HMC Architects Using Neuroscience to Identify the Influence of the Built Environment

Oct. 7, 2008

LOS ANGELES - For thousands of years, people have known that sunlight and views of nature have positive effects on human health. The ancient Greeks, in fact, recognized the therapeutic benefits of gardens in their own "temples of healing," which they used to help cure the sick.

More recently, studies have shown that the shapes and configurations of buildings affect us, either helping or hindering us as we try to navigate massive healthcare facilities, or allowing us access to natural lighting, views to nature, or the urban environment that surrounds us.

A growing body of research has demonstrated that built conditions in hospitals may affect patient health and recovery, as well as health and performance of staff. Research in education, commercial, and retail settings reveal similar results.

What we don't yet know, however, is why we react this way to our surroundings or what we should do to improve human interaction with the built environment. With the help of a team of neuroscientists from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), HMC Architects hopes to become one of the nation's first design firms to help unravel some of these mysteries and test specific architectural design features that influence human health and performance, particularly in healthcare, education, and community facilities.

"Neuroscience provides a means for us to measure how the brain, body, and building interact," explains Eve Edelstein, Ph.D., a neuroscientist from UCSD who serves as HMC's senior vice president of Research and Design. "Neuroscience gives us the tools to understand how the engagement of our senses in architectural space influences our emotions, behavior, and health itself."

Edelstein will discuss the collaboration between neuroscience and architecture on Oct. 17, 2008, during the American Institute of Architects' 2008 Mobius LA Design Conference at West Hollywood's Pacific Design Center. Joining her will be HMC president and CEO Randy Peterson, FAIA, LEEP® AP; HMC principal and design director David Rova; HMC principal and design director Kevin O'Brien, AIA, LEED AP; and Dr. Eduardo Macagno, the founding dean and professor at UCSD's Division of Biological Sciences.

Edelstein's presentation will include a video demonstration of a virtual reality StarCAVE that UCSD researchers are using to map brain responses to simulated architectural environments. The high-resolution virtual immersion CAVE, developed by UCSD's California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), enables the user to be surrounded in 360-degree projections of 3-D, full-scale renderings of the building. This gives a sense of scale and volume not provided by flat screen or headmounted virtual reality images.

The presentation will include results from a collaborative research study by the Division of Biological Sciences, the Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience, and Calit2 records at UCSD. The team integrated the CAVE technology with brainwave recordings to "identify the architectural cues that best serve people with different wayfinding strategies.

Unlike an MRI, where you have to lie still, we've synchronized the technology in the cave so that we can record a person's brain waves at the same time they're moving about in a simulated architectural environment," says Edelstein. "So with this technology, we can test out architectural designs without having to build them. We can test which features work and which features don't work by measuring the influence of architectural features on mental function and stress levels as people try to navigate their way through simulated buildings using different architectural cues."

The StarCAVE offers a new means to test improvements that are clearly needed in building design. A 2004 study published in The Lancet, a UK medical journal, found that staff at one large hospital spent 4,500 hours each year giving directions to lost patients at an associated annual cost of $220,000. "Millions of dollars are lost every year just in the time it takes for hospital staff to step away from their jobs and help people find their way," notes Edelstein. Neuroscience, she added, can help architects develop improved building designs that benefit both patients and staff alike.

HMC Architects and UCSD scientists will present its talk, "The Human Response to Architecture: Brain, Body & Building," on Friday, October 17, 2008, at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. For more information, visit

Throughout its history, HMC Architects has established a reputation as an award-winning design firm and thought leader for education, healthcare, and government facilities. Founded in 1940, HMC is one of the largest planning and design firms headquartered in California with offices strategically located throughout the West. To learn more about HMC Architects, contact Tracy Black at (800) 350-9979, or visit

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