In Week Seven of the Why Design Novena, we explore the well factor. Architect Chris Sample discusses the sustainability movement, its ability to redefine the role of the architect, and how society at large has realized that our built environment has an effect on our planet’s environment, including the human occupants of our buildings and places.
There was once a time when the architect was known as the “Master Builder”, someone who did it all – from the initial idea to occupancy and beyond. Our profession has been slowly stripped of that power as new professions cropped up that took pieces of our role, specializing in just that one aspect (e.g. structural designers, graphic designers, interior designers, contractors, etc.). This slow degradation of our responsibilities as a profession has created a rift in our profession that has started the discussion that is currently circulating around many in our related professions as to “why do you even need an architect.” One area of design that we are unquestionably still seen the expert on is the health, safety, and welfare of the building and its occupants. In that one statement we still hold all the cards to the proper design solutions. No one else in the designs and construction professions can affect a human response to person, place, or thing as we do on a daily basis. The Architect is the grand composer of the symphony that is our built environment.
In addition to being an architect, I am also the father to two young very inquisitive boys that are always asking, “Dad, why is it built that way?” The true question they are asking is “Why do I feel this way in this space?” I am finding out as my career progresses is that there is one aspect of our profession that we do not take as seriously as we should and that is the “Why” – Why does one feel a certain way in a space, why does this building not perform as it should, why do we have a climate issues – I can go on and on but the true root is “Why” and the answer is “How”! As someone whose path to licensure did not include attending the traditional architecture school, my own career has focused less on the aesthetics of design and more on why, and particularly how, a building works.
The Path to “How”
The link between performance, well-being, and design was first explored back in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The grass roots movement to take back control of how a building performs started slow, with awareness to the health hazards of pesticides, smog and water quality brought to the forefront by scientist and local activists. It was looked at, tweaked, and pushed out to the masses as the first “sustainable movement.” However, we were not ready as a society to take up that cause, we were still dealing with Civil Rights, the end of the Vietnam War, and our own self-expression. Not even the energy / oil crisis of the late seventies and early eighties opened our eyes to the root of our problems. The effort to push the boundaries of design and environmental controls became less and less relevant during the 1980’s when “box forms and cube farms” hit us as they were cheaper to build and maintain. The ROI back to the company was faster and the technology needed to create high performance buildings and spaces just was not there yet.
In the 1990’s, the birth of the “starchitect” brought back art and beauty as a form of architecture but these designers merely focused on what the building looked like from the exterior as a piece of art thus leading many of us asking the question “what about the occupants?” Two great examples of this conundrum are located on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. The Vontz Medical Center for Molecular Sciences by Frank Gehry (1999) constantly leaks and Peter Eisenman’s DAAP building (1996) has serious mold issues and has no clear right angles inside the building. Both buildings are stunning to look at but they hastily try to fit a function inside the art form – leading to undue stress on the occupant’s health and well-being.
The “How” goes Mainstream
Since the 2000’s, as the US Green Building Council introduced the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, the architecture profession has led the charge on building performance, materiality, energy usage, and occupant comfort. LEED quickly became a movement with engineers, material reps, sales people, marketing professionals, etc. jumping on its bandwagon. Other offshoots soon followed; Green Globes, Cradle to Cradle, Net Zero, etc. We even saw the re-emergence / significance of Passive House Design. However, LEED and its cousins are focused on the buildings and the built environment, which is only one prong of attack to a total solution. Some of you will argue with me that there are elements of creature comfort and control in each of these programs but they all mainly deal with the built environment and relegate the occupant to the back half of the rating system book. Even the new push for “Resilient Design” only deals with the building and its infrastructure during an emergency event.
I don’t want to downplay these programs, I want to stress that they brought to light the need to create better buildings in relationship to our current climate and energy situations. They had to come first as we had to collect the data, we had to process the data, and the general public had to see the data to actually see/touch the issues at hand. What was still lacking was a collective answer in regards to the occupant and how they feel inside or around the space. For instance, you get points for having a bike rack or close parking for fuel efficient vehicles. However, how many of us can afford to bike to work and take a shower to be fresh for meetings all day staring at 8am or lasting past 6pm – let alone try and bike during the winter? The close parking spot to the building entrance creates a short walking distance that rewards someone for spending $60k on a vehicle but doesn’t address the fact that that person happens to still be overweight.
The next evolution in “How”
As architects, we know that there is a direct correlation between the human body and the environment it is in, and just focusing on sustainability only lets us focus on one small piece of a larger puzzle. The next prong of attack on creating a better built environment is upon us: the creation of better spaces for the person / people using them. In the past few years there have been a few of us that have tested and tracked the building and users of our projects, using “evidence based design” and “analytics” to collect information such as comfort, usability, wellness, and productivity. Out of this focus, the WELL Building Certification was born in 2013. The WELL Building Standard is an evidence based tool system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring the performance of the building features that impact the health and well-being of the occupants using or interacting with our built environment. This concept of tracking health and personal performance outcomes and directly tying them to elements of the built environment is revolutionary and redefines the traditional concept of health safety and wellness. The WELL system will become what drives our designs from this point forward – it is the quintessential standard that all of our projects will be held against.
The main points of the standard relate to how our bodies react to the space around us, such as:
• How air quality affects our Cardiovascular, Endocrine, Immune, and Respiratory systems
• How water quality affects our Digestive systems
• Access to Nourishment
• How light / light quality affects our productivity and circadian rhythm
• How space relates to our mental state, does it contribute to less stress or do we become manic
One underlying aspect to this standard is its relationship to Biophilia / Biomimicry, which is based upon the how we feel in certain spaces. Biophilia is defined as an instinctive bond between human beings and the other livings systems around us, while Biomimicry is the study of emulating nature’s patterns and strategies into how we humans live and feel. It addresses critical design questions such as:
• Do we feel safe and protected or tense and distracted inside a space?
• Have you ever noticed that bringing in vegetation and water inside a building makes you calmer?
• How does a view to the outside world (not through a TV or Picture) but an actual window allow you to become a better critical thinker?
It is the little things that make a difference in how we feel about or in a situation. For instance, my wife and I built our first home back in 2005 where the home building standards where not that great. Also money restrictions held us back on what and where we could build, thus we lived on a very busy street that had a large front yard but a small back yard. We never felt really comfortable there, especially when we started our family, the boys really had nowhere to go and play. Our new home, built just last year, sits on a cul-de-sac with a large yard with woods and a stream behind us. The house is better built, more toward a LEED Standard, and when it rains I could sit in our backyard all day and listening to the rain drops in the woods or the stream babble on. I feel more calm and relaxed.
The end all solution of “How”
All of the above programs tie directly into the final solution to the overall issues at hand, the Living Building Challenge (LBC). The LBC is a rating system that gives credits (called petals) for achieving solutions that encompass both the built environment and also the occupants that interact with that environment. It is a holistic approach that begins at the definition of the design problem all the way through user interaction and usage. Each petal takes into account items, systems, or solutions from the individual rating systems listed above, which are then combined under a main petal heading:
• Place (LEED, Sustainable Sites, Etc.)
• Water (LEED, WELL)
• Energy (LEED, NetZero, Passive House)
• Health & Happiness (WELL)
• Materials (LEED, Cradle to Cradle, etc.)
• Equity (WELL)
• Beauty (all of them)
Taking the first step along “the Path to finding How”
All of these programs, movements, and ratings systems are leading us into a world of better living, it is not just about sustainability anymore. The human psyche is a complex organic system that takes in information from so many things at a rate that is sometimes hard to calculate and it produces physical or emotional reactions that we sometimes can’t process until after that situation has passed.
Think of it this way:
• A young child in a hospital for a surgery – scared and nervous. How would they fare in a white washed, cleansed environment verses a color filled, playful, and touchable environment?
• A cancer ridden adult going through radiation treatment – apprehensive and alone. Do you think they would enjoy life in a hospital room or outside with a meditation garden, lake view, or just being able to walk outside with friends and family?
• A stressed out business executive stuck in a cubicle all day. What if they could take their office outside to a roof garden?
Some of you might say, that is all well and good but my client can’t afford these items, or as a developer, there isn’t an ROI built into it for me. I say “cut the crap” – we need to use these systems to show how good design supports the health and well-being of everyone who uses the space. We need to show how costs such as sales volumes, test scores, legal bills, recruitment and retention of employees, number of sick days, and other human performance measures directly correlate to design measures. Whatever you spend now to improve your design will be returned in savings of other costs (dollars and resources) when you create a workable, livable, sustainable environment. Children do better in school when they can see the outside world or have classes outside. Elective surgery patient’s heal faster when they can see the outside or the outside is brought into the building. Workers are more productive when a building has a superior efficient working HVAC systems that allows for individual control. Buildings or built environments that create a safe, energizing, healthy feeling get used more often and thus a developer or city manager will not have to deal with an empty space.
All I ask is that you have the discussion, yes they still can say no in the end. Having the discussion is the first step along this path to better built environments – you might be surprised and that your client(s) becomes more interested and ask you “How can you design it better?”