A Designer's Guide to Public Health

Sept. 30, 2015

Pay attention to these four leading issues

As the United States addresses burgeoning health expenditures in upwards of $2.7 trillion (almost 20 percent of GDP), design solutions for the built environment that aim to address the leading chronic diseases in this country are timely and critical.

Our built environment can shape our habits and choices, regulate our sleep-wake cycle, drive us toward healthy and unhealthy choices, and passively influence our health through the quality of our surroundings. With health and wellness expected to have a higher influence on design and construction decisions, here are several issues that today’s designers need to consider:

sitting is the new smoking
Sedentary lifestyles greatly contribute to reduced physical activity throughout the day due to prolonged sitting at work, in cars, and at home with electronics.

Workplace furniture solutions should include free address workstations, activity-based work environments, sit-stand desks, collaborative open staircases, and urban locations that encourage movement throughout the day, every day.

thermal comfort at work
One of the most common building occupant complaints is thermal comfort, which encompasses not only temperature but also humidity, air movement, and individual factors such as metabolism and clothing.

According to a recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, environments that were originally calibrated based on the metabolic rates of men are causing women to endure uncomfortable work conditions that contribute to ambient stressors. Design solutions include empowering the user to control their personal environment, allowing alternative personalized heating and cooling monitoring and devices, and free address policies with multiple office settings that encourage users to find the environment that best meets their thermal comfort needs.

a prescription for walking
Recently the U.S. Surgeon General prescribed walking to help combat physical inactivity and addressed how both indoor and outdoor environments can enable or hinder walkability. With over 30 percent of adults now considered obese, and another 30 percent who are overweight, design strategies that incorporate physical activity throughout the day are key.

While active commuting and other alternative transit-oriented solutions are among the leading protective factors against obesity, indoor design strategies can also go a long way toward combatting these tendencies. Solutions include encouraging walking and incorporating movement in office spaces. For example, make stairwells accessible and promote their use.

stress kills
Rarely do people consider stress to be as toxic as breathing in secondhand smoke, but a recent study conducted by researchers at the Harvard and Stanford business schools has shown that chronic persistent stress can lead to compounded deleterious impacts on the health of Americans—including contributing to over 120,000 deaths every year. This is particularly true as the workday is prolonged from 8 to 11 hours, and more is expected of employees in less time.

Among the recommendations to reduce stress are taking periodic breaks throughout the day, finding quiet space, stretching and being physically active, and eating healthy food. All of these have design implications in the form of meditation rooms, areas of respite, sit-stand desks, and opportunities to move within the office, as well as open cafes that support healthy food and food preparation.

Whitney Austin Gray is executive director of research and innovation at Delos and serves on the International WELL Building Institute’s Advisory Council.

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