By Michèle Rafferty & Cheree Franco - 15th October, 2021
A joint initiative of AIA Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina chapters, the annual Aspire Conference explores community, equity, health, housing, resilience, and leadership, through an architectural lens. The 2021 event covered social entrepreneurship, housing insecurity, mental health, public engagement, placemaking, and more. Presenters included top architects, planners, design scholars, and consultants.
The conference opened with keynote speaker Sean Brock, a James Beard-awarded celebrity chef, featured on the shows “Mind of a Chef” and “Chef’s Table.” When Covid hit his Nashville community, Brock started a community kitchen that has served over 60,000 meals to date.
Later in the conference, PLASTARC’s Sociospatial Designer, Amy Rosen, teamed up with award-winning architects responsible for a variety of instrumental public projects, such as the National Museum of African-American History (SmithGroup), Crow Collection of Asian Art (A Complete Unknown) and Philadelphia’s Union Terminal Restoration (GBBN Architects), as well as high-end residential projects (Harrison Design) and socially-focused neighborhood projects (Cognitive Design). Their presentations, “It’s Time for Mental Health and Architecture” and “Life Changing Spaces,” focused on design solutions that destigmatize conversations about mental health in the design realm and how to create spaces that contribute to overall well-being.
Emily Schnicker, a principal at Harrison Design, started the discussion by highlighting the fact that, according to advocacy group Mental Health America, Georgians have less access to mental healthcare than residents of any other state. She asked the panel to consider how architects can enhance public mental health through design.
“Health is a whole lived experience that we all have. It's a combination of physical, mental, social, spiritual and other aspects,” said Matthew Finn, the founder of Cognitive Design. In his firm’s recent work designing pediatric clinics, Finn sought to promote foundational trust and bonds between parents and children.
Other challenges Finn has tackled include using space to facilitate connection and speech intelligibility in restaurants and a holistic approach to designing an office for workers who create computer systems. Opening up the warehouse facility to ensure natural light and connecting it to local coffee shops and other social gathering spots were essential components in his overall design.
Spatial and sensory design were also key parts of the discussion.
Stephen Parker of SmithGroup explained some design choices his team made in creating a playroom for autistic children. They made the room small, rather than large and open, to promote a feeling of greater intimacy that often puts children on the spectrum at ease.
Smell is important in controlling stress response. Even if existing facility conditions are difficult to change, Parker suggested making small areas of a facility more relaxing, with the addition of something tiny, like pleasant-smelling soap.
Amy Rosen, PLASTARC’s Sociospatial Designer, emphasized the importance of engaging multiple senses. Comfortable temperature, acoustics and lighting have been the most critical sustainability and wellness factors to many of her clients.
When Finn designed a body positive gym in Decatur, Georgia, he thought about how material choices might impact mental health. He replaced traditional mirrors, which highlight specific features of the body, with grey-glass mirrors, which highlight exercise form. The feedback from gym-users was positive.
“We’re not performing psychotherapy. We’re not trying to resolve issues that somebody may have with a mirror in a gym, but we are trying to mitigate the negatives,” said Finn.
According to Rosen, considering psychological safety in design can facilitate building empathy. Psychological safety is the shared belief among team members that they can take interpersonal risks, such as admitting vulnerabilities and owning their mistakes.
“Co-create an experience that can then become a shared reality,” Rosen said. She notes that activity-based and collaborative workspaces are better for employee well-being than cushy private offices. “Many corporations think that people want desks, but they want diversity. They want that choice, and they want autonomy.”
In institutional spaces, such as healthcare facilities, time is often wasted on waiting. It’s an area where design can have a big impact, according to Parker, if we can physically construct a space that allows time spent waiting to be used constructively. “You can take a static healthcare environment and you can turn it into an active space that is participatory in creating a positive outcome,” he said.
Sometimes mental health concerns are a bedrock of design for a particular space. This is true of The John and Jill Ker Conway Residence, a permanent housing project for formerly homeless veterans in Washington, D.C.
Suman Sorg, founder of A Complete Unknown, designed the Residence’s bottom floors to house Veteran Affairs social services, so veterans would easily be able to get help and accountability when they need it. The living units were designed to provide an acoustic buffer, to guard against triggering vets with PTSD. Muted, calming finishes were deliberately chosen to lessen anxiety, and floors are intentionally dark, to provide a clear differentiation between the ground and the walls—something that facilitates orientation.
Rosen reminded the audience that we have actual data we can use to measure delight, and we should use this data to its maximum potential, so we can see “people as assets and recognize that they are really who we’re designing for.” This data, which can be location-based or self-reported, coupled with our rapidly increasing understanding of neuroscience, allows designs to quickly gage how people react to certain spaces and to design for their preferences. It offers a solid foundation for a more democratic approach to shared-space design.