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The Newest Multidisciplinary Trend in Architecture Education: Public Health

The path to proving architects’ public health worth starts in the classroom

By Nalina Moses

There was a time when the most pressing health concerns at an architecture school were students injuring themselves with X-Acto knives during late-night marathon model-making charrettes. But now issues of public and personal health are making a broader institutional impact. There are a growing number of academic degree programs, courses, and affiliated organizations that explain how design affects public health at both the building scale and the city scale. These public health questions are prompting a more holistic, interdisciplinary way of teaching.

Satellite and degree programs

One way public health issues are gaining traction in schools is through independent academic design and research organizations such as the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Architecture Center for Design and Health (CDH). “Its mission is to pursue cross-disciplinary research to advance the design and planning of patient-centered medical facilities and healthy neighborhoods and cities,” says Reuben Rainey, professor emeritus of landscape architecture at UVA and CDH co-director. For example, the center performs post-occupancy evaluations to determine what design features better promote patient well-being. Because it's independent, the CDH can appeal to a greater variety of sources for funding while working closely with students and faculty. CDH operates, Rainey says, as a “catalyst for creating curriculum,” and can provide seed money and consultant support for faculty members to shape new related courses, like one Rainey himself developed called Healthy Spaces.

The University of Arkansas Community Design Center (UACDC) is a studio outside the school's architecture, planning and interior design departments that develops design solutions for local planning challenges, many focused on public health questions. Stephen Luoni, Assoc. AIA, the UACDC director, says the group's independence from the school's teaching departments enables it to provide greater community advocacy and design support.

One UACDC project, Fayetteville 2030: Food City Scenario Plan, completed with funds from an AIA Decade of Design grant, proposes a network of midsized urban farming spaces within Fayetteville, Ark., where the school is located. “These scenarios are about supplementing the city's conventional planning processes and creating a more robust decision-making culture within its development community,” Luoni says. “Much like a teaching hospital that involves students in the delivery of professional services, these outcomes can’t be accomplished simply from within the classroom alone.”

Just as public health has already been integrated into urban planning programs, several schools offer joint masters of urban planning/masters of public health degrees. Architecture students with an interest in public health can typically take classes, for credit, in their school's planning department. But only two U.S. schools, Clemson University and Texas Tech University, currently offer professional architecture programs with a specialization in health. Clemson grants an M.Arch A+H, with a focus on architecture and health; and Texas Tech offers both a masters degree program and one-year postgraduate certificate program in HealthCare Facilities Design (HCaF). While the programs are open to students with a general interest in public health, three-quarters of Clemson A+H graduates go on to work in healthcare facilities design, and almost all of Texas Tech HCaF graduates do.

Multidisciplinary thinking

Public health ideas are also becoming incorporated into architecture school coursework, if not always as standalone courses. “I see a growing number of programs that aren't necessarily focused on healthcare facility design, but [are] interested in healthy design in terms of broader relationships between the designed environment and health, including landscape design, urban design and planning, and sustainability,” says David Allison, FAIA, director of graduate studies in architecture and health at Clemson. “In the future, these areas of academic focus will only expand.”

Bringing public health into an architecture school requires some boundary-busting, as it challenges notions of the discipline as a fine or applied art, and requires integrating evidence-based research. “These [health] issues are often seen as unglamorous, but there's no need for them and other seemingly non-design issues to be divorced from form,” Luoni says. He points to early Modernism as an example of an architectural movement that integrates progressive form-making with progressive social ideas.

Public health topics typically engage economic, sociological, legal, and financial knowledge, and require designers to think simultaneously at the scales of planning, infrastructure, architecture, and interiors. Saif Haq, a professor at Texas Tech’s HCaF program, notes that the field is inherently inter-disciplinary. A student in the HCaF certificate program might take classes in the school's College of Nursing, College of Business, and College of Arts and Sciences, as well as the College of Architecture.

Luoni insists that the required “horizontal” (or multidisciplinary) thinking can be taught right along with public health principles. “The university has become so specialized in how it produces knowledge that the scholarships of application and integration have become radically undervalued,” he says. “So the work for many will be to reconnect methodologies in varying design disciplines toward holistic solutions.” For example, UACDC's Food City Scenario Plan was a collaboration between students and faculty across various fields, including architecture, food science, agricultural law, and ecological engineering.

Mainstreaming specialization

Much of the design work at these health-related design programs is very hands-on. All the design problems taught in Texas Tech’s HCaF program are based on real healthcare facilities projects, and students work with real sites and real programs in collaboration with real project stakeholders. Haq thinks that this way of teaching fosters a deep understanding of health design principles, and also a more sophisticated way of designing. “When students are forced to deal with a problem as complicated as a healthcare facility,” he says, “they become better designers. Students learn how to integrate research, complex building functions, and diverse viewpoints into a design. And creativity still remains a part of it.”

Most importantly, there’s no reason to restrict public health instruction to ultra-specialized coursework and programs. For Skye Duncan, an adjunct professor who focuses on public health at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, progress happens when students are forced to think through every design decision they make in the classroom through the lens of public health. “It's not just about adding more classes; it's how we talk about things every day that will make a difference,” she says, “thinking of how we can incorporate preventive health strategies in any design.”


A rendering of the UACDC’s Fayetteville 2030: Food City. All images courtesy of the UACDC.

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A rendering of the UACDC’s Fayetteville 2030: Food City.

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A UACDC Food City design studio.

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Recent Related:

Design as Preventative Medicine

Arkansas Design Center Tackles Problems Omnipresent and Invisible


Visit the Built Environment + Public Health Curriculum website, a clearinghouse for information about built environment and health coursework.


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