Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Research has shown that NICUs provide benefits for both the infant and parents.

January 24, 2022

Designing a Healthier Future with Architecture

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When walking past a building or into a room, people notice aesthetics first. However, as architects consider the demographic they are working for in order to meet their needs, it becomes clear that architecture is more about purpose than it is aesthetics. 

Prof. Mardelle Shepley, human centered design, views her career as a way to extend her role as an architect. Within the department of human centered design, she understands the application of design for research, psychology and public health. 

Many studies have proven that adding green space promotes public health. However, Shepley notes that observers should not automatically associate these two variables. 

“To reduce stress, people need choice and control. If you can provide environmental features that support choice and control, it’s helpful,” Shepley said.

She added that the innate human bio-evolutionary response to nature creates a false universal conflation between nature and good health.

Examples to consider include the human response to daylight variation, the change in the number of daylight hours and positive distraction, environmental features that grab the attention of a viewer in a peaceful way so as to block stress-inducing thoughts.

Shepley explained that the human-made environment can encompass many things, such as single family rooms in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, commonly known as the NICU. Her research involved optimizing outcomes of neonatal intensive care for high risk infants. 

Despite the nationwide use of private rooms in hospitals to control infections, infants rarely receive single rooms in hospitals. Shepley noted various factors her research team considered to prove that single family rooms were indeed beneficial, including the infant’s length of stay, stress levels of parents and relationship between hospital staff and parents.   

Single family rooms in the NICUs shorten the infant’s length of stay, decrease parent stress levels and allow for hospital staff to instruct parents more effectively. 

In addition to the positive outcomes for infants and parents, Shepley stated, single rooms save more money. Shorter lengths of stay for patients put less financial burden, referred to as return of investment in health care design, on hospitals

Although all architects should consider best design and construction principles, they must recognize the variable needs of each community they serve.

“The reason why crime exists in some neighborhoods and not others is very complicated,” said Shepley. “What I don’t want to see is architects walking into communities and telling them what they think they need. In all cases, the people you’re designing for are equal partners in the design process, and their ideas have to be embraced and guided.”

Prof. Anna Dietzsch, architecture, has followed similar views through her international work. 

Dietzsch and her team are currently building a school for the Kuikuro, inhabitants of Brazil’s oldest indigenous territory, Xingu. Dietzsch said her team aims to minimize the carbon footprint of construction to the satisfaction of the local community. 

“The Kuikuro didn’t want the school to be done with their traditional technology, which is extremely sophisticated,” Dietzsch said, “but it lasts 10 to 15 years, and then they would have to redo the construction.”

Because the Kuikuro’s methods would result in a longer construction process, Dietzsch and her team built the school with rammed earth. Rammed earth is sustainable due to having a 40th of the carbon footprint of concrete and having a high thermal mass, which allows heat energy to be absorbed and prevents cooling systems from running more often. 

To make their practice more environmentally conscious, Dietzsch and her team are dismantling wood from a nearby, worn down building to make pivoting doors for classrooms in the new school and installing a roof that is made from recycled plastic tiles. 

Through an interdisciplinary outlook on how the structures interact with daily activities, architects come to realize how invaluable this type of art is for physical, mental and environmental health.