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ROOM FOR CONTEMPLATION Designing for Well-being to Support COVID-19 Containment Interventions

Updated: Jul 4, 2022

It is the white space between the words on a page that makes it readable. Without periods of silence and non-action, our words and our deeds jumble up into meaningless spirals of stress. We need a web of silence spread around the world just as extensively as the web of technology.”
-Laurence Freeman, Spiritual Head of WCCM & Bonnevaux Meditation Retreat

Over the past three years, the London studio of DP Architects has shepherded the design of Bonnevaux Meditation Retreat in France. The retreat’s design is shaped by the philosophy of our client, the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM), on living a worthwhile, wholesome life. This is reinforced by their belief that meditation can facilitate pauses within today’s hectic pace of life and through this practice, find the space to discover meaning.

Alongside this retreat, we are designing healthcare facilities in Ireland with a vision to harness complementary approaches alongside traditional medicine. By employing well-being principles in architecture design, the buildings themselves will contribute to the healing process. Through these engagements, we have come to wrestle with the question of how well-being and contemplative design might enable us to live well in the time of COVID-19?

Social Distancing Moves Us from Wellness to Illness[1]

During this epoch-defining COVID-19 crisis, the term social distancing has become widely used for the purpose of preserving a safe distance from others to avoid transmission of this virus. Should we instead adopt the term ‘physical distancing’? The use of the word ‘social’ implies a ceasing of all interaction; and in this period of forced isolation, it is more important than ever to preserve a sense of community and humanity. The press in the UK are comparing this period to the World War II Blitz, when the citizens of London were tormented by falling Luftwaffe bombs and mobilised to the war effort, providing the supply chain for troops fighting abroad. Today we are more immobilised, fighting a war of attrition and slowly, psychologically wasting away at home.

The risk with erecting barriers against contamination is that these same barriers hinder our ability to connect with each other and ultimately lead to joyless spaces. In this period of confinement, when the mind may be stressed, it is essential to maintain psychological health and ensure mental resilience. Through designing for well-being, we attempt to preserve a sense of emotional balance. After the death and destruction of the Second World War, the United Nations set out its principles to create a more peaceful, healthier and happier planet. In 1948, the World Health Organisation[2] defined health not as merely the absence of ill-health but as:

“a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being[3]

Since then, our understanding has progressed with the realisation that there are more determinants at play and two further influences have been introduced. Economics understands that our personal finances play a part practically by enabling us to put food on the table and also psychologically; if our finances are in order and sufficient, we feel more at ease. Secondly, the environment around us can influence our well-being, from damp homes leading to respiratory complications in children, to climate change detrimentally affecting food production. The environment in which we live and the people who surround us seem to be the most influential determinants to our health, with statistics showing that environmental factors may potentially cause up to 90% of cancers[4] while genetics may account for as little as 10-15% of our health outcomes.[5]

Illustrating the differing factors that have an influence on our well-being with genetics seemingly accounting for as little as 10% of our health outcomes.

In short, design matters. As designers of the built environment, we have a meaningful and sizable role to play in influencing the health of the people we design for. For this reason, we have formulated the Holistic Design Source Code, a set of design parameters for delivering spaces that influence our physical behaviour and mental outlook, and improve our sense of well-being. These principles are categorised into four key pillars: Community refers to the design of inclusivity in spaces, where we feel at ease and cared for, and where we are more likely to protect; Biophilia concerns the visual and physical connection with nature to achieve a sense of well-being; Hapticity regards the multi-sensory experience of our environment to bring about a sense of affinity and empathy; and finally, Contemplation considers spatial design that enhances attentiveness and compassion in self and others.

For this article, we focus on the pillar of Contemplation and posit how contemplative designs might support our well-being when coping with the wide-reaching impact of COVID-19.

Everything starts with a change in mindset. Neurological research has shown that contemplative practices like meditation train the brain to be more alert and aware, and help to develop the parts of the brain that deal with compassion and empathy. When the mind is in a contemplative state, it allows us to engage attentively and meaningfully in action and with people around us. In the example of a hospital setting, a contemplative state of mind will enable healthcare workers to be more empathetic and less distracted, so they are more focused on caring. The patients in response will be more primed to be healed.

In attempting to sculpt spaces that promote this contemplative state, we referenced David Thornburg’s Learning Environments[6], a seminal study that analysed how differing spaces enabled specific modes of learning, from quiet self-study to group discussions. We adapted these findings in our own study of spatial design that nudges occupants into a contemplative state and concluded these three modes:

The first is Icon. Here, the built form serves as the object of direct and purposeful focus; an architecture to meditate upon to quiet the mind. The most relatable examples include the Angkor Wat or Borobudur temples and the Kaaba in Mecca, themselves sacred objects of worship. Today the icon can arguably be found in secular buildings, from galleries to iconic towers. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has been quoted in countless instances as having drawn attention and admiration to the city, and with it wealth and prestige.

The second is the Spotlight mode. These are spaces that provide the stage-setting for an activity, where the act becomes the point of focus. Here, the built form is not the object of focus, but facilitates the performance on which to meditate upon. This mode facilitates collective contemplation. When designing these spaces, one should be aware that too much attention paid to the architecture may withdraw focus from the act; the difficulty here is to facilitate rather than demand attention.

The third mode is what we refer to as Cocoon. This is architecture that draws boundary between the wider environment and a special dedicated space, sidelining distractions and allowing focus to rest on what is important. This is seen in buildings like monasteries which close off the outside world to create a contemplative atmosphere in the cloister, and resorts where guestrooms are isolated from public spaces to create peace and privacy.

As an Icon, the building itself inspires and is the point of focus. The Spotlight space acts as a channel, focusing attention on a specific point where important activity unfolds. Finally, the Cocoon provides a sanctuary from the noise of the surrounding prosaic world.

Where these first three drivers sculpt the form of contemplative architecture, the next two design parameters inform its ambience:

Simplicity aims to deliver architecture that listens, rather than shouts. The design approach towards uncluttered spaces attempts to replicate the goal of meditation: to distance from the mental chatter and achieve a still mind. This differs from the minimalist design tradition, which can feel emotionally cold and ascetic. Adapted to architecture, it is expressed by removing visual noise while preserving a sense of warmth and humanity, to present spaces that calm our minds, then engage in meaningful action.

Spirituality addresses not religious buildings, but the idea that spaces and places should inspire and move us, whether in employing technology to awe or referencing cultural and historical context to induce deeper reflection.

Our journey into contemplative design began with the Bonnevaux Meditation Retreat. The project showed us that “[architecture can move] us from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the profane to the sacred.”[7] This led us to study the spaces within traditional religious buildings and their psychological impact.

John P. Eberhard explains in his book, Brain Landscape: The Coexistence of Neuroscience and Architecture: “Physically, the environment can strongly influence the mental aspects of its occupants. Designers can take advantage of such potential to modulate different mental attributes…Churches are the first examples of design exploiting physical parameters to evocate a specific mental state…These types of buildings have been built with the goal of inducing a stronger sense of belief and a drive towards a superior entity in a collective ritual.” Today, there are many secular variants that embrace design techniques to evoke a contemplative state of mind.

As the world emerges from lockdown, many now fear the prospect of venturing outside after months of being confined at home. To restart the economy, we need to be encouraged to return to the outside world and be convinced that if we do so, we will be protected.

Yet, being insulated from those carrying COVID-19 is not the sole reassurance we seek. To truly feel safe, we need to preserve our empathetic connection to those around us; so that if the worst happens, and one of us needs the other’s help, we feel connected enough to reach out. Here is where application of the various modes of contemplative design can help to articulate safe spaces that create opportunities for relaxation, introspection and concentration; to encourage emotional and empathetic connection, and social cohesion.

Courtyards as Cocoon and Spotlight

When our surroundings is a grey urban sprawl, sometimes the only opportunity for a connection with nature is through self-initiated internalised courtyards. These breaks in the building fabric allow natural light into the heart of our architecture. Natural ventilation is a simple way to create more air changes to rid internal environments of stale air that might conceal the pathogen.

Figure 1 Image by DP Architects

Well-being Streetscapes

With many working from home and avoiding crowds, the streets are empty. Void of pollution-pumping traffic, these thoroughfares have re-offered themselves to the pedestrian: safer, calmer and cleaner. Could the realisation that we can work efficiently from home and therefore need not commute every day mean the streets stay this way even post COVID-19?

City life can be fast paced and pressurising. By creating contemplative spaces in the public realm that protect us from causes of anxiety, like noise and pollution, we are able to pause, reflect and re-focus; to remain mentally resilient and well.

Figure 2 Image by DP Architects
Figure 3 Image by DP Architects

Welcome Area

First impressions play an important role in how we feel about a person or place. Post lockdown, to be allowed to re-enter public and work places, the authorities require proprietors to provide interventions that will limit the spread of COVID-19. This includes wayfinding that defines single flows to avoid collisions, waiting positions that maintain a safe physical distance and more opportunities to self-diagnose and re-sanitise. In addition to these clinical measures, the entry or welcome space should be inviting; as visitors enter, they should feel assured that this place will keep them safe.

Figure 4 Image by DP Architects
Figure 5 Image by DP Architects

The Staircase and the Spotlight

A healthy alternative to entering a lift is to take the stairs. In the COVID-19 era it will also be the faster choice as lift wait-times is drastically increased due to the sizable reduction in lift-capacity. This additional requirement will mean stairs become either wider or more numerous. By making these transition spaces multi-purpose, we might be able to offset this uplift in additional area loss (and therefore cost increase), and in the process create dynamic healthier and fun environments.

Figure 6 Image by DP Architects

Responding to Trauma[8]

A common misconception is that after a traumatic incident, some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder which detrimentally affects their future lives. In reality the reverse is true. After a near-death experience, many learn to appreciate life and others more, making lifestyle changes to ensure they are able to experience the wonders of life for as long as possible.

Today’s COVID-19 crisis may be considered a traumatic event in the context of a community-scale upheaval. These periods of disruption, when our routine is ruptured and our lifestyles are forced to change, are the best moments to instigate a positive change. It is within our power to direct this disruptor to inform positive outcomes and we should take this opportunity to make ourselves and the world better.


By Kailas Moorthy who leads DP’s investigation of wellbeing in architecture from our London studio. The purpose of study is to instil a contemplative quality to spaces and places we design, through a process-driven and human-centric approach.

DP Architects and its group of companies have further explored the principles and pillars of wellbeing in their quarterly magazine, Design in Print Vol.12.3: The Wellbeing Design issue as well as discussed The Science of Well-Being through Biophilic Design from the point of views of architects, landscape specialists, WELL Accredited Professional architects, urban planner and arborist on their newly launched podcast channel, START (Strategic Think-Tank of Architectural Research & Technologies). The podcast episode is also available on Spotify.


[1] Ron Manderscheid, PhD, Exec Dir, NACBHDD, February 17, 2016 from the Behavoural Healthcare Executive [2] A specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health [3] World Health Organisation definition set out in 1948. [4] Wu, S., et al (2016). [5] Rappaport, S.M. and Smith, M.T. (2010). [6] The Campfire to the Holodeck: Creating Engaging and Powerful 21st Century Learning Environments, David Thornburg [7] Bermudez, Julio. (Architect) Transcending Architecture, Washington, 2015, page 22 [8] Global Wellness Summit Zoom Call on Mental Wellness: What does the Future Look Like? held on Tuesday 19th May 2020

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