2012 ArchEX Addresses Sustainability, Well-being, and Resilience

The Architectural Exchange East conference in Richmond November 8-9 featured a wide array of programs on topics ranging from marketing, inclusion, diversity, and emerging professionals to sustainability, new developments in building systems and building types, and two rapidly developing and fairly new topics of interest among clients: designing for resilience against manmade and natural disasters and architecture and urban planning that promote health. To that last point, the keynote speaker was noted Canadian architect Tye Farrow, FRAIC, who laid out a framework whereby architects take the lead in creating environments that heal (salutogenics) and thereby overcome the normal way of healthcare thinking, which is to combat sickness (pathogenics).

Tye Farrow at ArchEX

Health and prosperity—as well as the state of mind and the state of health—are linked, Farrow told the plenary keynote-session audience Thursday afternoon. The essence of that fact is that architects have a prime opportunity to take a leadership role in the marketplace by creating an epidemic of health, he said.

We all have “blind spots of expectation,” which shift over time, Farrow said. To illustrate the point, he showed an ad from the 1970s of a young woman holding an adoring child on her lap while gleefully smoking a cigarette. What was once a very successful cigarette ad now evokes a guttural reaction that this picture is wrong. Switching back to health-inducing architecture, Farrow likened the shifting expectations to the all-too-familiar grand bank of foyer elevators, which is now being gradually supplanted with equally grand and welcoming stairways that encourage people to walk rather than ride to upper floors.

Another blind spot still deeply ingrained in our collective psyche is that healthcare has to do with the treatment of illness. Instead of thinking of hospitals as healthcare facilities, Farrow posited, the next perception—the one over which architects have the most control of any professional, including doctors—is the design of health-origin environments, or, as Farrow put it: clients have to shift their thinking on healthcare from pills to places. Some already are, he said.

To put another spin of thinking salutogenically (in Greek, “the source of health,” a word coined by Aaron Antonovsky that is the antithesis to pathogenic thinking, which is fixated on “the source of sickness”), Farrow turned to the analogy of “health in the river of life.” When a man is in a river and heading for a waterfall, the pathogenic solution is to throw him a rope before he goes over the falls. The salutogenic way of thinking is to keep the person from falling into the river in the first place. “Do no harm,” the physician’s Hippocratic standard of care, isn’t good enough anymore.

In political debate in the U.S., Farrow said, the leading question tends to be: “Who pays?” The question should be: “Why pay?” In such a wealthy nation, when we have a 35 percent obesity rate and the generation of children today have a lower life expectancy than their parents for the first time—all coming to a head in only the past four years—it’s time to go beyond embedded energy when we talk about sustainable design, Farrow advised. It’s time to progress to thinking also about embedded health. How does one get that across to clients and the public? Stop talking in profession-centric terms and start talking in ways that they will understand, he said.

He gave the example of a hospital client to whom his team was suggesting a valet service at the admissions area. (First, he also said, put the admissions entrance away from the emergency room entrance and make it a pleasant experience that conveys the idea that you will be getting better without the jarring experience of ambulances arriving from accident scenes.) The CEO, and thus his senior staff, rejected valet parking out of hand because it would send a subliminal message of hospital wealth, which was definitely the wrong message. When a parking lot attendee chipped in and said that it wasn’t such a bad idea because a lot of injuries happened from trip-and-fall incidents in the parking area, the mood began to shift. And when a nurse relayed how much that one amenity would help her cope with her hectic home/work schedule and that it would show how much the hospital cared for its people, the CEO changed his mind (as did, immediately thereafter, his senior staff).

Another area to which Farrow Partnership Architects gives particular attention in their work is to take cues from nature: such as trees and the sun. The challenge, of course, he says, is to convince clients with more conventional outlooks that the bang for the buck is just as big with creating comfortable, health-inspiring spaces as with the ostentatious corporate-branding features they might otherwise prefer. In the New Urbanism, planners have come to accept that bike lanes and safe sidewalks make sense. Bring that thinking into buildings as well, Farrow said.

Central to his message, Farrow offered his five vital signs of healthy design: Nature, Authenticity, Variety, Vitality, and Legacy (NAVVL). He followed with five questions he encourages architects and their clients to consider from the outset of planning and design. For Nature, does the design include elements from the natural world? For Authenticity, does the design reflect the values and deeply held beliefs of the people who live and work there? For Variety, does the design provide visual interest and support diverse activities? For Vitality, does the design convey energy and stimulate social interaction? And for Legacy, does the design go beyond sustainability to advance long-term health and prosperity?

The AIA is at the forefront of the continuing evolution of “sustainable design” as is evident from members working closely with other influential thought leaders, such as  the National Institute of Building Sciences and the U.S. General Services Administration, Farrow noted. The AIA at all levels is working  to make salutogenic design one more critical aspect of excellence in building performance.

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