.

The approvals were difficult. "For the building officials, we had to bring in a sprinkler system from Europe, called a fog system that basically takes a teeny drop of water and divides it into 1,000 droplets," said Farrow. "It's used in conservation or library environments [because] it effectively creates something that's like a fog that comes in from the coast, which reduces temperatures as well as sort of oxygen, as well as the water content in the air and it puts fire out."

Then they had to prove to the Ministry of Health that it wouldn't cost any more than conventional construction and that it wasn't too fancy that it might look like money was being wasted. It got built and was the breakthrough building. Now Farrow Partners are working all over the world.

Shaare Zedek Medical Centre
The Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

Farrow Partners

Farrow is now studying at the University of Venice to complete a master's degree of neuroscience. He explained:

 "What's really happening is looking at the mind, and conceptually, that it isn't housed in the skull; your mind is embodied, meaning that your mind is connected to your gut, it's connected to your skin, to your organ. The interceptive thing, the proprioceptive thing, is really around your skin and the movement aspects. And so your body isn't your brain, your mind isn't housed in your mind, it is embodied within your overall body. But there's then the concept of the body and the mind that is meant to move through space, and that's the phenomenology of space."

Farrow noted his thinking all started intuitively with the Credit Valley project, but now he is working with neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, psychologists, physiologists, and sociologists. "It's really beginning to understand that everything comes in through here," he said. "And some is cognitive, some is precognitive, subconscious, or otherwise. But it's extraordinary. Now, the material that's out there [is] connecting the dots between mind, environment, and performance."

Toronto Montessori School, Richmond Hill, Ontario
Toronto Montessori School, Richmond Hill, Ontario.

Farrow Partners

Most architects working in wood talk about embodied carbon and Farrow does too, but that is just the start. Farrow believes we have to broaden the discussion.

"One thing that I find with our clients [is] that everybody gets it, everybody understands the whole carbon aspect. For our education clients, we say, OK, this dining hall we've opened for you—the embedded carbon in that building is the same as all the cars in your parking lot driving for a year. It's very important for them," said Farrow. "But then, when I talk to them and their community about human performance overlay, they get that, because this is about the people that are being housed there. And so it's an area that I'm trying to focus on this, the mind, the human performance side of it, because I think the profession isn't. That's the laser focus that we have on absolutely everything we're working on."

Royal St. Georges School
Royal St. Georges School in Toronto, Ontario.

Farrow Partners

This reminded me of our discussions on Treehugger about thermal delight, comfort, and mean radiant temperature, where our skin is the organ that determines whether we feel hot or cold. I wondered how the mind reacts to wood versus steel or concrete, given their different thermal properties.

Farrow explained:

"As you know, your skin is one of the biggest organs in your body. Wood is very different than steel or glass or concrete. But I think the piece is that perception in your mind's eye; [it's that] you are perceiving it to be warmer than the other material. So the way your mind works is with the different regions in it. When you see this wood wall or the one behind you, it reminds you of something else. But also what your mind is doing is connecting the dots of everything else in that sensory experience. And so what your mind is beginning to tell you is the last time I was around this wood environment, it was a place that was warm, and I felt warm. And in fact, I felt like I wanted to stay around. And so the perception of warmth—are you feeling warm right now?— you may not be actually any different than you are somewhere else. But all of the multimodal senses in your mind [are] beginning to communicate, in fact, that you are feeling warmer."
Constructing Health

Tye Farrow

Spending an hour listening to Farrow was an extraordinary experience. I thought our writing about comfort was sophisticated, but we don't scratch the surface of how our minds and bodies relate to space. Fortunately, Farrow has a book launching soon where he explains this all in greater detail.

"'Constructing Health' explores the role that our built environments play in encouraging, enhancing, and causing ecological, physical, societal, and mind health," said Farrow. "Through a discussion of neurological science, research, and a series of architectural case studies, this book will help us better understand how our surroundings make us feel, and how they can make us feel better."

It will change the way you think about buildings and about wood.

Correction—January 20, 2023: An earlier version of this article mislabeled an image of the Toronto Montessori School.

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  1. "Nature." Farrow.