Understanding How Our Brains Work Makes for Better Buildings

Insights from Brain Science Researcher Dr. John Medina

August 18, 2016

Affiliate Professor of Bioengineering, University of Washington School of Medicine



Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by JLL Real Views.

Applying the cognitive neurosciences to architecture and real estate development may raise some eyebrows and creates a certain amount of skepticism.

However, some solid peer-reviewed studies give reason to believe that, one day, these disciplines might be more closely aligned and complementary than we thought. Let’s go back in time by way of illustration.

We’ve spent more than 99 percent of our entire time on the planet not in a building, but in a savannah, sojourning for millennia in the unstable worlds of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. This big fat brain of ours was thus forged outdoors, scrambling around Africa in small bands. Such pre-history affected the way we interacted with our environment. Still does. We’ve not spent enough time in civilization to outgrow our Darwinian reflexes.

There are two ways to illustrate how this might inform the design of buildings, from workplaces to retail environments.

The first comes from something that’s been researched famously: the impact of natural environments on behavior. Well-regarded data shows that exposure to natural elements — trees, running water, even pictures of trees and running water — provides benefits ranging from shortened hospital stays for adults to increased academic performance for kids. Researcher David Strayer uncovered a 50 percent boost in problem-solving abilities after test subjects sustained a 72-hour exposure to nature. This makes perfect sense, given that 99 percent history part. The brain sees natural elements and says “I’m home.”

The second illustration also concerns evolutionary history. Most of us think humans were among the Pleistocene era’s biggest chickens, ones who got beat up a lot in the hardscrabble African plains. Just look at human fingernails and remember we competed against African lion claws for survival space. Not exactly a fair fight. With a founding population measured in the low hundreds, we almost didn’t make it.

The will to survive

But we did make it. One reason was our ability to use our obese brains to respond and develop preferences for specific types of physical surroundings. We needed to survey the vast flatlands quickly, which might involve scrambling up a cliff, looking in the distance for sustenance and predators, formulating acquisition and avoidance strategies.

But we couldn’t stay up there forever, given our extreme physical vulnerability. We also had to be able to hide quickly. Developing simultaneous preferences for expansive space and enclosed shelter was thus fundamental to our survival.

The late geographer Jay Appleton proposed years ago Prospect-Refuge theory, which embraces this history: “People prefer environments where they can easily survey their surroundings and quickly hide or retreat to safety if necessary,” he wrote.

Designing modern buildings

How might these translate to architectural design? For companies, what kinds of spaces can get the best from your employees?

Many people want creative, friendly spaces to be competitive in the global world of 21st century business. Yet most don’t take into account the intersection between Darwin and Appleton. Designers end up either creating prospect or refuge, but never deliberately putting both together in dynamic, accessible tension.

Is that imbalance toxic? Could be. Open office spaces are a form of prospect, closed rabbit-warren offices are a form of refuge, and in isolation from each other, neither perform very well. Open offices often raise stress hormones. Closed environments don’t allow much collaboration.

These are questions behavioral researchers need to tackle in collaboration with architects, even given this evidence, because the real answer concerning toxicity is “we don’t know.” If the data showed that such asymmetries were counter-productive, however, monolithic designs should be binned.

The pessismist in me says it’s still too early for brain science to be prescriptive. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know enough to collaborate, to design behavioral experiments capable of inserting bricks and mortar into the pages of On the Origin of Species. The optimist in me says we know just enough to fill up a blog.

While architects and developers are not neuroscientists, everybody involved in the design ecosystem should know something about how the brain works. Better informed they might make better business and design decisions.

Banner image copyright Carl Bower.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX

The Sophistication of Amenities

Office Amenities Are Shifting from a Focus on Whimsy to a Focus on Meaning

August 10, 2016

Partner, NBBJ


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Entrepreneur.

As someone who designs workplace environments, it’s fascinating to participate in the “amenity one-upmanship” happening at corporations throughout the world and at tech firms in particular. From ping pong tables and kegerators to massage and nap spaces, amenities are now ubiquitous to the workday experience. They reduce the formality of the office environment and encourage a higher level of socialization and camaraderie, each key contributors to workplace satisfaction. They make culture more tangible and visible, which in a red-hot market plays a strong role in recruitment, retention, and differentiation.

But amenities are also engineered for greater productivity. Keeping people on-site longer (with food and fitness centers), removing mundane hassles (by administering dry cleaning and haircuts), and providing time to explore one’s personal ideas — each perk is embedded with the hope that “found” time will increase returns to the company’s bottom line.

The formula is fairly straightforward: at work, more engagement + less stress = elevated creativity = improved productivity = increased profitability. When companies stay true to themselves and avoid a “copy and paste” approach, the outcome is usually a win-win for both individual and management. This amenity surge has enabled organizations — through both intention and luck — to better understand and augment work-life integration, and the resulting alchemy has led to transitioning amenities from a focus on whimsy to a focus on meaning. In the quest for the perfect balance, here are other factors being tested in the amenity equation that could soon change the look, feel and impact of your office:


Making the Digital Physical

In San Francisco, the Autodesk Workshop — a hybrid workshop, laboratory and office space — offers the intriguing potential to fuse technological progress with the intrinsically human satisfaction of making things. This space encourages employees to design stronger digital design experiences through their learnings with the tactile and the tangible. Even megabank Barclays is getting in on the trend by sponsoring a series of maker spaces throughout Cambridge that it calls “Eagle Labs.”


Individuality as Brand

I am genuinely moved when friends in less expressive professions share their hidden artistic talents. Most of them do this outside of work, so imagine being able to tap into those skills while still inside the office. The Samsung headquarters in San Jose offers a music room for jamming, recording, learning or, if you’re like me, just making noise. Graffiti walls in company spaces are growing in popularity as well, where you can remain anonymous or permanently leave your name — until the next person paints over it. Data walls enable the same customization and personalization in a digital context. As Android so aptly puts it, “Be together, not the same.”


Team Build-ing

The pressure on newly forming teams to excel on a project can lead to either a defining moment or a divisive unravelling. Research shows that teams built with high theory of mind, less interruption, and more women solve more problems with greater creativity. Providing projects that have little to do with business success yet create a heightened theory of mind can yield both short- and long-term gains. ArgoDesign in Austin has been noted for building a Shelby as a side project — not in the garage, not in a back corner, but in the lobby. Using your hands and brains to create something real for fun, before you use your hands and brains to create something real for profit, can be a great way to bring people together.


From Filling to Fulfilling

I remember walking the halls of a tech campus with the person who oversaw food operations, and he noted his frustration with people drooling over the multitude of free snacks. As we walked, we noticed a colleague stuffing his pockets full of the many bite-size foods offered. At the time, this type of experience was completely new in the workplace and therefore somewhat forgivable, but excess snacking was later linked to greediness and weight gain across the industry. Now, many companies like data analytics firm Appeagle still offer snacks but have transitioned to offer healthier options. The smartest companies have shifted strategy completely, with some offering rooftop vineyards and personalized gardens that encourage people to grow, harvest, eat, and share their own food.


Complete Health

With obesity and other weight-related diseases on the rise, many companies are taking employee health into their own hands. Nearly 30% of companies with 5,000 or more employees now have on-site medical clinics, including on Microsoft’s main campus, and this trend is expected to continue. But holistic, preventative measures are being taken as well. Companies are introducing “winter gardens,” as research has shown simply looking at green or open space can improve overall mental health, including a reduction of stress levels and an increase in cognitive performance. Mindfulness, the hot topic of the day, is taken quite seriously by the suitably named Headspace because of its long-term, age-independent benefits.


History…  Again

During the industrial revolution, workplaces commonly featured high ceilings, daylight, and fresh air, small consolations during the incredibly long workdays that eventually inspired revolts in the late 1880s. In the 1950s, drop ceilings, artificial daylight, and conditioned air were seen as new amenities — and ironically, these amenities began to extend the workday again. Half a century later we’ve realized that better daylight, fresh air, and shorter workdays are still true amenities. And they’ll remain as such until all have access to such simple staples of good health. Even moving back into urban locales, where diversity of scale and people has always been prevalent, now is considered an amenity — as is the shortened commute that usually comes with the location. This isn’t just more convenient and environmentally-friendly, it’s healthier too, as longer commutes are linked to health problems.


What’s next? Will amenity continue to influence “age,” or will age influence “amenity”?

Amenity spaces have come full-circle since the personal tech boom of the late 1970s and early ’80s changed how people viewed work. I hope we don’t lose sight of the risks taken — and benefits uncovered — through the whimsical and eccentric in the workplace, where the initial youthfulness of tech encouraged people to dress more comfortably, to hang out for a beer during the day, and to feel it was okay to take ping pong lessons where everyone could see. These experimental attitudes have questioned the atmosphere of the office building, where many of us will spend over half our lives. But I also sense companies understand the gravity of taking a position through what they offer their talent pool. Those concerned with employee health and office culture are maturing their work environments through experiences, not moments. And, when done right, the upside is a formula that continues to result in a win-win for all.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX

What Sports Medicine And Academic Medical Centers Have In Common

Everyone Benefits from High-Performance Design That Breaks Down Silos

August 8, 2016

Healthcare Architect / Partner, NBBJ


Editor’s Note: This post was originally written for the August 2016 issue of Healthcare Design.

Thinking about the August issue of Healthcare Design, at first it seemed strange to pair sports medicine and academic medical centers. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Do they have anything in common, AMC facilities and sports facilities? You bet they do.

Many sports medicine programs are taking what had been a siloed service, typically just orthopedics and maybe rehab, and embracing nutrition, research, psychology, even technology and industry, with devices such as Fitbit and other innovations. What used to be segmented is now more collaborative, which will surely lead to better outcomes and a more multidisciplinary, inclusive environment for care providers, from the top orthopedic surgeons to the physical therapists and others.

At the same time, AMCs have also been innovators at breaking down the silos between disciplines—a good example is the interventional platforms that have brought surgery and imaging together. But as the example of sports medicine suggests, do we have to go beyond that? As AMCs transition to caring for the “whole person,” departments like nutrition and psychology, even industry and technology, can’t be relegated to a back corridor in the oldest building in the hospital.

But if sports medicine is taking us to new frontiers of inclusiveness, it can still learn much from academic medical centers. AMCs are 24/7 facilities—can sports facilities be 24/7 as well? How can sports medicine be integrated with ballparks, community centers, neighborhoods, restaurants and retail? Can they adopt the research and innovation mindset of AMCs and industry? Can they encourage physical activity in the community, beyond the immediate patients they serve?

And both institutions emphasize performance. Athletes, of course, understand the importance of exercise in enabling their bodies to perform at their peak; however, research also shows us that exercise also activates thinking and enables the brain to perform at its peak. For sports medicine and AMCs alike, we need to design environments for health and exercise, in order to achieve high performance of both mind and body.

So there are links of learning between AMCs and sports medicine, and it goes both ways. Likewise, we as designers need to get out of our silos and embrace other industries, other thinking, other forms of creativity, other forms of research—more so than ever, because healthcare is changing so fast. In healthcare, we must design for performance, so while we have long talked about hospitality, now we need to look beyond that, to industrial design, biology, chemistry, analytics and more. We have to be as multidisciplinary as we’re asking our clients to be. We have to bust down those silos.

Image courtesy of MilitaryHealth/Flickr.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX
Next Page »