The Cure for What Ails You? Good Design

Common sense, and a growing body of research, point out an overlooked truth: Intentional design decisions can improve health care for sick people. Pushed to its logical conclusion, we can now ask, "Can good design help prevent people from getting sick?"

Still, the relationship may not be obvious to you, or to others with education and opinions -- even dividing physicians and public health officials. Research we commissioned earlier this year and conducted by McGraw-Hill Construction shows that many in the health care and medical community still do not grasp the connection between design and health. According to the survey, only 53 percent of pediatricians, 32 percent of family doctors/general practitioners and 40 percent of psychiatrists believe that buildings can have any impact on patient health. Their jobs, after all, focus on healing the sick, not on healing environments.

Taking into consideration the variables affecting public health -- including diet, heredity, and other social constraints -- the argument that design can affect public health may seem simplistic. However, the physical environment also plays a crucial, often overlooked, role. Professional designers and planners routinely can affect non-communicable disease -- obesity, heart disease, adult onset diabetes, and asthma -- by encouraging an active lifestyle or by avoiding toxic materials, for example.

Consider this statistic: The state of California in 2010 found that the number of children who walk or bike to school dropped from 66 percent in 1974 to just 13 percent in 2000. Many students do not walk to school because they live too far or because of traffic danger. If that finding is true nationwide, is it any wonder that childhood obesity rates have increased more than three fold in children, and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the American Medical Association and the National Center for Health Statistics?

Is it too far-fetched to think that architects and urban planners can help stem this woeful trend? We don't think so. At a recent conference that attracted more than 100 leading architects and public health officials, Acting U.S. Surgeon General Rear Admiral Boris Lushniak informally deputized architects as health care professionals. "Architects are public health workers," he declared. "We have a partnership -- public health professionals and architects and planners ... because we have an influence on America's public health that we're only now beginning to grasp."

In the last 10 years, we have accepted that healthy places are sustainable places, that the optimal building of this century will be one that minimizes its ecological footprint while promoting human health and well being.

In February I introduced the notion here that architecture can make a big difference in America's actual physical as well as mental well-being, that the choices we make about design and the selection of building materials can have a profound impact on the health of individuals and the public at large. The time has come to make these discoveries real, for our shared well-being and for the health of future generations.

The author is the Chief Executive Officer of the American Institute of Architects. Additional resources on the AIA's thoughts for design and health can be found on the Design and Health page. For more on this unique research consortium on health and design, please click here.