Child Obesity Prevention Through Design

 

Connecting outdoor activity and good dietary habits are primary goals of the Healthy Eating Design Guidelines.

VMDO Architects developed the point-based Healthy Eating Design Guidelines for School Architecture for their redesign of the Buckingham County Elementary School. In ways that make the school more conducive to healthy eating and food preparation, the design guidelines address commercial and teaching kitchen spaces, serving and dining areas, aesthetics, signage, water and vending-machine access, on-site food production, and integrated healthy-food education and community connection.

Because they received the 2012 VSAIA Prize for Design Research and Scholarship for their work, VMDO firm members Robert Moje, AIA, and Dina Sorensen presented the guidelines—which have point-awarding parallels to the USGBC® LEED rating system—at a November 8 session of the Architectural Exchange East, held in Richmond. Presenting concurrently at the session was Dr. Matthew Trowbridge of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, who was involved in the development of the guidelines as part of his public-health work with the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research.

The awarded research project

The 2012 VSAIA Research Prize, sponsored by MTFA Architecture, recognizes the importance of theory and applied research in creating discourse between practitioners and academicians. The 2012 jury comprised Brian Lee, FAIA; Phil Enquist, FAIA; and William Baker, PE, all of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The jury unanimously selected “The Role of School Architecture in the Prevention of Childhood Obesity.”

VMDO’s point-based system is similar to the LEED point-accumulation scale.

“Initially, the study title seemed naive in linking architecture to the daunting societal problem of childhood obesity.” the jury commented. “However, the research presented a measured and well-documented series of facts and arguments corroborated by well-respected writers and thinkers. It contained insight into current education designs for the school physical environment that unwittingly reinforce unhealthy cultural habits and preferences. The project then focused on specific design measures, large and small, to change the perceptions of and obstacles to healthy eating and cooking.

“The jury was impressed that a series of discrete, often incremental moves and ideas could potentially shift behavioral patterns and make a difference in our schools regarding children’s life choices. So often our design profession has taken a narrow rather than holistic view of how buildings are experienced. Here, we are shown how food processed, presented, and integrated into the learning environment can make a daily difference to the child. In our discussion, it was this relevance and societal impact that led us to select it as the winner of the 2012 Prize.”

How it works

Five principles form the core of the obesity-prevention guidelines:
•    Provide equipment and spaces that facilitate the incorporation of fresh and healthy food choices into the school and its community.
•    Provide facilities to engage the school community directly in food production and preparation.
•    Apply evidence- and theory-based behavioral-science principles to nudge the school community toward healthy-eating behaviors and attitudes.
•    Use building and landscape features to promote awareness of healthy and sustainable food practices.
•    Conceive and articulate school spaces as community assets to multiply the benefit of school-based healthy food initiatives.

Graphics, lighting, circulation, and other subtle dining-space cues reinforce good eating habits.

In spatial design these principles can be linked. For instance, the co-location of the teaching and commercial kitchens, having adjacent school gardens, and facilitating educational outreach to the community expose students and their parents to ideas that reinforce the importance of thoughtful food selection, preparation, and eating habits. Students also see rainwater harvesting and composting as important elements of successful gardening. They acquire a taste for freshly filtered water. And the continuity of indoor and outdoor areas brings the benefit of abundant light and physical activity.

During the programming phase, the submitters turn to the Problem Seeking writings of William Peña and Steven Parshall, whose five key purpose-defining activities—informed by interaction with the client and the characteristics of the project—encompass establishing goals, collecting and analyzing facts, uncovering and testing concepts, determining needs, and stating the problem. It was during facility programming that the VMDO design team introduced their Healthy Eating Design Guidelines.

Community activities, such as a weekend farmers’ market bring home the lessons learned in school.

During schematic design, the team considered the school’s role in a healthier community at a macro level, and the guidelines played a major factor in the subsequent sizing, adjacencies, and sequencing of spaces. At the micro-scale level, the guidelines also influenced the overall layout of cooking, eating, and service areas within the cafeteria arrangement. In design development the team focused their attention on the floor and furniture plans in main areas and layout of the serving lines.

During the construction documentation phase, attention turned to construction efficiency, cost, and code requirements with a strong eye toward adhering to the parameters of the initial programmatic decisions. With the Buckingham project, for instance, final specification of lighting adhered to the desire for appealing lighting and finish colors in the cafeteria, which are intended to reinforce students’ subconscious perception of a healthy food environment. With those design decisions set, the architects devoted their attention to construction contract administration.

“The Healthy Eating Design Guidelines for School Architecture is an innovation in both architecture and public health,” noted the VMDO team in their VSAIA Research Prize submission. “This work represents a rare collaboration between architects and public health scientists to find new solutions for improving the school environment for children’s health.”

Referencing the New York City Active Design Guidelines, the submission emphasizes that recent trends will spur additional new research to document the impact of design features intended to promote health, concluding: “Such undertaking promises to lead to the convergence of evidence-based architecture and evidence-based public health, providing new strategies as part of a comprehensive approach to address childhood obesity.

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