The future of spa design requires a fundamental change in our mindset and how we define and understand wellness. The current definition emphasises the importance of an active pursuit of good or holistic health. And our spas, wellness facilities and WELL-certified buildings are designed and built as temples to this ongoing pursuit of a subjective, unquantifiable aim.
The issue that we, as wellness designers, need to address is that while our endless pursuit has made the wellness industry a US$4.5 trillion business, the rate of preventable diseases as well as mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and addiction, in wealthy and developed countries where wellness thrives, has continued to rise.
There are two possible interpretations for this conundrum. One is that we need more wellness; the other is that the methods and message of wellness may not be working.
The current method and central message of wellness makes intuitive sense to us because it falls very much in line with our survival instinct to avoid discomfort, protect ourselves from harm, and control our environment. And the global outbreak of COVID-19 has intensified our defensive responses and increased the demand for wellness products and services.
But the onus is on us to get this right.
To future-proof our business model, we need to understand what makes us well. So, although Covid-19 has ramped up the demand and desire for safety and sanitation, it would be short-sighted to let it drive our design.
The ultimate pandemic-proof business model in wellness design rests on our understanding of the following two facts:
1. In addition to – or perhaps even more important than – diet, exercise or our genetic dispositions, environmental adaptation plays a big factor in our wellbeing. For hundreds of thousands of years, we have had to adapt and thrive in unpredictable and constantly changing environments. The modern human, however, has become so adapted to a highly controlled and sanitised environment that millions of us now suffer from autoimmune diseases where, in the absence of foreign enemies, our immune system attacks itself.
2. Although we are hard-wired to avoid discomfort, protect ourselves from harm, and control our environment, we must also recognise that all living systems – including our immune system – require stress and exposure to varied and unfamiliar environments to become stronger and to adapt. Or that in the absence of stress and exposure, we become fragile and more vulnerable to the very things we seek to avoid.
The idea that exposure increases tolerance and adaptability or hormesis is a fundamental concept in evolutionary theory. We see hormesis at work in vaccines, when we exercise, or hone our skills and abilities.
Hormesis is also required to strengthen our biological systems – respiratory, digestive, cardiovascular, but most importantly, our immune system. Yet our design focuses mainly on maintaining stability or homeostasis. Our built environments are designed to protect and shelter us from the world ‘outside’, maximise comfort, and minimise changes and unpredictability.
As wellness designers, we are called to design environments, not just spas, that support and strengthen our ability to adapt, rather than protect and weaken our biological systems. Spaces that prepare and prime our bodies to function optimally in even the most stressful and hostile environments; places that allow us to visualise healthier and stronger, more resilient versions of ourselves and to condition our minds and bodies for success.
We need to design more open environments that provide exposure to sunlight, fresh air, and the changing or unpredictable nature of the elements. Science and research show that an airtight environment and indoor spaces are breeding grounds for viruses, while sunlight and open, outdoor environments increase the production of Vitamin D, and provide UV rays and airflow that may reduce the rate of viral infections.
Explorative environments encourage interaction, active engagement, creativity and curiosity. Many areas in our spa and wellness facilities are passive environments designed to calm and cocoon us. While silence, stillness, and sensory deprivation may induce relaxation and reduce anxiety, the effect is often short-lived and the experience may increase, not reduce, our intolerance to the noisy and chaotic world outside.
Examples of explorative environments may be spaces where we can meet our ‘future selves' by using A.I. and digital technology to model or stimulate different habits, behaviours and outcomes. Or diagnostic tools that provide 3D-visuals of our health and fitness or biological markers.
Virtual reality experiences could map out and take us on a virtual tour of our complex biological systems and processes, and allow us to understand their functions or how our diets, exercise regimes, and our environments affect these systems. Or creative learning pods could be places where guests can create digital artwork, compose music, learn to design or make things, alone or in collaboration with creatives / artists / makers from all around the globe.
I’ve also argued in the past that wellness should be expansive and fully integrated into the overall design of a hotel or resort, rather than confined to the spa or wellness facilities. This concept of 'wellness without walls' is even more relevant today and it embodies our new understanding of wellness.
Deconstructing our approach
While safety, calm, and comfort are important, our well spaces must also strengthen and support our built-in resilience and adaptability. More importantly, wellness should not be a goal but a means to live the best and fullest lives we can imagine. And to do so in a world that is increasingly uncertain, chaotic and rapidly changing, we need to embrace, not avoid, discomfort; increase our tolerance to – rather than shelter ourselves from – nature’s and life’s unpredictability and volatility, and work with, rather than control, our environment. We will need to reimagine wellness. Deconstruct our approach and transform our mindset, from one that is defensive, constrictive, and restrictive, to one that is open, explorative, expansive.