Can great places and spaces make you healthier?

The focus on wellness now includes building design

The University of Colorado’s Health and Wellness Center takes advantage of a centrally located core with a welcoming entrance lobby that orients and connects wellness based research activities on four levels.


Across the U.S., Colorado is known as a state that prioritizes health, wellness and environmental stewardship. And in recent years, our focus on well-being has begun to stretch beyond the foods we choose and energy we use. We are beginning to consider the health impact of the buildings where we live, work and play.

One of the fastest growing trends in modern architecture is the development of buildings and environments that directly support and cultivate better human health. Before we examine some national and local examples of this trend in action, let’s define specifically how a space can promote health.

  • Safety: Pedestrian-friendly walkways, thoughtful lighting strategies and open sightlines can protect people from both physical as well as psychological harm.
  • Social Connectedness: Human happiness and well-being is enhanced by spaces that encourage community-building through play, dining, learning, civic participation and socialization.
  • Environmental Quality: Good design – be it clean energy usage or smart material selections – can and should mitigate or reverse quantifiable chemical and microbial pollutants that directly or indirectly impact human health.
  • Sensory Environments: Aesthetic appeal and varied sensory experiences promote mental and emotional health, improve quality of life and lead to improved physical health.
  • Physical Activity: Spaces that encourage exercise, recreation and more day-to-day activity help keep our bodies fit. This includes use of multi-modal transportation, urban planning for more walk-able and bike-able communities, varied and highly accessible parks and appealing stairs.
  • Access to Natural Systems: Human stress levels are significantly reduced when green spaces, plant and even animal life are incorporated into built environments.

In 2012, the University of Colorado in conjunction with H+L Architecture and Cannon Design completed the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center. The Anschutz Health and Wellness Center is an innovative, state-of-the art research, education and patient care facility. It was designed to foster a new culture of sustainable healthy lifestyles, disease prevention, research and care focusing on alternative and complementary medicines and holistic wellness.

The University of Colorado’s Health and Wellness Center is a 94,000 SF state-of-the-art facility on the Anschutz Medical Campus designed by H+L Architecture.


The comprehensive facility serves the University’s existing centers for Human Nutrition, Integrative Medicine, and Women’s Health Research programs. Synergizing service lines such as physical activity, nutrition and diet, weight management, and integrative medicine all contribute to making HWC a world-class facility.

In 2013, Boston Architectural College (BAC) launched a first-of-its-kind masters program exclusively devoted to design for health. Since then, students at BAC have studied the best practices for constructing private, public and community environments that prioritize physical activity, cognitive performance and psychological well-being.  

About the same time that BAC launched its masters program for health-centered design, our state also made some meaningful progress on this important issue. The Colorado Health Foundation (CHF) launched the Healthy Places initiative in three local communities – Arvada, Lamar and Westwood. The initiative, which focused on increasing physical activity and fostering social connectedness, was one of the first of its kind. In partnership with the communities, the CHF developed new built environments that made it easier and safer for residents to get together – and get moving.

Last year, the CHF announced they would build on their Healthy Places initiative with a partnership with the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a global research and education institute dedicated to responsible land use and building resilient communities. Together, the CHF and the ULI will transform isolated commercial strips into vibrant, safe and healthy corridors, among other health- and safety-focused initiatives.

And just a few months ago, the Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) Board awarded nearly $7 million in funding for 39 parks and recreation projects across the state – all designed to promote community, heighten safety and promote physical activity. Re-furbished and brand new spaces will include three outdoor classrooms, 15 community parks, seven athletic fields and facilities, and numerous other sites.

Health care Institutions in Colorado and across the United States are transforming from health care organizations to health providers. They all understand the long-term benefits of driving their care giving upstream from what has been a reactive, singular focus on individuals with acute chronic conditions to a much broader proactive community perspective on wellness.

Given Colorado’s history of health and environmental awareness, we should be out in front of the national community on this issue. Let’s lead the charge to enhance and rebuild our structures and spaces. Over time, I predict all our environments will offer myriad benefits beyond the expected functional uses. Our parks will bring strangers together, our workplaces will reduce our stress levels, our hospitals will speed the healing process, and our retail centers will increase our activity. Health-centric design benefits us all.

(This sponsored content was provided by AIA Colorado.)

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