Many years ago, this writer attended a press conference at which an incredulous developer was asked if they used Feng Shui when designing the interiors of the plush apartments they were selling.
It was the late 1990s and the Feng Shui craze was in full swing, occupying acres of newspaper and magazine column inches.
The developer in question had not employed the ancient art of house healing to ensure the layout of their development created peace and harmony, it turned out.
But although Feng Shui has since waned in popularity, interest in new approaches to how the interiors of homes are built and designed continue. Last year it was the Danish Hygge movement grabbing the headlines, while a Japanese equivalent called Kanso is causing a stir as well.
But a more practical and science-based movement is gaining traction among property developers, called wellness.
In a nutshell wellness is taking a scientific approach to the materials used to construct the structure and interiors of homes so that the physical and mental wellbeing of their inhabitants is enhanced and protected.
This includes air and water quality, lighting, building design, building materials, lighting, furniture and plants.
But if that sounds all a bit joss stick and new-age to you, you’re wrong.
Leading the field in the UK is consultancy Ekkist which was launched 18 months ago by co-founders Jonathan Baker and Olga Turner and which is doing a roaring trade offering wellness advice to residential, office and institutional clients. It has also published its own blueprint for the ideal wellness property, called Ori House.
It has six projects under way including two build-to-rent apartment developments in London, and has recently completed its first project, an interior design company’s office.
Olga is the better known of the pair, and acts as its spokesperson. In 2016 she was voted by Estates Gazette as one of the property industry’s rising stars and lauded as a ‘bright young thing’, although the pair were included in Forbes’ 30-under-30 European business stars list.
At the time she was 26 years old and already a senior surveyor at CBRE, telling the judges she ‘hadn’t realised how many different ways there were to shape the built environment’.
Eighteen months ago she went freelance after noticing that many people within the industry were talking about how, in the US, properties were being designed in a way to make their users’ health better.
“I thought, why are Americans and many other nations around the world doing this but we’re not,” she says.
“So I decided to give it a go and be the first company to set up to give advice on the new building code. The opportunity was there and I felt it couldn’t be missed.”
Turner is referring to the Well building standard developed in the US three years ago and adopted by several builders including Lendlease in the UK which says it plans to implement the standard at several sites.
This has paved the way for Ekkist, and no doubt more consultancies will follow as ‘healthy buildings’ rise up the architectural agenda.
“Homes are one of the biggest investments we all make in our lives and the place where we spend a majority of our lives, so what more important thing to consider than our health and wellbeing,” she says.
“Using the Well building standard to design homes is one of the most impactful spaces you can do it within, aside from offices,” she says.
Turner is keen to distance herself somewhat from interior design, instead preferring to see wellbeing as a holistic part of a building’s construction.
“I think wellbeing has to start with architecture at the moment you purchase a site and to then look at the way the massing is going to impact daylight right through to the interiors” she says.
“I always say to my clients that there’s no point creating a healthy, ‘wellness’ building if you then fill it with toxic building materials.
“It’s also about how you manage a building including the cleaning materials used and how often the water and air filters are changed, for example.”
Ekkist come from the popular 1950/60s concept of Ekistics. It’s is a Greek-origin word that describes the somewhat forgotten science of human settlements including design, light and air but also engineering, city planning, and sociology.
But, in a world where property developers can sometimes only pay lip service to the environment as they concentrate on profit, how is Olga going to persuade them to adopt wellness?
She argues that the built-to-rent sector is helping pave the way for greater understanding and adoption, mainly because the builder is often the landlord for years to come after construction finishes.
“PRS developers have a long-term interest in the mental and physical health of their residents in the same way housing associations do,” she says.
“And we can prove how effective the wellness approach can be via post-occupancy research. We talk about ourselves as a consultancy based on medical research.”
The rise of wellness follows many years of developers focussing, or being forced to focus, on mitigating the impact of a building on the environment.
But this outward-looking approach has been turned in on itself and many people are now looking at what buildings do to their inhabitants instead.
“Some buildings have 300 different chemicals and compounds within them, and most people have no idea where or what they are when they move into a home,” says Olga.
“But equally when people sit in a room surrounded by wood and feel better and more positive, we can put a scientific finger on why that is, based on science.”
Consequently, Olga is convinced that wellbeing will soon be part of most developers’ marketing efforts as much as sustainability, light and transport are today.
Ekkist also claims that there is evidence from wellbeing projects around the world that they command a premium among buyers over other developments, and that a third of buyers are willing to pay more for a home for the benefit of their health and wellbeing.
In the new homes market in the US, wellness can command a development premium of between 10% and 55%, research by the Global Wellness Institute revealed recently.
It is now Ekkist’s job to persuade the UK’s thousands of developers that this can be achieved here.