The Deeper Aspects of Wellness Architecture
A conversation with Veronica Schreibeis Smith, award-winning founder of
Vera Iconica Architecture.
By George McClure
BY NOW, MOST OF US IN THE DESIGN-BUILD COMMUNITY ARE ACQUAINTED with the concept of wellness architecture. According to Architectural Digest, wellness-focused design involves air, sound and water quality, lighting, materials, soothing color palettes, biophilic design (connecting architecture and nature), greenery, and outdoor-indoor space integration, to name just a few.
Established in 2010, Vera Iconica Architecture is a global firm based in Jackson, Wyoming that seeks to balance physical and emotional health, humanity and the environment — plus beauty and ritual. They strive to create a shared landscape that goes beyond aesthetics to deliver meaningful, holistic experiences that enrich the wellbeing of their clients.
Veronica Schreibeis Smith, the founder and CEO of Vera Iconica, is a world-renowned expert on wellness architecture. Recognized for pushing the envelope on design and design theory, her international work experiences in Peru, South Korea and Germany solidified the importance of cultural influences in her architectural practice. We recently had the opportunity to have a chat with Veronica about some of the deeper concepts and philosophies underlying the wellness design movement.
GEORGE: Were you always interested in buildings and design?
VERONICA: I’m not actually very much in love with buildings, ironically [laughs]. How I realized that is because my career has taken me all over the world. I’ve lived and practiced architecture in Germany, Peru and South Korea. I would do massive trips, loops through Europe, South America and Asia studying historical and contemporary works of architecture. I’ve been to about 60 countries and I noticed that I was traveling to buildings because I was supposed to travel to buildings because I’m an architect, but what I ended up photographing most was not the buildings but landscapes and people.
So I learned that I love experiences and nature and the natural world, and architecture happens to be the medium, if you will, that you get to sculpt and create so that humans can enjoy the earth. And that’s really what I love.
GEORGE: Can you give us your definition of wellness architecture?
VERONICA: I would say that wellness architecture is the art and the science behind how we can design the environment to impact human and planetary wellbeing. So not just our health but our wellbeing, including those aspects of us that make us human. Music, literature, the things that still move us, that nourish our soul. It really needs to be a holistic thought process across all dimensions of wellness. There is starting to be more focus on health architecture and some mental and social aspects of architecture, and then the rarest that you come across is how architecture impacts emotional and spiritual aspects. But really, at the end of the day, truly great works of architecture uplift and elevate all of those dimensions.
GEORGE: You’ve touched on it already, but what are some of the most important elements of wellness architecture and what are the most popular trends currently?
VERONICA: The current movement is what I call health architecture. Several organizations, such as the International WELL Building Institute and Fitwel, have developed quantitative, scientifically backed rating systems which involve tech lists that can be universally implemented and measured — which has wonderful strengths. If somebody wants third party verification for pure air, pure water, things like that, they can go, “Okay, check, check, check.” Those are all very, very good things, but because it’s under that type of rigor there is little room for the art and the soul. You know, like music and how it moves you and fills you and one song might do it for one person but not another. Music cannot be made by a checklist. It takes the art, the intuition, the emotions, the passion of the composer to create a piece like that and so architecture, hopefully, has somebody composing it and has a lot of depth and range across all of those dimensions. But health architecture with those rating systems is the biggest trend that I see happening right now.
The trend I’m predicting is spiritual numinous and spiritual moments in architecture.
GEORGE: What was the first one? Spiritual what?
VERONICA: Numinous. There’s numinous and noetic. Numinous is when you have a visceral experience, more of your intuition with no thoughts there. It’s like pure joy or peace or amazement when you’re looking around or you just feel peaceful when you’re sitting at the edge of a lake or you’re looking up at a cathedral and you’re just taking it in. You’re not analyzing it.
Noetic is when you may still be in awe, but you start integrating that with rational thought, essentially breaking it down into smaller pieces so that you can understand it and it still might be like, “Oh my gosh, how did they build that huge piece of art out of stone?” Now you’re actually thinking instead of just feeling.
GEORGE: Those are great words. I wasn’t familiar with them.
VERONICA: To be honest, I wasn’t either until a few months ago when I started researching this. I’ve always felt these things but I’ve never had the language to describe them.
I recently wrote a piece for the Global Wellness Institute. They do a report every year and they have become famous for predicting trends. One of the things that we’re seeing for 2021 is spiritual moments in architecture — these little moments that move you or connect you. They might help you get into meditation, they might bring you to the present moment if you’ve been consumed by information overload or the digital world. It’s what slows you down, what stops you, what reminds you, connects you or has introspective spaces, spaces where it’s easier to contemplate thoughts or where you get to connect to source or divinity or consciousness or whatever you want to call it.
GEORGE: I think that’s really important and you don’t often hear that in the context of the living space.
VERONICA: This type of thing has been so esoteric in the past, but we’re predicting it will be a very important trend in the future. We’re so busy. We keep separate paces. In a lot of the world, religion is shrinking but spirituality is rising. So there just needs to be another way to connect and it needs to be daily, not just once on Sunday — or never if you don’t go to church. Each of us are given talents and there are spaces where we can get into our slow state, which helps us reach our highest potential.
GEORGE: What design principles in general are most important to you?
VERONICA: The most important is really a relationship with nature and using the natural world as the example. Because nature is not just sustainable, it’s regenerative. It creates diversity and life and it adapts. Nature has all of it. As a designer, if I’m going to boil down a principle that I want to follow — I want to follow nature.
GEORGE: Would you say that your firm has a signature aesthetic or does it just depend on the project?
VERONICA: I do not think we have a signature aesthetic, but I bet if you started to look at a collection of our work, an outsider could probably see a theme because I’m me and I come from my context and I design a certain way or the people in our firm design a certain way — but that’s not the goal of the firm. It’s actually kind of against the philosophy of the firm. The idea is that architecture for too long has been ocular centric. It’s been about aesthetics, which inevitably become about the ego and status. We do a lot of high-end luxury homes so aesthetics absolutely are important, luxury is important, but we’re not doing it for the sake of status. We are trying to really customize.
As I said before, I’m always interested in the vessel. Architecture is a vessel or an artifact that helps somebody enjoy and connects them to the natural world where their site is or the urban context where they’re living.
If you look at it like that, with every project I’m not trying to make it look a certain way and I’m not even trying to make it feel a certain way. I’m trying to deeply understand who my client is and how they want to feel, what lifestyle they want and aspire to live, or, if it’s a commercial project, what the user or the guest experience should be in order to enhance all of those dimensions of their wellbeing. And if you look at it like that, every single experience in our life needs to be different. When we go home our experience is different and should be different than when we go into the workplace, or when we go to a concert, or when we go to dinner.
I am always trying to create those experiences in a way that not only optimizes the experience but also helps optimize the person as they’re having those experiences. Because that is the goal, the approach is always a little bit different and each building looks different. And I can give you an example of that. I have a client here who told me the other day that he loves his house, it’s the most beautiful house in the valley, and that he doesn’t ever want me to get another architectural commission in the valley again.
GEORGE: He just wants to keep it all to himself.
VERONICA: Yes [laughs]. That was a high compliment. But I’m not going to ever copy those details and give them to another client because I made them for him. We developed them together and it wasn’t just me doing something cool.
The client is an inextricable part of that design and if you put in a different client, now they’re an inextricable part. You’re going to come up with something different because of who they are, what excites them. It’s like music. Zac Brown might always sound like Zac Brown, but every song is different.
GEORGE: That’s a good segue. I like that you used the example of music a couple of times, as I’m a huge music fan and in Technology Designer Magazine we often talk about the fact that if you don’t have a high performance sound system, you don’t really have a luxury home. We think it’s that important — and I like the way you tied it into wellness, too, because it’s part of the beautiful things that make life worth living.
VERONICA: There’s a lot of science behind how much acoustics impact wellbeing. When you design the acoustics right, even when the music is off it relieves your stress, for example. There are many stressors in the environment, and sound and noise are huge ones. When you design the acoustic environment correctly and you add in the music, now you have something that is elevating you, your consciousness, your mood, and it can have healing qualities. The vibration of music is known to actually have healing effects on our biology.
Managing sound has become even more important these days with everyone spending so much more time at home. In one of our recent projects, for example, we created a glassed-in sound booth so that the homeowners can take their calls when the kids are running around and conduct business quietly, but still have a bird’s eye view of what’s going on. And it’s funny — somebody just texted me an article from the New York Times about the home of the future, and it had a little phone booth. That was really interesting because I had never seen that before, but apparently it’s a trend.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON WELLNESS ARCHITECTURE AND CERTIFICATION, CHECK OUT THESE SITES:
Fitwel is the world’s leading certification system committed to building better health for all. Whether you are looking to impact a single project, a portfolio of buildings, or an entire neighborhood, Fitwel offers a streamlined process and an efficient, user-friendly digital platform. Through Fitwel Certification, you’ll discover how your efforts are taking occupant health to the next level.
Global Wellness Institute
The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) is a nonprofit organization with a mission to empower wellness worldwide by educating the public and private sectors about preventative health and wellness. GWI’s research, programs and initiatives have been instrumental in the growth of the USD $4.5 trillion wellness economy — and in uniting the health and wellness industries.
The International WELL Building Institute
With its people-first approach to buildings, organizations and communities, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) is a leader in the global movement to transform health and wellbeing. They do this by using their WELL Building Standard (WELL), a roadmap for creating and certifying spaces that advance human health and wellbeing. Developed over 10 years and backed by the latest scientific research, WELL works at any scale, from a single interior space to an entire organization.