April 8, 2015
Jason Schroer, AIA, ACHA, LEED AP

I have a confession to make.  I believe that design makes a difference. That may not seem scandalous, but it makes me vulnerable.  So vulnerable, in fact, that my conscience urges me to believe things that may not exist. But how do I really know?

Which brings me to Bigfoot and the conundrum. There is a popular show currently running on the A&E Network that chronicles a team of three researchers who have spent decades tracking evidence of Bigfoot. The majority of them believe in his existence. In scenario after scenario they encounter noises, knocks, hoots and howls – all of which they are convinced is Sasquatch. Even with thousands of hours of video, they have yet to get a glimpse of the mythical beast – at least on this show.  

My colleague, Dr. Upali Nanda, Director of Research at HKS, put it best when discussing this, “The big question that one has to ask is, does all of the evidence they find point to Bigfoot because they believe in Bigfoot? In other words, is the hypothesis forcing them to accept this single explanation and reject other potential explanations?”

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Dr. Nanda goes on to say, “Let’s say we argue that the physical environment reduces infections. In our studies, are we looking only at data that supports design as the solution, as opposed to other possible reasons for reduced infections. Are we, in a way, seeking to find Big Evidence, simply because we believe or want to prove its existence?”

Over the past few decades, the body of evidence-based design has been growing.  It gives architects and designers proof that our designs can impact people in positive ways. Its helps bridge the gaps between experience and trends, and brings credibility to our work. But how do we know?  Is it only because we believe?

As architects, it is a question that we need to ask ourselves continuously. And, as the body of evidence continues to build, we should be careful how and when we make these claims. Studying the environment’s impact on people is multifarious, with a tremendous number of variables. It is challenging to eliminate all factors and come to concrete conclusions.

And, I guess if we are truly objective, as much as we can positively impact humankind through design, it is likely that we could also be causing harm.  Is this part of the evidence?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I still believe that design makes a difference, and my desire and commitment to create spaces and places that positively impact people will not wane.  The evidence is building and can lead us to design principles or guidelines with goals for better outcomes. But, as design professionals, it is important that we move forward with caution and not overstate the evidence. Or, worse yet, apply the proof that exists to the wrong scenario or condition. Let’s continue to learn from our previous designs, and better yet, continue to test the evidence.  It will make us better designers and more trusted advisors to our clients.  Wait, did you hear that?  Sounded like Squatch…

This post is written as a follow-up to my recent presentation at the PDC Summit 2015 in San Antonio titled “The Bigfoot Conundrum in Evidence-Based Design” co-presented with David Allison, FAIA, FACHA, Distinguished Professor, Director of Graduate Architecture and Health, School of Architecture, Clemson University.

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