Good home design is about making people feel safe

Sort It: Your home may be causing you stress

There’s a lot of research about how the design of workplaces can enhance wellbeing, improve productivity and inspire those who work there. The office design revolution, started by the big tech companies such as Apple and Google, has transformed the way workplaces are designed. When it comes to homes, however, especially new homes, the focus is very much on the aesthetic and not so much on how the house impacts on the wellbeing of those who live there.

According to Dr Michael Keane, a neuroscientist and director of the Actualise Clinic in Dublin, our environment is crucial to our wellbeing and design can play a fundamental role in the quality of our day-to-day life. “Our brains are designed to keep us safe,” he says. “Feeling safe is controlled by the base part of the brain called the limbic system or emotional motor system. And this part of the brain needs to get a lot of reassurance to feel safe.”

Anyone with children can relate to mornings spent hunting for lunch bags, shoes or sports equipment. All of these annoyances can be solved through design

A threat to this feeling of safety is over-stimulation. “Stress is essentially a reaction to a stimulus, information registered by your brain that requires a response, you may not even be aware that your brain is taking in the information.” For example, you come home to a pile of paperwork on your kitchen table; your brain registers that this needs to be dealt with even though you don’t intend to deal with it right away. Other non-conscious stimuli include things like coats piled up on the end of the stairs, a layout that isn’t working, poor lighting and so on. These are all stimulants that your brain is logging and as they accumulate your stress levels increase and eventually the threat takes over.

Other stimuli are more noticeable. Anyone with children can relate to mornings spent hunting for lunch bags, shoes or sports equipment. These small things are all conscious stimuli that can trigger arguments, tension and a lot of stress. But all of these annoyances can be solved through design.


I recently completed a home renovation where the owners reported that their children were better behaved after their home redesign. And it isn’t a question of space; even a small home can be optimised for a better quality of life. You need to know where to focus.


When it comes to feeling comfortable or safe, the functionality of your home, and in particular the layout, is key. Whether redesigning a room or an entire house, the space needs to work or nothing else is going to make a difference. Start with planning the types of rooms you need, the way the rooms work together and the way the furniture is arranged, then consider practicalities like storage, window locations and position of doors. The changes you make should solve existing problems, things that affect you on a regular basis and never should be based on what you think you should be doing.

Once you’ve cracked the layout you need to focus on the atmosphere or ambience. There are many layers to this, including light, both natural and artificial, colour and acoustics that are going to have a significant impact on how the space makes you feel.

This is where your personality type comes into play, and different personalities can cope with different kinds of stimuli. Just as with office design where spaces are designed to suit introverts and extroverts, our home preferences and needs vary greatly.

Your home should be the place where you feel safest of all. Stress is eliminated by minimising or removing the stimuli that cause a sense of threat

Take floor-to-ceiling glazing, for example, a feature in almost every home that has been built or redesigned in recent years. A beautiful design feature, it creates a feeling of openness and connection with the outdoors. It can be incredibly relaxing and soothing for some people but for others it might make them feel very exposed so isn’t the right choice.

“Trust your instincts and make decisions based on what feels good. The limbic system doesn’t have language so it cannot express or verbalise what it does or doesn’t like,” Keane says. “Instead, it manifests itself in the form of a positive or negative feeling. This is completely personal, a one-size fits-all approach isn’t going to work.”

Your home should be the place where you feel safest of all and with the brain monitoring for threats to safety all the time, stress is eliminated by minimising or removing the stimuli that cause the threats. Instead of approaching design as a way to “make a statement” or create a “wow” factor, design should be about enhancing the experience of the space for the people who live there. The design will then work so well you shouldn’t even notice it. It will just feel great.

Denise O’Connor is an architect and design consultant; @optimisedesign