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Upali Nanda Blends Science and Design to Connect Wellness to the Built Environment

Nanda, HKS’s principal and director of research, has developed a system she calls point-of-decision design (PoDD); it seeks maximum healthy returns from the simplest solutions.

Upali Nada HKS wellness
Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Upali Nanda often travels to the HKS Design Lab in Dallas, where she investigates the connections between the built environment and human health. Nanda is also associate professor of practice at Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning at University of Michigan. Courtesy Antonio Chicaia

Women are indispensable members of the design community, yet their contributions are still often taken for granted. This week on Metropolismag.com, we highlight women who are doing innovative and probing work in the fields of architecture, design, and urban planning.

Upali Nanda is someone who can make you fall in love with science just by speaking with her. Words like bias, systemic, and ecosystem become supercharged as the principal and director of research at HKS describes her work in excited tones. She is someone who never tires of asking why and waiting for the results.

Nanda didn’t expect to spend her career researching the impact of design, particularly health-care design, but it was serendipitous that her passions converged. “Since my bachelor’s [in architecture from the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi], one of the things I have been fascinated by is human perception,” she explains. While she was focusing on this blend of research and architecture through her PhD from Texas A&M University, things seemed to fall into place at the exact right time. “I stumbled upon this field the [design] industry was just becoming awake to.”

“Architecture and design have a clear, meaningful, measurable outcome on health and well-being,” she says. “More and more evidence was emerging at that time that made that case.”

Nanda was able to prove this connection at the beginning of her career when she found that exposure to art decreased the amount of anxiety medication that psychiatric patients needed. Finding such a correlation helped form the basis for Nanda’s current thinking about how design can be used to positively change the world. “There are so many systemic issues we [designers] touch,” she says. “We have a direct impact on environment, occupants, and society.”

Upali Nada HKS wellness
The Sensory Cocoon at the Sensory Wellbeing Hub, which recently traveled to SXSW 2019. Courtesy Antonio Chicaia

In her view, this insight can drive design at all scales: “Think about design as a continuum that goes from information and product design to interiors to architecture to neighborhoods to urban design to city design to policy design. As long as we think in this framework, we want to get all kinds of designers together to solve for systemic problems and ecosystems.”

One process that has evolved from this viewpoint is what Nanda calls point-of-decision design (PoDD), predicated on the question “If I only have a limited amount of funding, where should I invest so that people can make better decisions about their health?” For example, in trying to get employees to be healthier during their workday, rather than invest in numerous health-related initiatives, a client can add a staircase to an interior that makes it easier to walk than take the elevator. With PoDD, one looks for solutions that will allow the easiest choice to also be the healthiest choice.

As for the future of design, Nanda says that increasingly, we will be experimenting in “living labs” rather than relying on pre- and post-occupancy reports. Living labs integrate technology to measure the impact of design in real time, so designers, clients, and users can all make more informed choices. Predicts Nanda: “Environments will be a constant conversation between building and humans.”

You may also enjoy “The Paris Researcher Pioneering a New Way to Recycle Building Materials.”

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