To Get to Net Zero, Cities Need to Think Wider Than Buildings

Cities Have to Embrace District-Wide Net Zero Solutions to Create Change at a Scale That Will Make a Difference

January 15, 2020

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Smart Cities Dive.

The city of Boston has recently made headlines for an ambitious new plan that mandates all new city-owned buildings to be carbon neutral, part of a wider plan for the city to achieve net zero status by 2050. The attention on this announcement and the framing of net zero makes sense — finally, there is a sustainability goal for the city that people could fully grasp and get behind, a readily understandable and appealing arithmetic proposition that the city’s buildings will eventually produce as much energy as they use.

The challenge, of course, isn’t in getting people excited about the prospect of going net zero — fervor around the term has grown with the number of buildings that meet the standard. The challenge is preparing cities for what it’s going to take to actually make net zero a realistic possibility.

An ambitious goal like Boston’s requires a total overhaul in how we think about sustainability, at every level of impact. The changes must go beyond recycling, using LED light bulbs, and even constructing net zero buildings, since individual buildings or projects can only go so far. Cities will have to embrace bigger, district-wide or neighborhood-scaled solutions that create change at a scale that will make a difference.

The city already has a good model for district energy looks like in practice with the Kendall Station power plant in Cambridge [PDF]. For years waste heat was dumped from the cooling processes of the plant’s generating turbines into the Charles River basin. The resultant overheated river water produced large algae blooms, making the river waters toxic to not only wildlife but also humans who came in contact with the algae. By virtue of a mutual agreement, today waste steam heat from the power plant is piped across the Charles River to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where it is used for heating the campus in the winter and to sterilize equipment year-round. The proximity of a large hospital physical plant, which had the unusual need for steam 12 months of the year, to the power plant was a fortuitous urban condition and demonstrated the beauty of thinking about district-wide solutions for achieving net zero.

Examples like this demonstrate how we need to change the way we think and talk about sustainability. As an architect and city planner, I’ve seen time and time again how the way we communicate an idea is a powerful tool for helping people feel like they can tackle daunting problems. It’s also true that rhetoric can have the opposite effect. Solutions at the scale of the city tend to be complex. They don’t carry the catchy recognition of a well-marketed phrase like “net zero,” but they do make it possible for net zero to be a feasible goal.

I learned this firsthand during my time on the Getting to Net Zero Task Force in Cambridge. In 2015, the Cambridge City Council approved the Net Zero Action Plan, a 25-year proposal that will get Cambridge to net zero by 2040 — the result isn’t just talk but real policy, embodied in the city‘s net zero zoning. To make this work, we understood that the definition of net zero needed to be expanded. Solutions come in myriad form, including accessing green energy from out of state. After all, creating a market for non-CO2-producing energy sources outside the boundaries of one’s own city helps the planet at large. In Cambridge these offsets absolutely count towards netting out a building’s carbon footprint. So daisy-chaining energy production in neighborhoods, and yes, designing homes and buildings with an eye to energy savings so it is ultimately easier to net out the energy use with clean production need to be strategies too.

Approaching sustainability as a set of steps and achievable benchmarks can take away some of the daunting magnitude of the task at hand. In Cambridge, for instance, the city started by putting its money where its mouth was. The city is requiring all government buildings — firehouses, police stations and schools, for example — to be net zero by 2025. Next, we’ll tackle the biggest, most energy-sucking buildings — laboratories — with the goal of getting them to net zero by 2030.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. In Seattle, for example, Amazon’s new downtown headquarters captures waste heat from a non-Amazon-owned data center on an adjacent block to reduce their own energy consumption. It’s just one company, and an area of only a few blocks, but it’s an important proof-of-concept that points the way forward. On an even larger scale, the United States Department of Energy has launched a Zero Energy Districts Accelerator program that is currently piloting projects in Denver, St. Paul, Buffalo, Huntington Beach and Fresno.

Designers and architects are well positioned to push net zero forward. The job is to imagine futures that don’t exist today, to generate creative solutions that speak to all of the above-mentioned scales. District-wide solutions to energy prove that, if we work together, even more powerful and kaleidoscopic solutions are possible for our mind-boggling and seemingly impossible environmental challenges. The solutions to climate change can be remarkably beautiful and may even lie in some pretty old-fashioned values, like building strong communities, relying on our neighbors and believing that design matters.

Banner image courtesy Nelson48/Wikipedia.

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Four Factors Driving Healthcare Interior Design

How to Ensure Healthcare Interiors Contribute to a Healing Environment

January 6, 2020

Architect, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Kerianne Graham and Edwin Beltran. It was originally published in Building Operating Management.

In healthcare, interior design has moved beyond just materials to consider elements like wayfinding, biophilia, natural light, and more. Even more important, however, is to think about how those elements combine to create a healing experience for patients, visitors, and staff. That experience is driven most by four factors — people, process, place, and technology — all of which have an impact on interior design.

At the Palo Alto Medical Foundation San Carlos Center, drought-resistant plants suited for the California climate reduce the need for artificial irrigation while connecting with people’s innate love for nature.

 

1. People

An outstanding experience is one that uniquely responds to the physical, cognitive, and emotional needs of the diverse population of users who experience a space, which, in a healthcare environment, typically means patients, family, and staff. Healthcare environments should address those needs in a way that is supportive, enabling, inspiring, and dignifying.

One way for interior design to improve the experience for patients and their families is to reduce the anxiety of the unknown. First impressions matter. An appropriate space of arrival, like an atrium or lobby, that considers the needs of key populations, can help people feel welcome and navigate clearly. For instance, at the new replacement hospital for the Southeastern Louisiana Veterans Health Care System, research showed that many Louisiana Veteran patients would be traveling great distances to the hospital, so the designers located necessary amenities like bathrooms prominently near the front door.

Arrival spaces can extend beyond the lobby, too. In the Lunder Building at Massachusetts General Hospital, a sixth-floor atrium welcomes patients and visitors to the patient floors with comfortable furniture, abundant daylight, and plantings.

Spaces like this also help patients and their families establish a positive routine, especially for those, like oncology patients, who may visit the hospital frequently. Welcoming, easy-to-find areas like the café, chapel, and garden space can help to shift a person’s focus away from treatment.

And don’t forget about staff. Studies show that caregiver satisfaction is directly correlated to patient recovery times, so ensuring the physical and mental wellbeing of the care team translates directly into improved medical outcomes. One solution, simple in concept but difficult in execution, is to bring daylight deep into the “backstage” areas of a hospital, such as patient-floor corridors or even the sterile clinical zones where caregivers spend much of their day.

Private staff space is also important, especially for behavioral health providers, social workers, and case managers — really, anyone who might deliver bad news or work with critical patients — who may often need to recenter themselves after a stressful situation. And because staff are more likely to use spaces that are out of view of patients and families, it is critical to provide separate, more private places of respite. These spaces can resemble “mothers’ rooms,” with comfortable movable furniture, soft materials, a calming color palette, and dimmable lighting. They can also be outdoor, landscaped spaces which rely on nature to provide a sense of calm, as at the new Big Lots Pavilion for behavioral health at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

What’s more, the caregiver experience can be improved by connecting staff — and their patients — to the organization’s mission of care. Nationwide Children’s accomplishes this with brand standards that employ video throughout the hospital depicting staff talking about their experiences, their passions, and their purpose.

 

2. Process

While process improvements aren’t often considered an interior design issue, every process change has a design implication. Every provider seeks an efficient care model that supports business goals and positive patient outcomes, but those processes must always focus on creating an outstanding, personalized experience for patients and their families.

Consider the waiting experience. Typically patients sit in the waiting room, staring at the door where nurses emerge, waiting for their name to be called, getting more and more anxious. Simply reconfiguring the seating so patients aren’t staring at the door can make a big difference. While many institutions are working to reduce typical wait times, patients still need places to rest between the stages of their visit, and families will still experience waiting if they’re not accompanying the patient to the treatment space.

For even greater impact, consider activity-based waiting. Like activity-based workplaces, this means giving people options: the option to socialize, to work, or to retreat in private. This can be achieved with different types and groupings of furniture, with a range of spaces from quiet to active, and with access to food and drink. Waiting time doesn’t have to be wasted time — waiting time can allow people to be productive, educated, entertained, or simply together.

Providing options also transforms a patient’s experience of his or her room and creates a sense of normalcy. Like the waiting area, patient rooms can be designed to support a variety of modes, from rest, to socialization, to work, to meals and more. A recent patient room concept, inspired by micro-apartment design, aimed to do just that, with fold-down tables and retractable sleeping platforms so patients and families can work, socialize over a meal, or visit overnight.

Some of these concepts made it into the design of the Fetal Care Center at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, where the millwork in labor and delivery rooms includes an integrated fold-down table, so new a mother can enjoy breakfast the next day with her newborn and her partner. Other recent projects are installing mini-fridges and microwaves so patients can save food for when they’re ready to eat, or so their families can bring homemade meals to share in the hospital.

Even when integrated furniture isn’t possible for spatial or budgetary reasons, flexibility can also be provided with moveable furniture so visitors can reconfigure the room to look at the patient, the physician, or even just out the window.

 

3. Place 

An outstanding experience is created by leveraging the physical qualities of an environment to project a distinctive identity that embodies and reflects the aspirational qualities of your brand. It is a place that visually communicates your mission, culture, and values while spatially promoting, supporting, and enabling the behaviors and actions associated with those broader goals.

Interior design can also put patients at ease by connecting them to the place where they live and by giving them a sense of belonging, either with architecture that evokes the vernacular traditions of an area, or with design elements that reference local history and culture. Throughout University Medical Center in New Orleans, for instance, custom design touches pay homage to the ornamentation and rich heritage of New Orleans, from environmental graphics with historic motifs and city scenes, to the large courtyards that reference the vernacular architecture of courtyard homes in the French Quarter. These features help patients not only feel at home, but also navigate the large campus.

Another recent example is the expansion of Swedish Medical Center in Edmonds, Wash. Here, design features celebrate Edmonds’ logging heritage, with 250-year-old boom logs that greet visitors in the lobby and salvaged wood integrated into the landscapes. The architecture also references the region’s glacial past, with striated metal panels that evoke geological strata.

Landscape is another essential element of place. Native plantings take biophilia to the next level, by connecting not only with humans’ innate love for nature in general, but for their love of the everyday natural world in which they live. It is also inherently sustainable — at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation San Carlos Center, for example, drought-resistant plants suited for the California climate reduce the need for artificial irrigation.

 

4. Technology

Finally, the healthcare experience — like so many other things — is being transformed by technology. Technology enables people to become more active participants in their own care, and those who do so are likely to have improved health behaviors, positive care outcomes, and enjoyable care experiences. Simple engagement tools such as personal tablets and self check-in kiosks are already well-established in many settings, but the opportunities for deploying technology throughout the care experience are expanding rapidly.

One important role of technology is to strengthen communication between patients and caregivers. This can be accomplished with telemedicine — remote consultations with care providers — patient tracking systems, patient portals, and, in the not-too-distant future, medical-grade wearable devices. Telehealth systems can also improve communications between caregivers themselves, especially among distributed care teams.

Another important goal is transparency and information sharing, to ease patients’ anxiety by keeping them informed about where they are in the process. As artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated at understanding our daily patterns, it can be used to remind people of their upcoming medical appointments. Virtual concierges can be used to check people in remotely and guide them to their hospital destination. Real-time location systems can the track patients throughout their healthcare journey, much like airplane check-in apps that text travelers updates on their flight status.

Real-time location systems also make it possible to reduce the size of waiting rooms and convert that space to variable, flexible environments that take activity-based waiting to a whole new level, providing freedom and choice for patients and staff. Thanks to technology, waiting doesn’t even have to be in the hospital at all — waiting can happen anywhere, and patients can receive the same level of service they’ve come to expect.

Real-time location systems apply to supplies as well, making it possible to implement just-in-time inventory, which reduces the amount of space needed on patient floors for storage. What can that space become? The possibilities for improving the experience for patients and staff are almost limitless.

Not all technological advancements may affect interior design directly, but they will affect operations, and as operations change, they will free up new opportunities for design.

 

On Beauty 

Neuroscience research has shown that the human brain reacts to beauty — that is, to spaces in which form, proportion, volume, light, materiality, landscape, and other sensory aspects are balanced and working in tandem. Our attention changes in environments that are diverse and dynamic and surprising. Around things it perceives as beautiful, the brain calms, and stress — measured in cortisol levels — decreases. Most people cannot explain why they react the way they do, but they definitely perceive it.

To cite just one example, the landscape at the Neuroscience Center at Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, is designed to store stormwater runoff while enhancing the lobby experience and campus grounds. Water flows from the roof into a series of illuminated, architectural concrete weirs, then into a basin where it is retained and filtered by wetland plants — selected for scale, texture, seasonal color, and ease of maintenance — before passing into the campus’ drainage system. The resulting landscape is beautiful, functional and — judging by the visitors who crowd the lobby windows during storms to watch it in action — even dramatic.

What’s more, beauty should be democratic. When people are in beautiful spaces, they feel better about themselves. Beauty shapes a person’s entire experience, and nowhere is this more important than in healthcare. By considering the people you’re designing for, the processes and behaviors you want to encourage, the unique qualities of the places where people live and work, and the ways in which technology can advance not only medical care but also the human experience, we can create truly transformative healthcare environments that help people live and work their best.

Banner image courtesy Bruce Damonte/NBBJ.

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Escaping Good Design

Landscape Architects Must Mindfully Contradict Some Principles of ‘Good Design’ in Their Work

December 11, 2019

Founding Partner, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally authored for the December 2018 issue of A+U. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

Landscape architecture is popularly known as a gentle and passive field, staffed with pleasant people who are content to take satisfaction in the benefits inherent in our chosen media of plants, pollinators and playgrounds. To some degree, this “nice guy” impression is true, as confirmed by walking through the earnest and agreeable discussions between competitors that fill the hallways between sessions at the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) convention each year. But this benign image of landscape architecture could not be more deceptive in its misrepresentation of the rebellious,  unpopular and conflict-ridden work that is often required to produce the most gentle, seemingly effortless, public landscapes.

I frequently warn landscape-architecture students about this when I visit schools, knowing that the most well-suited of them will not be put off but further engaged and excited about the challenging and, at times, lonely work in front of them as responsible landscape designers. Young landscape architects are prepared to make heroic arguments for trees, stormwater and greenspace — preaching to the choir in many contexts today — but they rarely imagine themselves making arguments for uncool and seemingly draconian design measures, like blocking desire lines, fortifying edges, controlling sightlines and restricting entries into a space.

These underappreciated aspects of landscape design are crucial to gracefully guide movement, create suspense and delight and shape the human experience, but they are often ill-received during the design process. In our era of user-centered design, this designer-imposed, intuitively driven, spatial aspect of landscape architecture has not been as popularly appreciated as the programmatic amenities that get dropped into the design, like play structures or food-truck parking. As a result, some landscape architects don’t talk about their important spatial-design work in their presentations and public meetings, for fear that it will be characterized as needless design impositions upon the users of the future landscape. But spatial obstacles, containment and peculiarities in landform are timeless, crucial ingredients in the most satisfying, stimulating experiences of the authentic, site-specific landscapes of our communities.

The tension in communicating the need for assertive, contextually driven landform — creating a legible place, with local character — in balance with the need for user-driven programming and “people amenities” has been heightened by today’s public expectations of function-driven, user-centered or “people-friendly” design values. User-centered design is an overdue and reasonable, primary expectation for the design of workplace furniture, baby carriers, Toto toilets and aircraft cockpits, but, I often plead, not for public space.

With much of our designed environment now offering instant gratification, we need the landscape to withhold its reward. We need to be reminded what it feels like to physically earn a view — even if only by a few extra steps — and to feel the achievement of physically discovering something. To “conceal and reveal” landscape also makes it more humane and interesting than keeping it entirely open, despite what may look better on plan to many viewers. Why walk into a park or plaza, for instance, if one can see every sun-baked square foot of it, in a single glance, from the edge? Good landscape design should block some views.

Good landscape design should also block some desire lines. The most enjoyable, humane landscapes, in the world’s most beloved neighborhoods and wild areas alike, do not become soul-fulfilling or iconic places in our memories by their achievements in pass-through convenience. While encouraging easy passage through any public landscape is important, the design should slow people down and festively register its entry and exit moments, with a thick sense of nature and the particular textures and pace of the local landscape.

Omitting some obvious shortcuts and adding some offsets or corners in a route through a space will always strike some people as the landscape architect treating function frivolously or with naivety toward the needs of the users. “People will always cut corners,” we are reminded, usually with the anecdote about the sage designer of the college green who simply paved the short-cut paths across the space. We’ll take that reminder (and agree with it), but we will do our best to create a place that is for stopping and resting as comfortably as for rushing through.

Good landscape design should not be too cool. We are all being flooded daily with the latest, impeccably photographed design references and planting styles from all over the globe. A commitment to designing authentic, contextual landscape often means a limited palette of plants and materials that are tied, timelessly, to the site’s location. This restraint comes with a high risk of being labeled as boring, especially by locals who have lost the ability to see the unique beauty or esteem in their common landscape. However, I tend to find that limiting oneself in such a way, to locally common influences, actually helps to produce a more distinct and novel landscape and detailing regime. This, in turn, helps both local people and visitors to see, sometimes for the first time in memory, the beauty and value of a local commonality. For instance, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, locally native “weed trees” like Big Leaf Maple and familiar, native shade plants like Sword Fern and Salal are cheerfully incorporated into the clean-lined campus landscape. This bog-inspired landscape offers daily contact for the employees with their home’s unique natural history, unmistakable foliage color and ecological context. We are regularly asked what tree species the Big Leaf Maples are in the campus, as some people hadn’t noticed their stunning foliage in the same way along roadsides and greenbelts. We incorporated the beautiful texture of common Hardstem Bulrush into the rainwater gardens — an ethnobotanical storied plant that was long considered a weed around the surrounding lakes — and it is one of the other, most asked-about plants by campus visitors.

Celebrating the common, designing to be somewhat inconvenient and delaying gratification: the real landscapes we need today require the designer to advocate for breaking some rules of user-centered design, in order to provide opportunities to interact with a scale of landscape, community and history that transcends our own. Landscape architects must advocate at times for providing a more assertive experience from the common landscape, incorporating raw and peculiar influences like the natural history and ecology of its place, or the cultural patterns of local community.

Unlike other forms of good design, the landscape we need today shouldn’t disappear elegantly before us, in deference to our desire lines and shortcuts. It should stand in our way, present something back to us that we did not ask for, and take us on an unscripted journey — even a small one — when we traverse it.

Banner image courtesy LoggaWiggler/Pixabay.

Gates Foundation sketch courtesy Shannon Nichol/GGN.

Gates Foundation photograph courtesy Timothy Hursley/NBBJ.

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