Designing for the modern working mom
Updated best practices for designing lactation and wellness rooms mirror a larger national conversation about women in the workplace
As a new mother, Liz York, FAIA, had to make the decision every mother makes: to nurse or to bottle-feed?
On one hand, she knew the research well. Researchers have spent years documenting the positive benefits of breast feeding, including bonding between the mother and child. It stimulates positive neurological and psychosocial development. It strengthens the baby's immune system. It also decreases the risk of many health problems such as acute diarrhea, respiratory illness, asthma, sudden infant death syndrome, and obesity.
As an architect, however, York understood that historic ways of designing and building may protect young children—the code-specified 4” maximum spacing between railings keeps small bodies from slipping through—but leave new mothers in the lurch.
York channeled her experiences as an architect and mother into drafting, and subsequently updating best practices for designing lactation and wellness rooms. A trailblazing effort, it portended larger national conversations around a changing workforce, maternal health, and well-being through design that are only now coming to the fore.
A changing workforce
The United States workforce has changed dramatically in the last 50 years. Parents are increasingly sharing in childcare responsibilities as women join the workforce. According to a White House report, women comprise nearly half of the workforce and are completing undergraduate and graduate programs at significantly higher rates than men. As a result, women’s share of household earnings has nearly doubled since 1970, despite the gender pay gap which disproportionately affects black and Hispanic women.
Today, 75 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 54 work; many of them balance professional duties with family obligation. Almost two-thirds of families rely on Mom to be a breadwinner or co-breadwinner. The pressures of establishing work-family balance are particularly acute for both single and married mothers around the birth of a child. The stresses of erratic sleep, limited diet, and a loss of identity following childbirth are compounded by the prospect of returning to work.
Increasing evidence supports family-friendly policies and design solutions that benefit families and employers. The goal is to reduce impediments for nursing mothers and increase the likelihood that new parents will return to work and advance their careers.
Codifying well-being through design
The confluence of human resources and facility design are rapidly informing design standards, including a 2016 update to the lactation room design best practices.
The update includes dimensions and graphics to help architects implement lactation rooms—some smaller than 50 square feet—that promote health in workplaces and public institutions.
“Investing in a dedicated space for pumping represents a minimal expense to build out,” York says. “Plumbing, a solid door, and appropriate furniture can be achieved for a few thousand dollars compared to the tens of thousands of dollars to replace a valued employee.”
New building certifications like Certified Healthy, Fitwel, and the WELL Building Standard are further making the case for healthier buildings and workplaces. They use established research to position the built environment as a catalyst for healthy behaviors, and architects as solution providers for owners.
Other evidence-based design strategies to promote reproductive health and help new parents reacclimate to the workforce include:
- Specify safe and healthy materials. Consumers have the right to know what goes into the buildings in which they live, work, and raise their children. Architects use building product declarations to reduce exposure to known hazards.
- Provide spaces for rest. New parents are subject to irregular, highly interrupted sleep patterns that make it hard to feel rested. Short naps are an effective way to boost anybody’s mental and physical acuity. Architects can specify designated sleep spaces and furnishings to help occupants bring their A-game.
- Make nutritious food easy to access. Nursing mothers feed their babies well when they eat well. That means access to diverse, healthy foods rich in vitamins and protein. Simple design strategies like concealing less-healthy foods in opaque containers or placing fruit on counters encourage healthy eating.
As architects, we have the power to change the current paradigm surrounding maternal health. Resources such as AIA's best practices, the product of many great minds working together, can help walk architects through the process of designing supportive spaces to improve mental, physical, and behavioral health.