So - welcome Pippa! You're a wellness architect with Pip and Pencil. Can you tell us a bit more about what that means?
So - welcome Pippa! You're a wellness architect with Pip and Pencil. Can you tell us a bit more about what that means?
Hello, and thanks for having me. Well, the term Wellness Architect was one I actually created for myself, as I am a registered architect but I approach my projects with a focus on healthy home design, and there wasn’t really a term for that a few years ago so I just kind of started calling myself that!
What was your journey towards becoming a wellness architect?
I graduated with a Masters of Architecture in 2008 from the University of Adelaide and was registered as a licenced architect in 2010. I have been practicing in the field of architecture for over 10 years and in 2011, I relocated to NYC from Adelaide; at first working for a world class architect, and later; in 2016 starting my own Wellness Architecture firm Pip+Pencil.
It was that move to a new country, with a very fast paced yet sedentary, indoor and intense work environment - coupled with the different types of ingredients in foods that led me to look closer at what I was eating. In that search, I undertook and became a Certified Health Coach at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition as I was curious about exploring my passion for health and wellness and simply gaining a better understanding of ingredients in the food in America!
It was with all that training and background that I had my ah-ha moment during a cold, snowy New York winter. I realised that being indoors all the time was making me feel terrible (I was already quite sensitive to fragrance and chemical cleaners) and, as half the office was out sick, I realised as the air was recirculating, all it took to take down the entire staff was one sick person (because it spread so quickly through the HVAC systems). I was also always finding myself sleepy and unmotivated every day around 3pm as the indoor air quality took a dive and the fluorescent lighting started taking over as the day grew darker.
Backed with my newfound perspective of holistic wellbeing from my health coaching course, this was the moment I realised the importance of our indoor environments on our mental, physical and spiritual health. I did some searching online for healthy design, and / or wellness architects and found some small pockets of research or designers / building biologists and architects practicing sustainable or biophilic design, but it was still kind of seen as a niche ‘hippie’ area.
I decided (much like when you discover what harmful ingredients in your food do to your body) I couldn’t unlearn what I knew, and I was on a mission to create a healthy home environment for myself. Years (and a TON of research later) I created Pip+Pencil to save clients from that moment of helplessness that floods you when the shift to a non-toxic home seems overwhelming!
What's your design philosophy?
Health is first. Always. To renovate or build (or furnish) a home without thinking about the impact those building materials, finishes (like paint or glues) and furniture will have on the occupants is just negligent. As more research is done to prove that household pollution is one of the leading causes of disease and premature death in the developing world, we as designers and architects need to put the health of our clients first. Every client has a unique design need (hence why they are coming to me as an architect) and it is up to me to ensure all their ‘wants’ are met while at the same time ensuring the home is clean, healthy and safe from potential dangers. Photo credit Christian Torres (@christiantorresphoto)
How do home surroundings affect one's health?
Given that we spend up to 90% of our time indoors (65% of that at home, the rest in the office, the car or other build environments) it shouldn’t be a surprise that the quality of those indoor environments have a huge impact on our health.
To get scienc-y for a moment, common indoor pollutants that pose risks to our health include carbon monoxide, ozone, particulate matter (PM) and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) such as formaldehyde, benzene and limonene. These pollutants come from everyday items such as cleaning and beauty products, air fresheners, furniture, paint, building materials, pollen, pets, and dust. Exposure to these chemicals can be linked to issues such as eye, ear and nose irritation, allergies, asthma, irregular heartbeat and more.
The reason this all matters? Because our indoor environments affect almost every aspect of our lives - from our quality of sleep, our energy levels, mood and productivity!
How important are things like air, water, light or noise?
Critical, and essentially the basis of many of my design principles. I will break each down real quick.
Air - this is probably the hardest to tackle as it is essentially invisible. Most people don’t realise they have poor indoor air quality (IAQ) until we test. Exposure to indoor air pollutants have been repeatedly linked to asthma, allergies, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Have you ever cooked chillies or burnt toast and noticed how you start coughing or get irritated eyes, nose or throat? That is particle matter in the air.
Air filtration is the best way to tackle poor IAQ, and one of the most important inclusions in any project I tackle, beginning with dust mitigation and filtration during construction, air scrubbing with HEPA filters post construction (coupled with a good post construction deep clean) and then finally whole home (where possible) or smaller individual room air filtration.
Water - a little more obvious as it is usually visibly discolored or tastes or smells weird! If the project allows, a whole home filtration system is the best approach but sometimes (especially in NYC) point-of-use filters are the right solution for the project, which is specified based on site specific water testing. Where possible, we also like to filter the bathroom shower and faucet as we absorb a lot of the chemicals through our skin while bathing.
Light - I personally have always been affected by the quality of light - technically we all are, we just don’t even realise it (example, how much happier are people in the bright light of summer compared to the grey darkness of winter?).
Light is especially important in the bedroom environment where our sleep is affected by overlit spaces and electronics. I am very passionate about bedroom hygiene because quality sleep is the key to health in my opinion (sleep deprivation is considered a public health concern according to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]).
I always advise clients to assess their sleep environments for harsh overhead lighting (I like to light my room with a salt lamp as I feel this gives off such a soft gentle glow), day-light infiltration (a blackout environment is best for restorative sleep) and removing electronic devices (easier said than done with phones, but sorry the TV has got to go), there are also blue-light glasses that I suggest for those that can’t stop won’t stop with the gadgets.
Noise - Another factor many clients hadn’t really considered until it is pointed out to them. A lot of my clients in the city face onto busy roads with traffic at all hours (I used to be one of them, Duane Reade 3am truck deliveries were a constant wakeup factor for me) or have neighbours whose noise transmits through their (thin) walls! This is a little harder to fix without renovation but since having my baby I cannot speak highly enough of the simple white noise machine and good quality ear plugs (these are also great for sleep training lol)! Photo credit Christian Torres (@christiantorresphoto)
What are some simple things that someone can do to improve their home's wellness factors (without having to move or add windows, for instance)?
Great question, and one I get asked a lot! First, let me start by saying don’t be overwhelmed! Much like the way you might approach changes to diet or exercise - most people don’t suddenly go cold turkey, throw out all their food and start hitting the weights room - it’s more of a progression of slow and steady changes that make the difference.
I have a few things I always tell people.
1) Buy non-toxic bedroom furniture and bedding, we spend ⅓ of our lives sleeping so please please do that on a non-toxic mattress and pillows, and if you have kids or babies this is even more critical. Ideally you would do this all at once (yes, that is how important that is) but obviously this can be cost prohibitive so I always tell clients, just remember next time you are buying a mattress, a bed frame or sheets to go organic and non-toxic.
Since having my own baby, I have grown fiercely passionate about nursery design and styling. If you are expecting a new baby please think carefully about every item you bring into that nursery, from the paint on the walls, glue under the wallpaper (or even the ink on the wallpaper), carpets / rugs, furniture, crib mattress & change pad, crib bedding (the list could go on)...all of it can be covered in a toxic soup of chemicals that can be so harmful, especially for a little baby with an underdeveloped body.
When I first began furnishing my son’s nursery I realised that finding high quality, low-emission furniture that was budget friendly was challenging. In the EU their standards are much stricter on use of formaldehyde and VOC’s in furniture items, but their costs are higher (plus shipping), but after a lot of research, and many calls to manufacturers I found there are some great, smaller local places that have options for smaller budgets (did I also mention IKEA?) so do your research or contact my office for advice!
2) Detox your kitchen and bathroom. Less of a design or architectural tip but critical to improve IAQ. Remove any cleaners, beauty, laundry and hair care products with ingredients you don’t understand. Essentially, if you can’t eat it, don’t use it. This will go a long way in improving the quality of your indoor air.
3) To tie into the above, invest in a quality HEPA air filter. I have a few I like depending on the contaminants you’re trying to remove, based on site testing. If a good quality air filter is out of the question, then indoor plants are a great budget friendly option, or even easier...open your windows!
4) Don’t be overwhelmed! Small changes can have a huge impact. Remove your shoes at the door, open your windows, vacuum with a HEPA filter (regular vacuums just break up the dust into smaller particles and spread them around the room), invest in a water filter for your shower and kitchen (or a countertop version) and avoid buying plastic - these are some very easy ways to keep toxins from entering your home.
You're originally from Australia, now based in New York City. What are some changes you see in home design between the various places you've lived and clients you've worked with in your career?
I have worked in such a variety of architectural firms from a ‘New York’ traditional architectural studio, through to a small boutique residential firm; and now to my own wellness architecture practice, so I feel like I have seen it all (both in terms of projects and clients).
I think a lot of American architecture is steeped in tradition. Many of the floors are more traditional and broken into rooms with more formal arrangements, whereas in Australia there is more open connection between spaces. That has a lot to do with the age of the buildings in NYC, as most of the apartments and condo’s I worked in were landmarked (heritage) buildings and this was just how homes were designed back in the day.
Having said that, I am finding a blend of the two styles becoming the most requested renovation change. Many clients would probably like to go ‘full open plan’ but building constraint factors like structural walls and risers limit those ideas. I think many American clients are used to a more formal layout and so like that visual connection between spaces but still a clearly defined space for each function (like a breakfast nook or family room)
In terms of styling and finishes I find there is more texture and luxurious style to American interiors. There seems to be a lot of pattern and color and texture (think plush velvets and burgundy & emerald tones), and detailing (for example shaker style kitchen cabinets and ornate hardware). What I am noticing online (thanks instagram) is a lot of Aussie designers moving away from the ‘aussie scandi’ look and into these rich layered looks which I am loving!
For those who are apartment, condo, or house-hunting, what are some common tips and tricks you'd suggest to optimize their wellness as a starting point?
I would look for the easy to feel or spot things, like humidity, mold - in bathroom grout / shower corners (especially in apartments as most bathrooms do not have windows or sufficient ventilation), discolored or funky smelling water (always run the taps), noise transmission - is the place near a busy 24/7 convenience store, a bar, a school?, operable windows (you’d be surprised how many people have windows that either don’t open or are painted shut) - fresh air is the best way to move stale contaminated air, yes even NYC outside air is cleaner than the air inside your apartment!
I often suggest to clients looking to purchase to first test the place for air & water quality, mold and any other potentially hazardous toxins. There are plenty of building inspectors or building biologists who can help at this stage.
What are some additional resources you'd suggest people read more about to learn about wellness architecture?
As more research is done on the impact of indoor environments on human health (can you believe it’s 2019 and this is a relatively ‘new’ area of research? Mind boggling) there are some great resources out there.
I often refer to the Sustainable Furnishings Council website which has a great list of resources from suppliers to contractors who can help you with your wellness design needs.I also like Healthy Building Network’s Home Free and Healthy Materials Lab, both great for product searches. I also love Pure Living Space for all things healthy.
In terms of product sources for furniture etc. I love Gimme the Good Stuff, but many of the big-box stores are now carrying lines of certified organic, sustainable or chemical free products which is great to see. The most important part is just doing research (or using a wellness architect to help guide you) and asking questions!
And finally, when it comes to general household products I often refer to Irina’s amazing website I Read Labels for You as I feel she put a lot of time and research into products before suggesting them so I trust her word completely.
Thank you! I have been fortunate enough to work with some amazing people in this city and all around the world. I can be reached via email at email@example.com or through my instagram @pipandpencil.
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