Before you design, listen: It could save lives
Beyond performance metrics, there are real people using your buildings—and real advantages to getting these spaces right
“Something like 80 percent of the reasons people are healthy or unhealthy are not the direct result of medical care. They are the results of the lives we live and the communities in which we live,” said Victor Rubin, vice president for research at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute that seeks to advance economic and social equity. Rubin discussed these findings during the "Health Beyond Health Care: Integrating Research, Data, and Engagement into Practice" session at A’17 in Orlando, Florida.
The focus on safety, sanitation, and other public health works in communities dates back 120 years; according to Rubin, “city planning and health were linked at the start, but the connection was largely dismantled [in the early 1900s].” He noted, however, that city planners and architects are now trying to revitalize that connection.
Finding a way to improve results
In 2015, Mahlum Architects embarked on a mission to reimagine what it would accomplish in the next decade. There was one topic that continually surfaced in their discussions.
“We want to have a positive impact in creating healthy and sustainable communities on a local level,” said Anne Schopf, FAIA, a design partner at Mahlum Architects, located in Seattle, Washington.
Much of their work is predominantly in the public sector: K-12 schools, public universities, and critical access hospitals in rural areas.
Architects, she believes, intuitively know to design buildings that are healthy for their occupants. “Maybe it’s why we are drawn to the profession—to make people feel better [...] But, it is something that can get overlooked in the design process.”
“We don’t understand deeply enough the communities that we are working for,” she said. “We take for granted that we know the cultures and people which we are designing for. Often times, our preferences and prejudices are reflected in the buildings and actually aren’t suitable to the culture.”
To accomplish their goal, they identified nine factors in three areas—environmental, physical, and mental—to measure their progress.
Each of their projects is graded against the scorecard to see where they are doing well, and where they need to make improvements. “It’s a crude tool,” admitted Schopf, “but it’s beginning to help shape their projects positively.”
The findings of grading in the three areas, indicated that more are drawn to the subject with mental health. One way they are seeking to improve the mental health of building inhabitants is designing equitable spaces that are accessible by removing physical and visual barriers that impede comfort or use. Research has found that more equitable buildings have a positive effect on mental health, and subsequently physical health.
According to Schopf, “architects have stayed in their ‘bubble’ a little too long and need to break down barriers and work with researchers outside of the architecture community.
Tapping into local knowledge
“There are little spots of brilliance that exist in all of our communities,” said Schopf. To help gather and understand this local knowledge, her firm created an online tool where people are invited to input data, such as commuting patterns, favorite spots when it’s sunny, or where they spend the most time.
A project that used data from this tool was one with the University of Washington. Mahlum was asked to redesign a waterway that was much neglected, but is still seen as place of refuge for the university community.
One point that Schopf noted, it is not just the specific project that matters, but how that project interacts with others. One building shouldn’t be looked at as single entity, but rather how it interacts with surrounding environmental features, such as other buildings, and transportation.
“It’s not a far stretch to think that we could have come up with that on our own. It was a beautiful amenity,” she admitted. “But the fact that we had knowledge of the community in 11,000 comments … gave us the power.”
A project that Schopf feels particularly fortunate to have been a part of was in Nome, Alaska. The construction of the project would be difficult enough: building a hospital on permafrost in the harsh arctic environment. Another level of difficulty— they knew they didn’t understand the local culture. It was necessary to develop deep relationships with the people, the place, and the cultural context of each project; before design, they created a book based on two weeks of interviews that reflected their culture and takeaways for the team to keep in mind when designing the hospital. They needed to create a place that allowed the staff and patients to connect with the environment, and a place that would hold their community traditions.
“If our buildings can support the community, then we are doing a good job,” said Schopf.
Brendan McLean is the digital content manager at AIA.