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From the Design Quarterly: Building design as a tool for wellness

June 05, 2020

By Kaitlyn Gillis

Can algorithms help us design to improve occupant health? Here’s how we are creating a parametric tool for wellness design.

For years, most design education programs didn’t emphasize what happens physiologically or psychologically to someone when they’re in a space. Few in the design industry were taught how design might deal with a psychological or physiological issue. And as a result, many of the spaces we occupy today provide only the bare necessities.

We have also observed an uptick in a range of health issues since the 1970s. On average, North American children spend far less time outside than they did in 1970s and the effects are dramatic. In Canada, for example, childhood obesity is a major issue and we’re seeing type 2 diabetes increasing in young children. Elsewhere, communities are grappling with issues like anxiety and depression.

But changes in design approaches for wellness are on the rise. As designers we’re learning how to apply design to make us feel better. In education, for example, we know to design with views of nature and properly scaled spaces to create a sense of comfort for children and improve learning outcomes. 

École South Pointe School in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The fact is that our environment, inside or out, impacts our health. In the US, Canada, and Northern Europe we spend upwards of 90% of our time indoors.

How does the built environment affect health? Noise is a leading cause of stress. We have a natural affinity for daylight. Air quality can impact cognitive performance. Having ample personal space makes us feel good. Yet, each of us is different with our own needs and physiology.

People with ADHD or on the autism spectrum, for example, are more sensitive to distractions and noise. How do we design to promote well-being of everyone that occupies our built spaces?

While sustainability and green buildings rating systems were once oriented toward reducing harm to people and the environment, they have broadened in scope and detail. New wellness-focused certifications provide a template for designing with human well-being in mind.

But can we design for more vulnerable populations? Can we improve their health? Can we use design to create a better environment for people with anxiety, childhood obesity, or diabetes? 

Can we use design to create a better environment for people with anxiety, childhood obesity, or diabetes?

A tool for building wellness through design?

I had the opportunity to work with a group of talented designers to develop a prototype to answer the questions above. Taking parametric thinking from structural engineering and energy performance practice, we applied the same methodology to designing for wellness. This team effort is a research project between our sustainability, architecture, research and benchmarking, and practice technology groups at Stantec.

We created a digital decision tool to help our design teams during the early stages of design process. It enables designers to use the available data about vulnerable populations present within a community and help them make decisions about how to address those health issues through a combination of design strategies.

We developed the prototype around K-12 education projects in Alberta, Colorado, and Texas. We looked at the prevalence of health issues in these communities—including childhood obesity, anxiety, depression, and ADHD—and ranked them in order of prevalence in each geographic area. 

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Cambridge Montessori School Site Master Plan in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

How it works

The tool enables designers to choose the setting or project context, an urban environment, for example, and the project type, K-12, in our pilot. They also select the key health topic category—mental (mental health differences), physical, or cognitive (how we learn and process information).

It’s not designing on autopilot. On the contrary, the tool requires us to be knowledgeable about the demographic we’re designing for and the issues that are challenging the users. When fully realized, it will be about giving us and our clients options for attaining a desirable outcome.

Our tool offers designers three tiers of strategies, low commitment, medium commitment, and high commitment for each project goal—allowing us to show clients how they can impact wellness on any budget. Low commitment might target meeting established thresholds for daylighting and include low-cost techniques for achieving that. Designers can adjust between available strategies to see how each will affect the health issue they’re targeting. For example, how three design strategies for optimizing daylight will impact depression.

We want to demonstrate the effectiveness of easy choices, like paint color. There’s a lot of evidence on paint color and how it affects mental health. Paint is a great example of a low-effort strategy with high potential impact.

The idea is that this tool can be run during predesign when the architect or interior designer is first engaged. It should become part of an interactive design process between designer and client that results in design outcomes that promote health.

Roy Bickell Public School in Grande Prairie, Alberta.

Thinking differently

The built environment can play an important role in mitigating health and well-being issues, but it’s not a solution in and of itself. Right now, designers have a great talking point for introducing the importance of well-being in commercial spaces—both morale and performance have been shown to be boosted by workplaces that promote well-being. The firms that invest in wellness for their staff are positioning themselves to retain talent and increase innovation. We are anxious to build out the commercial/workplace capability of our tool.

While it’s just a prototype today, it represents a way of thinking that we can adopt right now. As designers for people, we must be thinking about how our work will impact the well-being of our users on every project. Every one of us is unique, with our own preferences and challenges. So, we must think about designing for diverse population groups and the issues they face. And by doing so, we raise the bar from doing no harm to doing maximum good.

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  • Kaitlyn Gillis

    Kaitlyn believes in reducing the impacts that our built environment has on the natural environment and human wellbeing.

    Contact Kaitlyn
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