Designing a Healthier Future

Sustainable designers have always promoted environmental health, but now that focus has expanded to include the welfare of those who inhabit green spaces.

It’s called human-centered design, and the movement has its roots in medicine. The Well Being Standard—a relatively new certification analogous to the green building industry’s LEED program —comprises seven key elements that impact the physical and emotional health of people living and working in a building: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, mind, and innovation.

Sustainable Design class projects include renewable materials and human-centered principles.

“Employee health, retention, and productivity have enormous impacts on businesses’ bottom lines,” says Professor Karen Clarke, who teaches interior architecture & design at Suffolk’s New England School of Art & Design. “Mindful design of the physical workplace can boost health, morale, and ultimately work quality.

Interior Architecture graduate student Andrea Schwebel provided an example:

“It might seem strange to design an office where the bathrooms are intentionally far from the work spaces. But that choice increases physical activity, and encouraging employees to take slightly longer breaks from tasks can have benefits for mindfulness and creativity.”

“Our thesis students are working on evidence-based design, driven by the principles of human use,” says Clarke. "Having hard data helps ‘sell’ their recommendations to clients.”

Well-being and green design philosophies often overlap. Clarke and Schwebel both cite the rise of shared work spaces and open-plan offices as a trend that fosters creative brainstorming and thus increases happiness and productivity. At the same time these spaces offer flexibility for easy reconfiguration, saving money and reducing waste. The Art & Design Department will put this concept into practice in May when it moves to a new home on reconfigured floors of the Sawyer Building.

Design Week

Clarke launched a Sustainable Design Fair 12 years ago, bringing green vendors to campus to teach students about renewable products and also how to develop relationships with suppliers. Now that fair is part of Boston Design Week, providing even greater learning and networking opportunities.

This year Schwebel is helping to coordinate the fair. She’s excited to include companies focused on inhabitant well-being, including ergonomic office furniture maker Human Scale. Options that combine wellness benefits with flexibility, like Human Scales’ sit/stand convertible desks, are becoming more popular in modern offices.

A wide range of traditional green companies also will participate.

Earth-friendly design samples in the Materials Library

In her role as coordinator of the Materials Library—cataloguing all the paint chips, fabric swatches and material samples students use to craft their design pitches—Schwebel has seen the sustainable options grow far beyond the designated “green” section.

“Sustainability in materials, systems, and construction methods has long been part of a Suffolk design education,” says Clarke. “Adding a focus on well-being helps our students design healthier spaces, not just for the planet but for all of us who live and work here.”

Boston Design Week runs from March 29 - April 9, 2017. Design for the Environment: Sustainability Fair will be hosted by Suffolk University’s Department of Art & Design on April 6 in the atrium of 75 Arlington St.

Interior architecture professor Karen Clarke's Sustainable Design class

Interior architecture professor Karen Clarke's Sustainable Design class