Seven years ago, Paul Hennessey was a Vancouver paramedic. Although he was adept at responding to emergency health issues, he was also immensely curious about effective, day-to-day habits to promote general well-being – the kind of practice that might, in the long run, prevent crisis calls to the ER. So he took a leave from his job and spent months visiting spas, meditation centres and relaxation retreats around the world.
He soaked sore muscles in the thermal baths at Vals, Switzerland, designed by world-renowned architect Peter Zumthor. “It has a room called the singing room,” Hennessey says, “where the sound of the water dances through the space. It’s very ethereal.”
He inhaled the minerals of a salt-lined cave in Germany – “The salt has therapeutic properties. It’s good for inflammation and helps with breathing,” he says.
In addition to boosting his mental and physical health, the trip inspired an idea. Hennessey decided to find a way to recreate in people’s homes the tranquil vibes of the remote, pampering places he had visited.
Four years ago, he launched a Vancouver business called Circle Wellness Studios, and designed a prefab, backyard relaxation room – part sauna, part yoga den, part meditation space – called the WelPod. It incorporates many of the features of his favourite retreats. The interiors have radiant floor heating and are lined with thermal-trapping, Himalayan crystal salts (styled after the German cave). Korean-style charcoal filters help purify the air. And there’s an option to have the exterior clad in a Japanese-style, fire-singed wood that is UV, insect and fire resistant.
Starting at around $50,000, the WelPod is undeniably a luxury product. But, increasingly, homeowners around the world are willing to pay premiums of 10 to 15 per cent to incorporate health and wellness design features into their homes, according to a 2018 report from non-profit, Florida-based research group the Global Wellness Institute.
One such homeowner is John Livingston, a businessman based in Tofino, B.C. He purchased a WelPod for himself and his wife Heather after his doctor told him he needed to de-stress. “We absolutely love [it],” he says. “It’s the perfect place to do yoga, meditate, or just plain relax.”
And the trend goes well beyond at-home saunas. Whole, health-focused houses, buildings and neighbourhoods – ones that promote active living, green architecture and a strong connection to nature – are becoming increasingly common. There is even a building certification called WELL, established in 2014, that sets comprehensive standards for interior designers and architects who want to promote good living. It is administered by the same certification body as the environmentally focused LEED certification, and encourages features such as built-in fitness facilities, access to lots of natural light and access to healthy foods.
In some ways, this is not new. Globally, each year, we collectively pay out a staggering US$3.7-trillion for our physical and mental betterment, which, perhaps tellingly, is more than three times as much as we spend on pharmaceuticals, according to market-research firm Evaluate Pharma.
Traditionally, that outlay has been focused on just about everything – organic foods, day trips to the spa, exercise gear – aside from the design of our buildings. But the money we spend on healthy homes and other buildings has grown at a robust 6.4 per cent a year since 2015, and is expected to grow a further 6 per cent a year between now and 2022, to more than US$180-billion, from US$134-billion currently .
More and more consumers are looking for wellness not only close to home, but within their homes. Canada is among the top 10 countries in terms of total spend (currently US$2.4-billion) for wellness-based real estate and design.
Montreal architecture studio Naturehumaine, for example, recently designed a house for a fitness-obsessed family, where gymnastics rings and a chin-up bar hang over what would otherwise be the dining room (it’s right next to the kitchen). And a house designed by Vancouver architect Scott Posno could easily be mistaken for a contemporary Scandinavian spa, with its own minimalist, perfectly square Zen garden that can accommodate yoga or meditation. “I try to avoid visual noise,” Posno says. “All the things that can be distracting and that don’t do anything for you.”
There are also neighbourhood developments such as Carraig Ridge outside Calgary. As it gets built over 10 to 15 years, it will limit its carbon footprint by restricting the size of the 44 houses (each of which is designed by a top international architect and costs a couple of million or more) to between 750 and 2,000 square feet. Much of the forest-like surroundings will be preserved in perpetuity as parkland, allowing for walks through nature, not suburbia.
“Formerly, you would typically see this mainly in the traditional spa environment,” says Jennifer Findlay, founder of Core Essence, a Toronto-based consulting firm that focuses on wellness and design. “But now we’re seeing this cross over into the residential world, where people want to integrate wellness into their daily life, and not save it for a yearly trip abroad, their anniversary or the odd spa weekend.”
That integration doesn’t always have to involve a major renovation or a new build, though. According to interior designer Kathryn Findlay, Core Essence’s design director (and Jennifer’s sister), there are a few key areas that can be focused on to improve at-home wellness, including lighting, acoustics, thermal comfort and air quality. Many of those can be addressed using “small hacks and daily practices,” she says, and many are quite inexpensive.
“Lighting, both artificial and natural, is probably the biggest when it comes to design and the environment,” she says, pointing out that the light pollution in our cities often makes it difficult to sleep, which in turn impacts our mental and physical health. Kathryn recommends starting by using simple dimmer switches or layered window treatments (blackout blinds alongside sheers) to modulate light throughout the day – increasing it in the morning when waking up is key, decreasing it at night when rest is important. Whether at home or at the office, a variety of lighting options – desk, overhead and floor lamps, say – is a good way to provide choice throughout the day, while “horrible fluorescent lighting” should be avoided at all costs, according to Kathryn.
Likewise, other uninvasive changes include adding house plants to improve indoor air quality, using more soft surfaces like rugs and upholstered furniture in a space to reduce echoing noises (the kind that often ricochet through downtown, concrete condos and, like light pollution, make it hard for people to sleep) and, where possible, having individual thermostats in each room so that one part of the house isn’t freezing while another is blistering hot.
“We spend upwards of 90 per cent of our time indoors,” says Kathryn. “Our spaces should provide us comfort and well-being.”
The quest for comfort and well-being is something Hennessey has continued fervently, seven years after his initial world tour. He continues to travel regularly in search of new ideas. He particularly loves Japan, where last year he found inspiration for a new product – a red cedar bathtub – that he unveiled at the end of June at Vancouver’s Luxury & Design Home Show.
The Japanese have long used wood for their bathtubs, particularly ones made from woods like cedar that inherently have antimicrobial and aromatherapy properties. Hennessey’s version can either go in a traditional indoor bathroom or, as in Japan, sit on a back deck, al fresco. “Outdoor bathing is the best,” he says. It’s a new concept to Canada, perhaps, but maybe it’s something we can relax into.