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AIA Establishes New Design and Health Agenda

The AIA Design and Health Summit was an early opportunity to get public health officials and designers collaborating on how their fields intersect

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On April 23-24, more than 70 of the nation’s leading architects and healthcare professionals took part in The Value of Design: Design and Health , a summit presented by the AIA Foundation, the AIA, and the ACSA. The project was supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The summit was convened to demonstrate the value architects and other design professionals have in enhancing both the physical and mental health of the public. Organized around five areas of impact architects affect—safety and social equity, sensory environments, access to nature, physical activity, and environmental integrity—the summit went beyond stemming the tide of non-communicable diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and asthma to promote continuous well-being.

Daniel Friedman, FAIA, architecture professor and immediate past Dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington and chair of the 2014 AIA Design and Health Leadership Group, served as the summit’s moderator. Friedman steered the event through an ambitious agenda of almost 20 panels and presentations, ranging from sessions on the negative effects on human health from closed-in indoor environments to the impact of walkable communities on the physical health of residents.

A highlight of the summit was the keynote address by Acting Surgeon General Rear Admiral Boris Lushniak, M.D., M.P.H., who set the tone for the two days by declaring that public health officials and architects must realize they are partners in the pursuit of improving the health of the American public. “We have a partnership here,” Lushniak declared. “Our two collective minds need to talk because we have a chance to influence and change minds and lives. We want public health for all people, and if you are an architect, you are a public health worker. I can’t change things for the better without you.”

Dr. Lushniak’s primary theme was prevention. “We have changed the world in [the] 50 years since the study on tobacco use came out,” he said. “What can we do in the next 50 years? Holding a summit like this is landmark stuff! If we believe that health is good for our nation, that the future of our nation depends on a healthy population, then we are all in this mission together. But words aren’t enough. We need action. We need to deputize you all into this action.”

Sharing a value system

Keynoting a session on designing in small communities, Steve Luoni, Assoc. AIA, Director of the Community Design Center at the University of Arkansas, observed that architects need to collaborate with doctors the way doctors collaborate with each other to come up with ways help patients heal and recover. “We, as architects, are not just a collection of private practices,” Luoni said. “Medicine became a profession when a disparate collection of healers started sharing their value system and solving public health problems as a group. This is what can connect us. It’s not clear to outsiders where our public interest lies. Once we start solving public interest problems, we will be looked upon as more professional and more valuable to the public.”

Several speakers at the summit pointed out how designing naturally ventilated buildings—rather than tightly sealed building envelopes—can yield dividends both in energy performance and in the health of occupants. Vivian Loftness, FAIA, Professor of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, detailed how buildings that have been sealed to maximize system controls may precipitate an outbreak of “presenteeism,” in which workers are at their work spaces but are not as productive as they could be. “Double the outside air rates and you have a measurable reduction in the absentee rates,” Loftness said. She added that Europe is currently grappling with whether to seal buildings or keep windows operable. Some studies, Loftness said, have found that there is a 69 percent reduction in asthma with increased ventilation.

Measure of success

What’s needed most of all to make design a catalyst for improving public health is more basic research on whether this connection can be made, or is being made, among architects, healthcare professionals, and human resource departments in major buildings and corporations. That’s what a SmartMarket Report survey, conducted by McGraw Hill’s Vice President of Industry Insights & Alliances Harvey Bernstein, is designed to find out. Bernstein said that final result of the survey will be released in late June at the AIA’s annual convention in Chicago. The survey, commissioned by the AIA, is designed to investigate the impact of building design, construction, and operations on the health and wellness of building occupants.

The summit closed with a question-and-answer session between AIA CEO Robert Ivy, FAIA, and Howard Frumkin, M.P.H., M.D., Dr.P.H., Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington. Both men sought to come up with a definition for what success in this new health and design initiative would look like. “I think success will be the day when architects are as mindful of health [in the design of buildings] as they are of sustainability,” Frumkin said.


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