Innovation That Matters

Ben Channon of Ekkist on Designing for Well-Being

Wise Words

The director of Ekkist on how his own personal experience dealing with mental health shaped his career and approach to designing spaces.

During a recent panel discussion on workplace wellbeing, as part of this year’s ARCHITECT@WORK Digital Summit, I had the pleasure of sharing the virtual stage with Ben Channon, the director of the purpose-driven architecture consultancy Ekkist. I was struck by Channon’s personal story, how his personal experience dealing with anxiety and burnout shaped his approach to designing spaces by looking at how buildings and lifestyles contribute to one’s mental health. 

Channon, the former Head of Wellbeing at Assael Architecture, is also a WELL Accredited Professional, the author of the book “Happy by Design”, a TEDx speaker and the co-founder of The Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Forum.

After meeting Channon, I wanted to learn more about his background and his approach to creating healthy and sustainable built environments. 

— Justin Sablich, Editor, Springwise

1. Can you share a bit more about what Ekkist does, its purpose, and what change it aims to facilitate?

We call ourselves a “design for well-being” consultancy and are founded on the belief that buildings can contribute to a better quality of life, health and well-being. We help architects, design teams and the people who own or run buildings to create healthier places that are better for all our bodies’ systems, from our lungs and hearts to our minds and mental health.

2. What was your background prior to this, and how is it shaping your work with Ekkist?

I trained as an architect and worked for a large residential architecture practice for most of the last decade. Probably my most formative experience however was going through a pretty tough time with burnout and anxiety in my mid-twenties, when I just completely overworked myself. You think you’re invincible at that age and unfortunately, I found out the hard way I wasn’t!

As a result of this though I became really interested in mental health, particularly the way in which buildings and spaces affect how we feel. This led me to research my first book, “Happy by Design,” and eventually to specialise in designing healthier buildings.

It’s been great to bring my architectural knowledge to Ekkist and to work alongside specialists in other areas like nutrition, operations and project management, as all these things need to be addressed to create a truly healthy building.

3. What are the key components that you believe designers and architects need to be mindful of when creating a healthy and happy workplace?

For us, it’s all about starting with the person and designing outwards. Of course, everybody wants an office that looks great, but healthy design is about so much more than something that gets likes on Instagram. We have our own Design for Well-being Framework which considers a whole range of human needs such as rest, comfort and social interaction. And of course, every project is different just like the people who will use it, so there really is no one-size-fits-all approach.

4. Where does sustainable design fit into your approach to creating an ideal built environment?

While we often get grouped with sustainability specialists, our main focus is on healthy rather than environmental concerns. That said, we obviously see sustainability as an incredibly important aspect of everything we do, and fortunately, there are many synergies between sustainability and well-being, for example, BREEAM and WELL share many goals.

It becomes more complex when some things that are good for human health actually increase energy use, which can happen with things like larger windows or increased ventilation rates. But that’s when the really interesting conversations start to happen, and ultimately we always try to find a way to address both of these crucial issues.

5. Through your work so far, are you seeing a genuine paradigm shift in how architects and companies are approaching mental health when it comes to designing buildings and workspaces? 

Absolutely. There has been a significant shift in the whole population’s attitude to mental health over the last five or ten years, and thankfully people are becoming much more open about the subject. This has filtered into the world of design and development, and we are seeing increasing numbers of architects and clients with a genuine passion to better support mental health through their projects. COVID only seems to have accelerated this process, as during the last year many people realised just how much our homes or the spaces around us can impact how we feel.

6. What keeps you motivated during times of frustration?

It helps that I’m incredibly lucky to have a job I love, working on things I’m passionate about. I have found it frustrating in the past when people don’t understand the value or importance of good health (both physical and mental) and the role that the built environment can play in it – but ultimately I came to realise this is usually because it isn’t something they’ve had much exposure to. This frustration, therefore, became my motivation: trying to change attitudes was the reason I wrote “Happy by Design,” gave my TEDx talk, and now speak to people around the world about the subject. I hope I’ve had some success but there’s still work to be done!

7. What has been your proudest moment thus far? 

Probably when I first got my hands on a copy of my first book. Being an author was never really something I had on my ‘life roadmap’, which I suppose goes to show you should never stick too strictly to your plans!

8. What is one book you’ve recently read or listened to that has inspired you and that you might recommend?

I’ve been listening to audiobooks of Ted Chiang’s short stories lately and would highly recommend them. While they’re not strictly to do with architecture, he creates fascinating future worlds which pose some big questions and certainly get you thinking in a different way.

9. Who or what inspires you personally? 

I draw a lot of inspiration from my family. I’m very lucky that they’re all really hard working and motivated and I hope I’ve picked up some of these values, if only through proximity and osmosis! They have all achieved amazing things in their own way, right back to my late grandad who did eight years of night classes to qualify as a teacher and give his family a better quality of life. I’m super-proud of all of them!

10. Do you have any other thoughts or wise words for aspiring, purpose-driven architects and designers? 

Keep going! As an industry, we’re moving to a position where purpose and ethical practice are key, so it’s now more possible than ever to be both commercially successful and purpose-driven. Increasing numbers of funders are putting ESG strategies in place and we’re often getting asked to input on these as topics like well-being and sustainability are key. The market is only going in one direction and thankfully that’s towards the creation of better, healthier, more ethically designed places – with those who don’t adopt these approaches risking being left behind.