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Can Our Environment Dictate Our Mental Health?

Why we need to design spaces to optimize our mental wellbeing.

Brett in front of artist Eduardo Kobra's self-portrait mural at Gravity.
Brett in front of artist Eduardo Kobra's self-portrait mural at Gravity.

As someone who designs and builds spaces for a living, the question I’m obsessed with is: Can we design spaces that begin to transform our mental wellbeing for the better?

Anyone who has suffered fluorescent lighting and a cubicle knows the opposite can be true.

The truth is, I’ve always wanted to redo my former therapist’s office. Norman has since passed away, and I miss him dearly. But I don’t miss his office.

I hated going to his office. It used to bum me out. The terrible 70’s-era office building and his undesigned office. A brown chair, not comfortable. Bad art. Outdated blinds — and a crunchy carpet.

There’s nothing more depressing than crunchy carpet.

Even the drive over there was a bummer. Through a dated, strip-malled part of town, my mood dipped lower and lower as I got closer and closer.

It’s a pretty big irony when your therapist’s office depresses you even before you start in on your mountain of issues.

Imagine if it was the norm for us to design spaces that aided in our healing?

THE CREATION OF GRAVITY

I created Kaufman Development and eventually Gravity Project as an experiment to see if I could tie mental health recovery, and everything necessary for mental wellbeing into the built environment. Gravity is a mixed-use development, with residential apartments, work spaces, (traditional and co-work), therapy (a very beautifully designed co-practice space), community yoga, acupuncture and meditation courses, as well as fresh, organic food, craft beer, a non-profit coffee shop, botanical elixirs and many other programs and remedies.

We co-founded Rhove, and implemented a rent savings program that allows people to create better financial health and wellbeing. And we offer on-site programming that introduces the larger community and Gravity’s residents to new ideas, inspiring activism, art and artists, farmers, herbalists, and anyone else who is contributing to the greater good. The idea is to surround ourselves with the tools + support + inspiration — all things — for good mental health in our living and work spaces. A conscious attempt at intentional living and integrating mental health into our everyday experiences.  

I’m clear that really deep, profound work happens in a multitude of ways and is an individual journey. I did impactful work in Norman’s less-than-inspiring office. It happens, of course. But we need new interventions into the crises of our individual and collective mental health. New ways to build mental health remedies into the structures that we create. We need to meet people where they are:  where they live, work, and socialize. Where mental health doesn’t require a drive to another neighborhood.

Trauma runs deep and is complexly intertwined into societal norms. Suicide rates have sharply risen in the last decade, and with our digital lives increasing our overall sense of dissatisfaction, compare and despair run rampant, and a lack of true intimacy in our daily experiences, we have to start thinking of how we can do this differently.

The idea to do something for the greater community and the city came from watching what happened with my own company and in my own life. We integrated mental and physical wellbeing practices and it changed not only our general happiness, but it also altered the quality of our work. We set running meetings, we sent people on personal development retreats, gave them facilitated team coaching, everyone on staff was given the opportunity to learn how to meditate, we held yoga on the roof, and more. Work and the workplace changed its entire tone, because it was now a place we sought refuge in, instead of from.

Because of the footprint of the Gravity project, its future expansion, and its location in a neighborhood that’s just beginning to take off, the idea is now becoming: can we design an entire neighborhood based on the idea that our mental health is the most important element of our lives?

I recently checked in on one of our first business tenants at Gravity, the dog-focused company, Bark. They’ve been in the offices for three weeks now. Hernán Giraldo, VP of Customer Experience, surprised me with proof of concept, sharing with me that an entry-level 10-person team took over a meeting to talk about how much happier they are working out of Gravity. Hearing this, my heart leapt up. This is why we did this. They shared with Hernán too, that they felt like they were more productive, and that “the building itself was energizing”.

The experiment is working.

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