Can the COLORS of a Stationhouse Affect Mental and Physical Well-Being?


CarolinaFireJournal - Karen Collins
Karen Collins
10/16/2020 -

(This is part one of a two-part series.)

Physical health and safety have recently come to the forefront of fire station design, but very little design consideration is given to mental well-being. 

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Architectural design of a fire station not only addresses living quarters, traffic flow and layout, but also the functional needs for services provided, community events and personnel lifestyle. Interior elements such as lighting, sound, temperature and even smell have been explored by designers to help improve quality of station life. The importance of color, however, is not typically discussed.

In order to effectively design a space that will promote well-being, an understanding of the human body’s natural reaction to stress and to color is essential.

Stress: The Good and the Bad

Beneficial stress (or eustress) can result in helpful consequences. Defining characteristics are: short term; energizing and motivating; within coping ability; feels exciting; increases focus and performance. Although this can be useful in a rare, emergency situation, continued stress will have a different impact.

The physical reactions of normal stress (or distress) include: increases in heart rate and blood pressure, respiration increases and muscle tension to name a few. Excessive stress not only causes these physical reactions, but emotional responses as well. Lack of focus or concentration, tendency to withdraw, changes in behavior, addiction or abuse of drugs and alcohol are some of the negative effects.

The Reality of Stress for First Responders

In a 2019 survey, CareerCast lists firefighting as the second highest stressful job just under active military. Psychologist Dr. Nicola Davies indicates that “prolonged stress is one of the leading causes of health problems among firefighters.” 

Most reports and studies that candidly address the mental well-being of the first responder have been written in just the last five to six years. Although there are programs that offer valuable help, many firefighters are still privately suffering by choosing to remain silent. 

Research shows additional ways that firefighters are combating these emotional responses. Diet, rest, and exercise are proven to have a positive psychological effect. For others, the use of sarcasm and dark humor help to alleviate stress. Relaxed chatting, while working as a team, acts as an informal way of debriefing.

Very little is written about the actual stationhouse and the impact it can have on minimizing stress. Architect Paul Erickson uses a concept he calls “Immersive Design” when designing fire stations. He defines this as a strategy to link human physiology with the built environment to “encourage physical, emotional and mental healing.” 

Link between Mental and Physical Health

Research shows that there is a connection between brain function and the immune system response. As explained in “Color — Communication in Architectural Space,” since this interaction begins “at the very moment we begin to perceive sensory stimuli,” it is important to pay attention to the environment in which one works and lives. As such, the architectural space can and should be designed to impact the senses in a positive way, therefore contributing to a healthier immune system.

Of the numerous documents researched, the following description of the neurological reaction with regard to stress is best explained by those in this field of expertise. “The brain is the central organ of stress and adaptation to social and physical stressors because it determines what is threatening, stores memories and regulates the physiological as well as behavioral responses that may be damaging or protective.” Experts go on to say that “[t]he body shifts its energy resources toward fighting off a life threat. ... Once the crisis is over, the body usually returns to the pre-emergency, unstressed state. ... Chronic stress, experiencing stressors over a prolonged period of time, can result in a long-term drain on the body.” This is due to the continuous activation of the nervous system for each stressful experience.

Mental stress can also lead to a physical ailment called psychosomatics. Psychosomatics is a disorder with physical symptoms, but originating from mental or emotional causes – an influence of the mind on the body and the body on the mind.

As per the International Association of Fire Chiefs Foundation stress management program, “a stressor is any stimulus that triggers the stress response.”

The flow chart on this page demonstrates the cycle of mental and physical well-being and the positive and negative effects. At the center are typical stressors experienced by first responders.

Human Response to Color in the Built Environment

Color is defined and described in many different ways, but all explanations lead to one conclusion — color is a sensory perception. In the article “Functions of the Central Nervous System,” the author explains that “[t]he brain processes and interprets sensory information sent from the spinal cord”  Sensory processing is “the process that organizes sensation from one’s own body and the environment, thus making it possible to use the body effectively within the environment.” As mentioned previously, this process begins at perception of sensory stimuli.

Color in the architectural space can have both mental and physical effects. Faber Birren, considered one of the best-known color authorities worldwide, states in “Color and Human Response,” “[p]eople require varying, cycling stimuli to remain sensitive and alert to their environments.”

Differences of opinion on response to colors have been written as truth for decades. Many of these are based on weak studies, personal conviction, legends and tradition. Frank Mahnke, co-author of “Color – Communication in Architectural Space,” emphasizes that “[i]t is a mistake to assume that we could strategically place color in a space so as to achieve specific physiological effects. ... ” So although there are no color “recipes” that will lower blood pressure, relieve stress, curb appetites or any other magical solutions that many designers and decorators choose to follow, there are guidelines to keep in mind.

People subjected to an under-stimulating environment experience the following reactions: restlessness, anxiousness, or nervousness; sleeplessness; irritability; excessive emotional response; difficulties in concentration; and perception disorders. Further, according to researchers, a monotonous environment can cause sensory deprivation and be harmful to healing. Under-stimulating environments are evidenced by weak or monotonous color contrasts, monochromatic color combinations, or low intensity of color. Psychologist Ayben Ertem writes in “The Effect of Color in Psychology,” “... a completely white environment leads to lack of stimulus and this, contrary to expectations, does not cause a balanced or neutral effect.”

People subjected to an over-stimulating environment experience the following reactions: increase in rate of breathing, pulse rate and blood pressure; increase in muscle tension; and various types of psychiatric reactions. Over-stimulating environments are evidenced by highly saturated colors, complex color combinations, strong contrasts or excessive color patterns, per “Color in Architecture — More Than Just Decoration.”

The International Association of Color Consultants teaches designers that “it must be our professional goal to create environments that do not put unnecessary strain on psychological and physiological well-being. ... ” This is achieved by better understanding the psychological and physiological responses to color in the architectural space.

Karen Collins, IACC is a freelance designer in Pataskala, Ohio.  She earned her BFA in Interior Design from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1992. After 18 years in the residential design and construction industry, she began working for JBA Architects as a commercial designer until 2020. After completing the required seminars developed by the International Association of Color Consultants in 2008, she was voted in as president of the board for the IACC-NA from 2013-2017.  In 2020 she completed her thesis “Improve Firefighter Well-Being by Utilizing Color in the Fire Station” to become a certified color designer.
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