AIA’s Robert Ivy on Committing the Profession to Public Health

The American Institute of Architects is committed to creating solutions for public health.

This fall, the American Institute of Architects announced a 10-year commitment to develop design and technology solutions for cities addressing public health, sustainability, and resiliency challenges. It’s the kind of commitment that many AIA members have long sought: putting human and environmental health and wellness at the center of the architecture mission. That the announcement was made at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York, gave it cache; more than 1,000 global leaders gathered to address the theme of “Designing for Impact.”

AIA is seeking to demonstrate the link between building design and the health of people who live or work there, and, says AIA CEO Robert Ivy, “bring the force of design to bear in the public health arena and debate.” The effort, called “Decade of Design” will involve funding and in-kind contributions from the AIA, Ivy says, through three initiatives: university research; community planning collaborations; and something called “Show Us Your APPtitude Hackathon,” designed to promote creative apps and technologies as springboards. The first three recipients of research grants were announced. Texas A&M University’s project, Evaluating Health Benefits of Liveable Communities is a toolkit for measuring health impacts, which will include an empirical study of a LEED for Neighborhood Development project in Austin. The University of Arkansas’s Fayetteville 2030: Creating Food City Scenario Plan will study pathways to creating a local food infrastructure amid rapid growth. The University of New Mexico has a pilot program, Establishing Interdisciplinary Health-Architecture Curriculum.

For those who have long made the case that attending to issues of sustainability are the over-arching umbrella of any design or planning pursuit, finding ways to strengthen and illuminate these connections seems almost painfully obvious. But anyone familiar with architecture education and practice—where barriers to interdisciplinary collaboration are stiff—the links are too often ignored, overlooked, or poorly quantified. I asked Robert Ivy to talk about the impetus for this program.

Kira Gould: Why do you and the AIA see a need for funding the health/design connection at this time?

Robert Ivy: While many of us believe that the connections between health and design are there, what we need is proof. We want to help build up the data that will help us quantify and demonstrate, with rigorous case studies, the value of design in the context of these issues and the inherent relationship between architecture and public health. I’m inspired by the notion that we can participate in this. I think it’s true—if not proven—that architecture can affect a community’s health, particularly in the area of ailments such as diabetes and heart disease. Basic design principles already encourage architects to consider health every day: we take into consideration how buildings have access to sunlight, fresh air, clean water. Ultimately, we want to be able to show and prove that buildings are making an impact. This requires evidence. We know, anecdotally, that certain types of places make people more productive. Quantifying this is the aim of this initiative.

KG: Why announce this at the Clinton Global Initiative?

RI: This is actually our second time making a commitment at CGI. Last year, we did a one-year commitment to help re-ignite stalled projects. This is more ambitious; it’s a 10-year sustained commitment and to funding research and exploration that involves working with the academy and many other partners that will be announced over time. We are lucky that CGI exists. It’s an unparalleled forum for sharing information of important issues. CGI has the ear of vital constituents and important partners; it’s the NGO version of the United Nations. At CGI, we work in groups, and the company is impressive. My table included the U.S. Surgeon General, Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA; Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and head of World Health Organization, who is now Special Envoy on Climate Change for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon; and a 15-year-old Maryland student, Jack Andraka, who invented a method of diagnosing pancreatic cancer. I met people who are working with major metro areas all over the world to improve public health through innovative transit solutions, such as aerial tramways for favelas in South America. Everyone there wants to share and collaborate. What better environment in which to announce this commitment?

KG: Why is a hackathon—or the app technology it’s designed to foment—important to this effort?

RI: The design community is comfortable with competition; it’s part of our professional existence. Hackathons fit right into this mindset and they are a growing phenomenon at the municipal level to generate coalescence around solutions. We hope this will produce apps that can clearly show the relationship between health and the built environment—what a great, personal way to engage the public in architecture!

Kira Gould co-authored Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design (Ecotone Publishing, 2007) with architect Lance Hosey. She is the director of communications at William McDonough + Partners. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragould and @womeningreennow.

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