Designing New Foundations for Public Health

Here are just a few collaborations from across the country that highlight how design can help create active, connected, toxin-free and equitable spaces for the 21st century.
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Good design can play a central role in addressing today's complex health challenges. At the most obvious level, you might find the examples self-evident, even simplistic: using stairs rather than elevators offers compound benefits for building occupants and for the environment, transferring needed kinetic energy from externally supplied electrical systems to our own skeleto-muscular systems. When we move our own bodies, our well-being increases. Intentional access to natural light, views, and fresh air affect our perceptions about the workplace and augment human performance and productivity. But you knew all that.

Today, architects and public health officials are working together on additional design benefits. Here are just a few such collaborations from across the country that highlight how design can help create active, connected, toxin-free and equitable spaces for the 21st century:

  • The recently completed Seattle Children's Hospital "Building Hope" expansion designed by ZGF Associates LLP, integrates biophilia as a central design strategy. Biophilia, or the love of life or living systems, initially coined by the German social psychologist Erich Fromm in 1964, describes the human attraction to all things living and vital. At Seattle Children's Hospital, biophillic design elements play a crucial role, introducing a sense of whimsy for children and their visitors and enhancing the interiors. Views of the Puget Sound provide orientation, aiding navigation through this large, 330,000 square-foot bed tower facility. Soft, curvilinear walkways connect the nurses' stations and patient rooms, improving views to treatment areas and providing a calm visual landscape. Playful, colorful artwork depicts regional Northwest nature scenes while guiding patients through the facility. The murals invite children to imagine and discover, while unexpected elements like a brass leaf or paw print embedded in the terrazzo floors reinforce and surprise visitors.
  • In Charlottesville, Virginia, VMDO Architects collaborated with Dr. Matthew Trowbridge, assistant professor at the University of Virginia Medical School, to study how to reduce incidence rates of childhood obesity through design. The team leveraged this research at the new Buckingham County Primary and Elementary School in Dillwyn, VA, with a goal of supporting healthy eating and physical activity through educational design strategies. What resulted was the development of "Healthy Eating Design Guidelines for School Architecture," currently accessible on the Centers for Disease Control's website. "We wanted to translate our hands-on collaboration into a practical tool that architects can use," Trowbridge says. He underscores its applicability in other settings.
  • By 2025, the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementia (ADRD) should reach 7.1 million -- a 40 percent increase from today's statistics. One answer lies in California with an innovative "light as therapy" design approach to health and wellness within dementia care facilities, with research undertaken by Kyle Konis, AIA, assistant professor of architecture at the University of Southern California. In institutionalized settings, lack of sufficient exposure to bright, circadian-effective light contributes to disruption of the circadian system, with cascading effects of sleep disruption, agitated behavior, depression, and cognitive decline. He and a team that includes USC's School of Gerontology and Silverado dementia care facilities have found that exposure to bright light typically administered in the morning via electrical lighting can be an effective non-pharmacological treatment option for sleep disturbances and for ameliorating behavioral problems for people with Alzheimer disease. The team hopes the research spurs the development of empirically based, environmental lighting requirements and performance criteria to guide the design and operation of these specialized environments.

Biophilia, educational design strategies, "light as therapy." If those terms sound esoteric, they represent new frontiers as architects and public health researchers join forces ultimately expanding our understanding and building an enhanced, new foundation for the role of design and our health and well being.

Robert Ivy, FAIA, is CEO of the American Institute of Architects, based in Washington, D.C.

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