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Bringing Millions of Years of Evolution to Work

Sept. 30, 2015

As "wellness" joins the industry lexicon alongside "sustainability," one designer has been ahead of the curve

Recently named one of 80 Provisional WELL Building Accredited Professionals in the U.S., Carol Rickard-Brideau, partner and president of design firm Little, has written and presented on the topic of salutogenic design (designing for wellness) at CoreNet, IFMA’S World Workplace, NeoCon World Workplace, and the Workplace Evolutionaries webcast. She’ll be adding to her impressive resume by speaking on the topic at the Arlington TEDx Talk on October 3. We spoke with Rickard-Brideau to help break down the current thoughts on salutogenic design, and how designers can fit wellness in to any project—even with the most hesitant of clients.

Interiors & Sources: Tell us about your title and work.

Carol Rickard-Brideau: I’m a senior partner and office president. I essentially run the Washington, D.C., office of Little, an expanded services architecture and design firm. We’re architects—we do design, a lot of analysis, and a lot of strategic planning.

IS: A lot of your work focuses on how neurology ties into the design of space. How so, and why is it important?

CRB: We’ve taken millions of years to evolve as human beings, and there are a lot of things that are hardwired into our neurobiology, things that are affected by the environment in which we are placed during the day. To the designer, someone who is trying to design environments to make people better and more effective in what they’re doing, it became important to me to understand how the environments I’m creating have an impact on the people that they are being created for.

IS: You said in your NeoCon presentation that wellness is much more than just installing a yoga room and bike rack.

Will you elaborate on that?

CRB: Our brains have something like 86 billion neurons in them, and a trillion connections. That’s just in your brain. That’s an amazing number of complex circuits and processing that happens there. Because of the way that our bodies are wired over millions of years of evolution, it’s really about affecting human health on a molecular level. It’s not just getting exercise—which is great!—and it’s not just doing yoga—which is great!—it’s about really addressing the things we aren’t aware of in the ways that our bodies are hardwired to respond.

IS: Is there a particular way you think designers should implement these strategies, beyond just adding a yoga room?

CRB: There are a number of things that I think are pretty easy, not the least of all is circadian rhythm and natural daylighting. Our brains have a spot where the circadian rhythm lives (the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN), and that’s basically a device in our body that is our biological clock—how your body works in the morning and at night. Morning light is typically blue in color. Your SCN reads blue in the natural daylight of morning, and it gives your body a shot of stress hormone to wake you up. At night, conversely, evening light is yellow in color. It tells your body to release melatonin to help you relax, prepare for sleep, and get a good night’s rest.

We know that natural daylight is the top factor in productivity. Kids in school who are exposed to natural daylight score 16 percent higher on tests than those who don’t. From my standpoint, the way that we put that into design language is opening up the window line, making sure we bounce light as deeply into a space as possible so as many people as possible can take advantage of that natural daylight.

IS: You mention sitting disease in your presentation. Can you explain that issue?

CRB: If you think about it, our species has been on the earth for millions of years, even though modern man is maybe 6,000 years old. We evolved to run 5-9 miles a day, hunting and gathering; that’s how our bodies developed. Now we spend almost 90 percent of our time indoors, and almost 40 percent of that time is in front of screens. We’ve gotten really great at producing with our brains rather than our bodies the way we used to.

But there are results from that which aren’t healthy for us. While we’re sitting, our metabolism drops 90%, good cholesterol drops 20 percent, the muscles in the lower half of our bodies turn off, and the way some of the insulin in our bodies is produced is less efficient, so it contributes to heart disease and diabetes. It’s really important for us to get up every 30 minutes, even if it’s to get up for 5 minutes and walk across the office to get a cup of coffee. We need to be aware of how long we’ve been sitting and make sure we’re staying active.

IS: Considering all these factors, what is your main suggestion for designers?

CRB: To make themselves aware. There aren’t a lot of colleges and universities in design schools that incorporate a lot of this into their curriculum, but it’s just beginning. What’s important from a design standpoint is to actively engage in research and understanding about how bodies and humans are wired so that we understand we’re creating spaces that are salutogenic, which are good for us, rather than pathogenic, which is something that prolongs and promotes habits that aren’t healthy.

IS: How would you suggest approaching clients who are reluctant to take on wellness design?

CRB: I think often people are hesitant to do it because they’re afraid of the cost, but there are a lot of things that can be done and are relatively inexpensive. There are some companies now that don’t have garbage cans at individual workstations, so you have to get up and go to a central garbage can on the floor, which encourages people to get up and walk.

You can also incorporate a variety of different workspaces. There’s an ongoing conversation right now in workplace design about all-open environment versus all-closed, and that’s the wrong debate. Having different alternate work settings allots employees the variety they seek.

We actually have a neuron in our brains that’s just a novelty button. When you enter into a building or an environment, you notice things that are different, and you look for that novelty. It’s important we give people a variety of work settings.

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