Biophilic Design: More Than a Distraction?

When you first started your architecture education, you were no doubt exposed to concepts tying the built and natural environments such as the chambered nautilus, bi-lateral symmetry, golden section, and of course Le Corbusier's Modular Man.  It seemed like cracking the code of nature would give some kind of magical solution to any design problem.  Then you probably forgot all about that stuff as you began a career and had to deal with real program requirements and code constraints.  Nature-inspired design is back, and this time its about more than just proportion or organic shapes a la Bruce Goff. It's also more than just putting up some twinkly LED lights in the ceiling or an illuminated photograph of a natural scene to simulate an outdoor view.

Incorporating evidence based design principles, biophilic design looks to meld the materials, process and cycles of nature into architecture.  It links our health, job performance and well being directly to the built environment. Design that takes into account natural processes and cycles feels better to inhabit. And now, it has evidence behind it.

In his popular book Biophilia, Edward Wilson, a biologist and social researcher describes a connection that humans innately seek with other living things.  The deep psychological connections that we have formed with nature influence us in primal and subconscious ways.  As behavioral psychologists began to study biophilia in greater detail, the applicability to healing environments became evident. Roger Ulrich has shown direct correlations between connections to nature and reductions in pain and depression, both of which lead to fewer complications and faster recovery. His work in particular seems to indicate that the most beneficial type of stimulation comes from evoking nature, as in artwork, or through actual exposure to nature itself. The growing amount of research into the impact of biophilic concepts on the built environment has included work with actual patients and hospital staff, such as the Ambient Experience created by Phillips, focused on building systems that provide a multi-sensory environment for patients, families and staff.  

This seems intuitive.  However, what exactly to implement in each type of space you are creating is not.  Your game plan:
  1. As part of your space program, create a column for what you are trying to promote in each space.  In corridors, you may want to promote wayfinding and reduce noise; in staff work areas, reduce errors; in patient rooms, promote healing; and reduce stress in procedure rooms.  
  2. Look at existing research on what will best produce the desired effects in each space.  For example, stress and anxiety contribute strongly to high pain levels.  Views of nature create a  positive diversion that helps to keep people focused on things other than pain or anxiety and promote healing.
  3. Brainstorm as a team about ways these effects can manifest themselves in each space- can you provide views to a landscaped area?  Should artwork of natural landscapes be a focal point? What about lighting and acoustics?  What opportunities are there to get natural light, especially sunlight, into the space?  Can the space adapt to the time of day or season?  Are there opportunities to actually bring nature inside through plants or water features?
  4. Determine how you can measure the results of your strategies and incorporate them into your evidence-based design plan.
Why does it work?  Some speculate that reducing anxiety is all about distracting people, but I think it goes further than that and taps into a primordial state of balance that helps inhabitants to feel calmer, more focused and invigorated.  Being in a biophilic environment is enriching and by stimulating our senses, we stimulate the soul.  

Risk-Taking Isn't Reckless

Great design can't happen unless you are willing to take a risk.  BUT- taking a risk ups the likelihood of making a mistake, and in an Owner-led process of design, mistakes can be judged so harshly that we often prefer to stay where it's safe.  Obviously this "safe approach" benefits no one, yet we are running for cover as fast as we can.  I recently read an excellent article by Barbara White Bryson and Canan Yetmen for Design Intelligence on Leading with Exuberance that zeroed in on this issue. The article discusses the importance of having a collaborative process and the difference between cost and value (both popular topics of your Patron), but an interesting twist that they introduce is the idea that risk-taking is associated with feeling safe

Yes grasshopper, great ideas are not necessarily born from a maverick, devil-may-care state of mind, but instead emerge from the energy that comes from being able to interact and share thoughts.  However, being able to speak unedited and voice true opinions is a double-edged sword.  So is proposing an idea for which there is no precedent.  That's where the authors argue that the risk comes in.  They urge project teams, from the owner on down to stop the blame game.  Because innovation comes from straying from the tried and true, the likelihood of failure is also increased.  When the team can look constructively at the failure and learn from it, a mistake can become a gateway to valuable ideas and amazing solutions.  The authors further argue that the true source of failure may not lie in the team members, but in the process itself.  Processes that are faulty (many of them widely accepted industry standards) often lead to problems and it is these processes that should be attacked and amended.

Sounds great on paper.  How do we put this concept into action?  
  1. Show the way.  During the proposal and interview process, and certainly at the initial meeting with the Owner, talk to them about innovation and how you can work together to achieve it.  Use inclusive terms like "we" and "our" to refer to the project and the team. Structure design meetings as interactive brainstorming sessions instead of presentations.
  2. Get everyone involved. Encourage department staff s well as leaders and administration to speak up.  Conduct field observations and surveys of user groups.   If the contractor is on board early, structure time for their input on means and methods or cost/benefit analysis as part of every team meeting.  Use the resources of the entire team to look at ideas in terms of life cycle costs not just project costs.
  3. Never stop asking "what if?" You've heard that the only bad questions are those that don't get asked.  Never accept anything as unchangeable.  Everything can be improved to better adapt to the unique circumstances of the project.  Challenge the team to criticize and comment on every idea.
While the status quo may be comfortable, not taking a risk on innovative ideas may ultimately  be the biggest gamble of all for you and your client. 

Design in the Age of the Prosumer

Ah, the good old seems like there was once a time when clients trusted their architect implicitly and accepted their design and recommendations with little pushback.  It it just you imagination, or have things changed?   If you feel like only a necessary evil on your projects, you're not alone and you're not paranoid either.  Access to information has led to the rise of what has been called prosumerism, a term first introduced by futurist Alvin Toffler that implies that consumers are well informed, experienced and confident enough to challenge the producer of what they consume.  There are many variations on the origins of this word, from professional consumer to producer-consumer.  I like to think of it as proactive consumer,  This merger of professional and consumer roles leads to marginalization of the corporate producer (in our world the architect) and threatens to reduce our services from value-added to commodities. Some prosumer trends that have arisen and thoughts on how to use them to the project's design advantage:
1. Hiring of in-house professionals like registered architects and engineers to oversee and manage the work of the contracted design team for a project.  The in-house professionals often complete smaller projects without seeking to hire outside help.   
TIP: The insider is your friend.  They understand your point of view. Work with them and collaborate on strategies and they will be a trusted advocate at your next meeting with the rest of the team.  Remember, part of their job is to make sure that you are doing yours, so including them in the process allows them to report back favorably while shutting them out leads to critical comments when they review the set at the end of a design phase.
2.  Development of standards for room design and finish types/colors/materials.  These prototypes are the result of considerable time and effort on the part of the owner and changing them is not usually welcomed.
TIP: There is no such thing as one size fits all and every prototype has some capacity for adjustment to project-specific needs.  Having in-depth discussions on the rationale for each element in the prototype or standards can go a long way towards understanding where a proposed change makes sense and where it doesn't. Standards can help a client to establish a brand identity and level of quality without having to go through the process of reinventing the wheel for every project.  Additionally, it can take certain sticky design issues off of the table with user groups.  This is a case where the spirit of the law will trump the letter of the law, so do your homework before presenting different approaches and work within the framework.
3. Requirements that certain criteria or standards be incorporated into the design (like sustainabiity measures) in a defacto manner without acknowledging impacts on schedule, budget or fees.
TIP: For the most part, it's exciting not to have to sell a client on adopting a good practice, but boy are you both about to get some sticker shock if the right approach isn't followed.  You are designing a building, not baking a layer cake.  Before the first design meeting, maybe even in your proposal or the interview, you need to make it clear to your client that the old rules of project management and approach are out the window.  The square peg will not fit in the round hole.  Show them your true level of expertise by discussing precisely why these requirements will lead you to approach the project in a way that is smarter and better.
4. Rise of alternative project delivery methods to get things built faster.
TIP: Many architects bristle at the introduction of more chefs in the kitchen, from the Owner's Representative, to the Design Builder, to the increased legal implications. What actually happens, if you allow the process to work, is that we are making other parties more accountable, which takes some pressure off of us to spell out every little thing on drawings and develop painstaking details for every joint and drain.  Have you ever looked at a set of drawings from 40 years ago and been surprised by how thin the set was?  Go back 80 years and there is even less detailing of the functional stuff.  Those old drawings showed design intent, not how to fasten screws. Means and methods is something that should be the contractor's problem.  We had ourselves painted into a corner of over-detailing to avoid liability.  See this as a liberation.
I think designers can welcome the emerging prosumer in their clients because we can also show them that their patients/users/customers are prosumers too.  Everybody can use some good design to get a competitive edge.

Our Clients, Our Family

I was recently struck by how similar the process of dealing with a client is to parenting a child.  This statement is not meant to be derogatory, but to help architects think about the fact that we are leading our clients through a process that is as much about building a relationship as it is about design.  I attended a seminar a few months ago at my daughter's school that focused on how to be a leader as your children learn.  One component drew from the work of Dr. Becky Bailey on Conscious Discipline.  What I loved about this was that Dr. Bailey incorporates science about how the brain works into strategies (evidence-based design if you will) to help parents work more effectively with their children.  
Too often on a project, architects allow ourselves to slip into the role of the child and give up our leadership of the process for fear that the client will not want to work with us if we don't let them drive.  Just as unhelpful is an attempt to make both parties equal in an attempt at promoting collaboration.  How can we "parent" our projects without coming across as overbearing or making the rest of the team feel that we aren't listening to them?  

I like the idea of re-framing the architect-client relationship by utilizing Conscious Discipline techniques, primarily the idea that the struggle is the growth.  Instead of accepting a conventional schedule and meeting cycles, we, not our clients, need to take the initiative and structure a process that engages our client and allows listening and learning to occur.

Professions like architecture, medicine and law are called practices because we can't be held to a standard of perfection.  We can only be expected to apply our knowledge in the best possible way to solve complex problems for which there may be multiple answers and no clear indicator that a solution has been reached.  Too often, we meet with clients, gather data, then go off to design.  We forget that design is a cyclical process of trial and error and instead only present a highly edited "best of" solution to our clients at the next meeting.  This just perpetuates the expectation of perfection and creates a feeling that decisions have already been made.  We shouldn't be surprised to then find the client acting out like a rebellious teenager if they don't agree.  Instead, we need to open the process up and allow it to be more interactive.  Mistakes are opportunities for learning.  Encouraging our clients to disagree leads to negotiation.  Negotiation  leads to more thoughtful solutions where everyone has ownership and the kind of project team we all want- one big happy family.  
What's your experience with the process of struggle and growth on a project?

Why Bother?

I was recently asked why this blog was not more focused on "real" design issues, did not include many images and kept talking about all kinds of business stuff.  My answer is that you don't need all that to be inspired.  Inspiration is rooted in knowing yourself, believing in your ideas and sharing them with others.  In the design world, there are plenty of print and digital publications covering who's who and what's cool, but none of them address how to effectively structure projects and communicate with clients.  In other words, how to inspire them with your ideas.  

So many architects I know have become "corporatized" and somewhat despondent because they feel that in order to please their client that they can't challenge them.  They stop being creative and lose their spirit.  At the same time, the client is afraid to take risks because they don't understand how a different point of view can work.  This creates a vicious cycle of projects that follow all the rules, but lack true innovation

In the Catholic church, patron saints are protectors, guardians and guides.  It is my hope that by sharing ideas about how to approach, manage and communicate design ideas that I can help others to realize that great design is always possible no matter what the project size or type. 

Cheaper, Better, Faster: The Case for Entreprenurial Marketing

The increasing pressure to design and construct buildings cheaper, better and faster can seem like the surest path to a landscape of mediocre, throwaway buildings.  Architects prefer to look at projects as a factor of the dependent variables quality time and budget, explaining to a client, that meeting a low budget might compromise quality and perhaps argue for building a better, but smaller design.  Those relationships are weakened by market forces such as fewer resources or shorter client timetables to effectively launch a project and build, maintain or increase their market share. Clients demand that they want it all and want it now.  And there's a business theory for that.  Called Entrepreneurial MarketingLen Lodish, a Professor at the Wharton School of Business argues that smaller businesses need fast results with minimal investment.  Even the largest institutions in our industry operate much like small businesses, which is why I find this idea so compelling.  

To help get inside our client's head, let's focus on making the business case for ideas:
It's hard to focus on the long term when you have an immediate need that will likely exhaust your capital budget.  That's why so many large institutions look like they have tumors of one story buildings growing out of them and are a wayfinding nightmare. Schedule and budget concerns may be non-negotiable, but your client didn't hire you to smile and nod your head.  They hired you to think about the problem in ways that they can't.  As long as you have truly listened and respected their concerns, presenting a less literal solution than the one they asked for will gain their respect and produce a better project. 

There is also an implicit assumption on the part of the client by playing its safe, they know what they will be getting, and that the project will proceed more quickly and cost less.  Looking for proven solutions, they may be a little hesitant to explore innovative design practices, cutting edge research or sustainable tactics.  Or, they may  require integrated project design or minimum LEED certification without really understanding what is involved.  

Innovation does not have to come at a premium, and sometimes, the payback on implementing a cutting edge technology , unconventional method or research makes its own compelling argument. Architects are not necessarily known for their financial wizardry, but by presenting a strategy in terms of its return on investment, the conventional understanding of cost, schedule, and budget are transformed.  design time frames can become more elastic, with more time spent in pre-design and schematic design in order to brainstorm and then vet options as a team.  When we view a building project over its lifetime, the way that the problem is framed and eventually solved becomes more dynamic as well, leading to what the client wanted to achieve most- value.

Is Your Ocean Red or Blue?

Have you ever thought about how architecture is practiced?  Why so many architects are just not very collegial with one another and our professional organizations serve more as a source for legal documents, status, and continuing education instead of as a true collaborative resource?  Maybe you just naturally assume that you have to compete, after all work pays the bills.  Our profession has accepted the premise of a business strategy called Red Ocean (think blood in the water),  that assumes at its core that we can only win if everyone else losesOur work becomes a product or commodity and offering more of it for less is the only way to stay ahead of the game (sound familiar to how we undercut our fees and lose money on jobs to keep or get a client?) 

A more recent strategy to emerge turns that premise on its head.  Called the Blue Ocean strategy, it asks us to rethink the idea of beating the competition and instead examine that for which we are actually competing.  In other words, is the prize really worth it?  Are we decimating ourselves just to win?

By looking at who we really are and what we really want to do; we can, according to Blue Ocean thinking, define a new market that we can serve with the full force of our individual talent and passion.  It seems almost too good to be true.  I am transported back to my days as an idealistic student full of dreams and ambition, not the soul-crushing professional environment that awaits said student ideologues.  

Of course, there is a catch: you have to actually be innovative (and not too risk-adverse either). In a Blue Ocean paradigm, the focus is on the value of what we have to offer and finding a market that is actually seeking that value.  No building industry, creating niche markets requiring hyper-specialization is not the point, it's about innovation.  Innovation that also takes into account utility, price and cost in an attempt to make competition irrelevant.  That's something that we have a hard time with, because we want to keep designing buildings, and so do all the other architects. Also,blue ocean is an ideal that may not prove lasting. Mohammad Jamil of the Change Management Community is his article "Red and Blue Ocean Strategy" argues that the two strategies are in fact interdependent and cyclical, with blue oceans driving innovation, which in turn drives the red ocean competition that will eventually spawn more innovation.  I think that what matters most is that we realize that we are not constrained by the "way things are" and instead start asking a lot more critical questions:
  1. What are you really trying to achieve and why?
  2. To whom will it matter?
  3. Can you abandon old habits and dependencies?
Stop swimming with the sharks and chart a course to peaceful waters.  When survival isn't the primary issue, it's amazing what you can achieve.

The Design and Construction Game: Whose side are you on?

The built environment has many factions- team Design, team Owner and team Construction.  Recent trends in sustainable design and evidence based design require buy-in from all sides and a cooperative effort to carry concepts through into completion and operation. The rise in popularity of design-build and integrated project delivery attempts to balance responsibility and risk more evenly.  

Can we really transition successfully from an "us vs. them" mentality?  Or are we hardwired to struggle between achieving design goals, achieving profitability goals and achieving operational goals?  We are living through a paradigm shift that is both neutralizing our individual silos and adding responsibility to our effort.  But with this come a greater opportunity to stop competing and start collaborating.  Can we all be on the same team and realize that these goals are mutually dependent, not mutually exclusive? 

Hopefully the real winners are team End Users.

Speaking in Tongues

Us polished, professional design-types know the drill.  We package our work into slick presentations and try to sell our ideas to those non-designers our clients.  I have actually sat in a room as a series of options was presented, each one poked holes in until the final (architect-preferred) option was presented to the client as a fait-accompli.  A feat of logic, that if they had any sensibility they would now understand was THE solution.  The ONLY solution.  Of course, the client liked the first option.  What ensued was a sickening display of professional arrogance that played out over several weeks as the presenter refused to acknowledge the validity of the client's preference.
The people that use a space or live in a neighborhood know more about their needs that we ever will.  What they don't know how to do is design buildings.  What we need to do is to learn how to listen.  We take everything that our clients say to us literally, instead of drilling down to find the deeper meaning.  We don't ask the right questions at the beginning and try to overlay our opinions about how they should work on them.  Someone who says, "I want green," may, upon further discussion turn out to just want a more natural palette.  Or they may really mean that they like green.  Or, they may have noticed that green had a positive effect on their patients.  You need to know the difference, as well as why they are making this request in order to design a responsive and successful environment for them.  It is not our job as an architect to speak the language of design, it is our job to use design as the medium of translation.

Feel the Passion

Does your attitude need an adjustment?  When you feel demoralized and cranky about design opportunity (or lack thereof) in your current project, or the client or co-workers on your team, try feeling- passion.  When you truly love what you do and are excited about it, that excitement creates a whole different energy- one that is about creativity, possibility and opportunity. To find the love, start seeing the glass as has full:
  1. Know who you are and what you stand for as an architect.  When you know your strengths are are excited to share them with others, that inspires them  to draw on their strengths too.
  2. Every job is an opportunity.  You can win an award for designing a bus stop that truly enriches the lives of those who use it and pass by it every day, or you can complete projects with price tags in the hundreds of millions and hate what you do.  It's all in how you frame the design problem and whether you are excited to make a difference.
  3. Keep your cool.  We all know the meaning of pressure- last minute changes, under-performing consultants, problems that don't seem get resolved smoothly.  Don't take it personally, and don't let your stress make you that person that everyone is afraid will bring a gun to the office one day.  As long as you work quickly and proactively to identify what is going wrong and create a plan of corrective action, you will be the  hero that  calmly led the troops.  
  4. Be impeccable.  Pretend that someone is videotaping you and will send a copy of the tape to all of your clients and co-workers.  Actions taken out of expediency often lead to regrets later.  Make the best possible decisions you can with the information available to you at the time, and you will always be respected and able to defend your actions. 
  5. Keep a constructive outlook.  There are no bad ideas or bad people, just less optimal solutions.   Every idea has some merit and deserves to be talked through.  You may find a germ of usefulness in even the most off-base  suggestions.  Being receptive to ideas informs you of how others are thinking and the process of how they work.
Above all, believe in yourself and what you do.  If you still find yourself being dragged into a cesspool of negativity- then its time to use that passion in yet another positive way, by walking away- gracefully.