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The AIA, Architecture, and Health

By Robert Ivy, FAIA
AIA EVP/Chief Executive Officer

Outside my office at 1735 New York Avenue hangs a wonderful exhibition called FitNation. Conceived and executed by the New York Chapter of the AIA, it demonstrates the creative power of members to address the most important questions facing society: Wherever you are, whoever you are, everyone cares about health.

Design and health is in the air. Just last Sunday morning, I tuned in NPR, waiting for the news, when Esther Sternberg, M.D., a leading medical researcher and a member of a crucial AIA initiative, was being interviewed for an hour by Christa Tippett for the program “On Being.” Dr. Sternberg spoke eloquently about the relationship of design and health, including the suggestion that architects, and architecture, could help make our lives healthier. Millions heard her positive, credible message, which we could not have paid for.

Whether at the chapter level or at the national level, on the air or in the meeting room, design and health is evolving into a major area of leadership for all architects. And yet some of you ask, “What does the Design and Health Initiative mean to me, and how can it help my practice?”

Yet, what more central way to raise the relevance and value of our services than allying our specific projects and places to human well-being. It’s been in our basic obligation to “health, safety, and welfare” for decades, but how can we expand the idea, or even prove it? To address the question, we began with people, including leading proponents of public health, interested in the relationship. Their important work through the Design and Health Initiative broke important ground, including a white paper last year, and it continues this year as a guiding coalition of thought leaders. My radio heroine, Esther Sternberg, as well as Richard Jackson, Hon. AIA, MD, and other leaders form the core of this distinguished group.

Research offers another obvious answer. Through the Clinton Global Initiative, and the AIA’s commitment called the Decade of Design, we have made three grants to architecture schools to examine the role of design in urban places, and to quantify what findings would matter to you and me. This comes at a time that more of us live in cities than do not for the first time in human history--an inexorable movement from farm and suburb that will only continue. We will continue to invest in research.

This September, on a big stage in New York, accompanied by Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, a second Clinton initiative was launched, called 100 Resilient Cities. Partnering with Architecture for Humanity (as well as major players like Swiss Re and the data analysis company Palantir), the AIA is joining an immense $100 million dollar effort funded by Rockefeller. Our involvement in this landmark initiative will result in five resilient design centers, at which we will share basic principles of resilient design, among other topics. Your city may be among them, teaching resiliency principles and their role in health and sustainability by getting ahead of calamity before it strikes.

Additionally, Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, a principle at HOK widely admired in the sustainability community and our resident fellow, recently conducted an environmental scan on sustainability. In her study, she included design and health among the four most important sustainability efforts underway--including energy usage, materials, and resiliency.

Components are also taking up the charge, whether New York’s Center for Active Design (and its touring FitNation project), or AIA DC’s Active Design Committee, or AIA Seattle’s Design Festival: Design in Health. People, including governmental leaders and ordinary citizens (aka clients), are responding. Through these efforts, and others, we will have tools that argue for that up-front investment that Dr. Sternberg mentioned, whether in design services or in improved building or urban systems.

Everyone wants to be healthy. You, the architect, will ultimately have keys that allow you to convince clients and communities that their lives, their productivity, and their well-being can improve, if we can prove our points. I am convinced that together we can make discoveries that elevate architecture, heighten its relevance, and ultimately its value. Let’s change the discussion from case study to hard facts and real data. Through these filters, design can be viewed as preventative medicine, in a dose that every client will demand.

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Robert Ivy, FAIA

Photography by Vincent Ricardel


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