The Pursuit of Wellness: Examining the Scales of Human Performance

A Q&A with Perkins+Will on wellness in architecture, and how designers are striving to make buildings healthier.

For the past three years Metropolis’s publisher and editor in chief, Susan S. Szenasy, has been leading a series of discussions with industry leaders on important issues surrounding human-centered design. On March 16 at Perkins+Will, Chicago, she moderated a panel of experts in education, athletics, nutrition, urban ecology, science, and design about wellness in architecture and the impact of the built environment on well-being and healthy living. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation prepared by S. T. White.


Susan S. Szenasy, director of design innovation, Metropolis (SSS): We challenge design offices to pick a topic poised to influence their work in the future. The Chicago office of Perkins+Will chose human performance as a subject. They invited experts in health and wellness, and two select designers to tell us how to incorporate this growing field of information into their projects. Perkins+Will has a record of advancing health care by creating toxin-free environments. Panelists, please introduce your area of expertise.

Dr. Eve A. Edelstein, EDAC, M.Arch., PhD (neuroscience), AIA associate, AAA fellow, director, Human Experience Lab and Gadget Lab, Perkins+Will (EAE): I am the research director of one of ten research labs that serve our entire firm. My background began in anthropology; after that I received a PhD in neuroscience with a focus on the sensory system. Then I studied clinical neuroscience to understand how the sensorium impacts our health and behavior. Finally, I got a master’s in architecture.

Linda Samuels, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, certified specialist in sports dietetics, owner, Training Table Sports Nutrition (LS): I am a sports dietitian. I work primarily with ultra-athletes and professional boxers.

Kristin Kipp, director of employee wellness, exercise science, Marquette University (KK): I direct the employee wellness program at Marquette University. My background is in exercise science and nutrition.

Molly Meyer, CEO and founder, Omni Ecosystems (MM): Soil science is where I started, but currently I specialize in creating working landscapes on and around buildings that pay for themselves.

David J. Dymecki, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, sports and recreation principal, practice leader, Perkins +Will (DJD): I have spent more than 30 years working on sports architecture projects around the country and overseas. After college, I was working with Michael Graves in Princeton, and he said, “I’ve got an awesome sports project in Philadelphia. You’re the athlete in the office. How’d you like to take a shot at it?” That started my career in sports architecture.

UCLA Health, Lakers Training Facility. ©Perkins+Will.

SSS: We have a lot of conversations around neuroscience and architecture these days, but there’s so much abstraction. How do the two fields intersect?

EAE: I get that question often, but to me, it’s not abstract. When we ask how we respond to built environments, we use behavioral observation, but now we can dig beneath that to our biological responses. We collect metrics on sensory stimulus— light, sound, dimensions. There is also research that links exercise to cognition and memory, so designing toward healthier bodies can be justified with financial or productivity incentives.


SSS: Linda, how does nutrition fit into this conversation?

LS: I work with professional boxers on the South Side of Chicago. A high-rank, light heavyweight boxer by the name of Andrzej had a hard time cutting weight and asked for help. While getting to know other boxers at the gym, I discovered that their nutrition habits were counterproductive. Once they saw how Andrzej’s performance improved, they wanted to know more about nutrition. For example, boxers usually spit out the water that they are offered during time-outs. I explained that you don’t have to spit out water in the middle of a fight. You should swallow the water because hydration is important for good health and performance. Some incredible young leaders want to bring this knowledge back to their communities outside of boxing. In neighborhoods known as food deserts there are now programs, like the Healthy Corner Store project, that help convince store owners to carry healthy foods.

KK: At Marquette, students report stress, anxiety, and inactivity, so when designing the campus, we ask how our program can improve wellness. Can we include a place for people to meditate for 15 minutes or go to a yoga class?

EAE: Stress negatively impacts our memory, while exercise affects neurons that form memory, so it’s possible to change our brain function with exercise. Constant exposure to light through computer screens and unnatural lighting changes our cortisol levels, which affects our ability to relax and sleep. Research about visual systems suggests that the flicker of light on water or leaves moving in the wind relaxes us.

SSS: Landscape architecture’s role is essential. Molly, can you tell us how your work with green roofs integrates technology, well-being, and good business?

MM: We developed technology for food and trees to grow out of shallow, lightweight systems. In 2015, late in the year we were building the rooftop of Studio Gang Architects’ new headquarters in Wicker Park. As happens with construction schedules, it got  delayed, and it was so late in the fall that we couldn’t seed a native wildflower meadow. The perennials wouldn’t take in those cold conditions, so we switched to a cold-hardy winter wheat to protect the soil. By the next summer, a wheat field had come up—a prairie across a 5,000-square-foot roof at the intersection of Ashland and Milwaukee. It was remarkable. We asked if a student group could harvest it to find out how much a rooftop can yield. By hand, with scissors, we harvested the whole roof and found an important metric. For every 50 square feet of green roof, you get one pound of flour.

In April, we’re giving a presentation at the Resilience Symposium for the U.S. Green Building Council. We’re taking our data on storm water and wheat, and scaling it up to see how much wheat could be harvested if 30 percent of roofs in Chicago were green.

Also, an interesting report came out saying that every time there is a combined sewer overflow event in Chicago, Goose Island Brewery has to shut down beer production for the day. We’re factoring in the overflow events that would be avoided if roofs were able to absorb storm water.

After the students harvested the wheat, they threshed it and got over 60 pounds of flour. A baker milled it for us as a donation into high-grade pastry flour, which they made into cookies. The students sold them to raise money for their nonprofit group.

University of Cincinnati Health Sciences Building. ©Perkins+Will.

SSS: So the benefits are not only a more beautiful city but also an invigorating culture of urban farming.

MM: In addition to creating roof spaces, we maintain them. Reluctant building owners say, “The City of Chicago requires us to put a green roof on new commercial construction. We don’t want to maintain it for the next 20 years.” So we tell them we will farm it for them, either for free or in some cases we pay rent to lease the roof back. I get phone calls every week from people, mostly in their 20s, saying, “I want to be an urban farmer. It’s everything I want to do.” A lot of people want to live in cities but still be outdoors and connect to the local food economy. There’s demand for food to sell to restaurants and also for this kind of job. People are rediscovering the importance of dense and sparse areas, with less focus on suburban spaces. Young people tend to be the first to realize the falsities of society, so I think it’s a natural occurrence that they are seeking work in urban agriculture.

SSS: Designers, how are you incorporating these changes of thinking into your work?

DJD: I’m going to go out on a limb and say there’s at least one Fitbit in this room. There’s a statistic that says about 30 percent of Americans are extremely active, and that number is growing  every year, which is having a huge impact on the way we think about designing buildings.

At Northwestern, which has a Division I athletic program, we designed an innovative sports performance building. Typically, a locker room starts with a lounge with a TV and refrigerator, then the lockers, and finally the wet area. We flipped the sequence. First you experience the wet area, with the lockers next, and the last space is the lounge. The lounge has windows and a nutrition setup. The emphasis on nutrition encourages students to take ownership of their health and well-being.

SSS: How do spectator sports relate to the community, to nonathletes, for example?

DJD: A new trend finds health-care institutions merging with professional sports franchises. We, along with Rossetti, are working on the practice facility for the Los Angeles Lakers, who have partnered with UCLA Health, which bought the naming rights to the building, and will reach out to the community to provide sports, nutrition, and wellness programs in and around the facility. We include nutritionists as part of our design team and address nutrition with clients at the early stages of developing programming. My personal experience hiring a nutritionist has changed how I move through buildings. I’ve learned that I need to eat four times while I’m at work, and another person might have a different eating schedule. So ideally, we should address an array of food preparation and consumption habits, in terms of fueling stations, counter space, lounge space, and access to daylight. When we do, the workforce is healthier.

EAE: In our mobility lab, we study how to encourage people to move throughout a space. Movement is an interactive mechanism that drives health not just at an urban scale but inside buildings and workplaces. In the 1940s and ’50s, designers improved the ergonomics of seating. Now we’re exploring how to break out of that mold to allow people to ambulate.

SSS: I’m curious: How do all of you see your work evolving?

MM: I want to find ways to incentivize adding greenery to the built environment. Since we’re not going to see federal policies that encourage this, strides can be made in the private sector, particularly in insurance. In 2011, hailstorms destroyed part of Garfield Park Conservatory’s glass rooftop. A few blocks away, we had a green roof that covered half the roof. The softball-size hail destroyed the roof membrane, but the green-roof half was fine.

The hail just melted. On another building, the greenery held down a single-ply membrane that, on another side without the greenery, popped up in a storm with high winds. When insurance companies see the value, they can change rates and incentivize owners. Looking holistically at sustainability across the triple bottom line is what interests me.

DJD: I would say from a design and architecture perspective, there are things I think about now when I walk through our office and through our space that I didn’t six months ago. I really look for ways to walk around the office. Where are wide-enough paths for me to take laps every hour? The benefit of that is six months ago I probably knew the names of half the people in our office. Now I probably know three-quarters of everyone’s names because I’m doing laps. It’s gotten me to engage more.

Then—and I haven’t gotten to this point yet because I’m probably too embarrassed—I look for areas to stretch or do squats. There was an article recently about a woman who placed mats and created stretching areas around her desk and got her coworkers to do that just once an hour. I’m thinking, “I need more space around my desk. Maybe I need a smaller desk, but I need more space.” I was not thinking that way six months ago, and I’m thinking that way now.

SSS: Isn’t it interesting that when architects pull in their own experiences, the world changes for the better. Thank you for sharing that with us. This is only the beginning of our conversation, but I’m really glad we started it here.

Szenasy (right) and panelists at the offices of Perkins+Will. © Randall Starr.

Dr. Eve A. Edelstein, EDAC, M.Arch., PhD (neuroscience), AIA associate , AAA fellow, director, Human Experience Lab and Gadget Lab, Perkins+Will

David J. Dymecki, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, sports and recreation principal, practice leader, Perkins+Will
Kristin Kipp, director of employee wellness, exercise science, Marquette University
Molly Meyer, founder and CEO, Omni Ecosystems
Linda Samuels, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, certified specialist in sports dietetics, owner, Training Table Sports Nutrition

Susan S. Szenasy, director of design innovation, Metropolis magazine

The Metropolis Think Tank series is presented in partnership with Corian® Design,DXV/GROHE, KI, Sunbrella Contract Fabrics, and Teknion.

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