Reshaping the Way We Live

Healthy living from a rural valley in central China to urban Beijing

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Several studies have found that we spend approximately 90% of our time indoors. Most of us are unaware of the health issues that comes with indoor spaces, but many of us are also unaware of the health benefits of the outdoors. Spending time outside is one of the easiest ways to improve our mental health and well-being and it’s scientifically proven that spending time in nature is effective in alleviating mental health issues.

So what are the solutions to improve indoor spaces and what are the tools to create and encourage people to be outdoors? Micr-O, a rural sustainable farm in central China and the Well Living Lab, a state-of-the-art laboratory in urban Beijing are two very different projects designed by Superimpose Architecture. However, they both set the benchmark of a new era in health and wellness.

In the early days of establishing our practice, we were approached by a local visionary from Zhejiang province who had an agricultural background. He was the founder of the Sun Commune, an initiative that creates a valuable bottom-up strategy to sustain farmers while promoting organic food production. Due to rapid urbanization in China in recent years, rural agricultural communities are disappearing and he had convinced around 100 local families in the Tai Yang Valley to alter their way of farming by teaching them organic sustainable farming techniques. He was looking for a way to promote the Tai Yang Valley’s organic food production and he asked us to come up with an architectural concept that would attract visitors from the nearby big cities.

We noticed a growing interest from urban parents to expose their kids to nature, and therefore we developed the idea to design a microcommunity that promotes healthy natural outdoor living. This microcommunity, which we named Micr-O, allows kids from cities such as Hangzhou and Shanghai to immerse themselves in nature and learn about how food is grown. It also teaches the parents that organic food is safer and as a result, the importance of supporting the famers’ production.

Indoor spaces created with local materials.
Education building and camping accommodations, Micr-O, Hangzhou, China, 2016, Superimpose Architecture. Photo © Marc Goodwin

Rather than designing a building, we decided to opt for a tent structure that allows the visitors to be closer to nature. To create this full nature experience, we refrained from the use of concrete and metal, and in order to create a green and sustainable building that is in line with organic food production, we utilized natural building materials from the surrounding region. Locally sourced old pinewood beams and planks were recycled for the structure and the wooden decking, and a reusable tent canvas was used for the roof. We elevated the structure to minimize the impact on the vegetation and allow it to continue underneath the building. The building is demountable and can be rebuilt at other locations, making it fully circular.

The Micr-O community center is an example of rural outdoor healthy living. However, how to create a healthy indoor environment in densely populated urban areas? Within a year after completing Micr-O, we won the bidding for a very different project: a 26,000 square meter laboratory and office development as part of an urban renewal project of an existing industrial site located in the Sunyi district of Beijing. As part of the larger development our key focus was on the first phase of a 2,400 square meter building that would become the first Well Living Lab in Asia.

Worldwide there are only two Well Living Labs, one in Rochester, Minnesota and now one in Beijing. It’s a concept developed by the real estate company Delos and the academic medical center the Mayo Clinic to bring together building science, behavioral science and health science in order to provide a simulated indoor environment that mimics office environments and residential living spaces. The objective is to conduct human centered-research that will result in improving the impact that indoor environments have on our health, wellness, comfort and performance.

The building had to be designed with the highest LEED and WELL standards and it also had to be extremely adaptable and flexible for future research. Together with Delos and a team of sustainability experts we designed a building that not only complies with the required standards, but also applies creative solutions that improve the way we live.

Indoor spaces with natural light and ventilation.
Laboratories and offices, Well Living Lab, Beijing, China, 2021, Superimpose Architecture. Photo © CreatAR

We designed the building with a plug-in concept and started with repositioning the often centrally placed core to the north of the building. This allows for large open flexible floor plans, as well as natural ventilation and daylight in the core facilities, such as the bathrooms. Usually the fire escape staircases are located in the dark and hidden spaces of the interior, however we decided to locate them outside the building. By emphasizing the staircases in a bold red color and placing them close to the main entrances, the visitors are invited to take the staircase, rather than the lift, promoting physical exercise and social interaction.

The staircases extend beyond the building roof line for access to the public rooftop and lab space that rotates 360 degrees, and is used for researching seasonal factors of solar heat gain and glare. The centrally located machine room of the rotatable lab needs a depth of 2.2 meters so there was plenty of soil depth to create a rooftop farm for organic food production, and gardening workshops can be held in a relaxing natural environment.

Health standards and certifications are important tools to improve the way we live. However, creativity is a crucial factor that is needed to find relationships and opportunities that push the boundaries of healthy living. As architects, we have the social responsibility to not only design beautiful buildings, but also to design a built environment that facilitates and contributes to the health and well-being of future generations. We need to look beyond the traditional scope of architecture and understand the full life cycle of buildings as well as their users and surroundings in order to create an adaptable and healthy future that can reshape the way future generations will live.

Main image: Education building and camping accommodations, Micr-O, Hangzhou, China, 2016, Superimpose Architecture. Photo © Marc Goodwin


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