HKS at SXSW 2024: Longevity Cities and Exploring Brain Health in the Workplace

HKS at SXSW 2024: Longevity Cities and Exploring Brain Health in the Workplace

Creative people from around the world will gather March 8-16 in Austin, Texas for the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference and festivals. This seminal event is known for unparalleled opportunities for discovery, learning, professional development and networking.

Two sessions at SXSW 2024 will feature HKS design and research professionals. If you are attending SXSW, please join HKS at one of the following sessions:

Kicking Our Workstation Habit to Improve Brain Health

March 12, 10 a.m. – 11 a.m. CT, Austin Marriott Downtown, Waller Ballroom DEF

Speakers: Liz Fallon, HKS Studio Practice Leader, Commercial Interiors; Case Lindberg, University of Colorado, Boulder; Avi Rajagopal, SANDOW Design Group; Tope Sadiku, The Kraft Heinz Company

Our workplaces enable multitasking and it’s taking a toll on our health. Research shows that multitasking impairs brain health, 43% of employees multitask frequently and 60% are dissatisfied with their control of their work environment. Employees on a flexible schedule say they do some types of work best at home vs. the office. What keeps us from applying that thinking within our offices? We’ve got to start asking what we need to do before deciding where best to do it. Join our panel discussion to learn how kicking the workstation habit will lead to better brain health and renewed purpose for the office.

Longevity Cities: Optimal Environments for Healthy Aging

March 12, 10 a.m. – 11 a.m. CT, Austin Marriott Downtown, Waterloo Ballroom 3

Speakers: Upali Nanda, Global Practice Director, Research, and Partner at HKS; Rajiv Ahuja, Milken Institute; Harris Eyre, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy; Marc Freedman, CoGenerate (formerly

Longevity cities could hold the key to longer, healthier lives. Listen to experts testing the interaction between health, environment and social factors that impact how we age. Their longevity vision prioritizes brain health to achieve economic prosperity and social progress. They also embrace neighborhood designs that promote healthy behaviors and intergenerational connections. From health services to connected communities, this panel will reveal the power of age-inclusive cities to foster healthy, more resilient lives.

HKS’ New Atlanta Office: What the Future Office Could Be

Brain Building Exhibit

Case Study

Brain Building Exhibit Merging Research and Design for an Interactive Experience

Dallas, Texas, USA

The Challenge

Global design firm, HKS, wanted to create a way to increase understanding of — and engagement with — our leading-edge Brain Health research. With this goal in mind, the experiential branding team envisioned a temporary exhibit that would elevate employee awareness about how the human brain interacts with the built environment. The exhibit would also empower our designers to incorporate brain healthy solutions into their current and future work. 

The Design Solution

The Brain Building exhibit, designed for initial placement at the Dallas HKS headquarters, activates an underutilized second-floor arrival area and other key spaces throughout the building. The exhibition has a pop-up format, designed with a sustainable panel system so it can be easily transported and used as a tool to share research findings and brain healthy workplace affordances with other HKS offices, clients and external partners. 

The exhibit provides a unique in-office experience that incorporates best practices for storytelling in corporate workplaces and design solutions inspired directly by the research it showcases. The logo and brand expression include handwritten and bold graphic text styles, and a variety of complementary graphics and illustrations. Informational design and digital animations include edited and prioritized research findings for easy comprehension in a physical exhibition space. The HKS experiential branding team and research team worked in tandem to ensure clarity of information and storytelling elements. 

Balancing content panels with transition spaces, the exhibit layout offers a comfortable, navigable visitor experience. The team created takeaway postcards, QR codes and a survey to extend the experience beyond the physical exhibit so people can learn more about the research and sign up for a Brain Health Experience Workshop led by HKS’ research team. 

The Design Impact

The Brain Building exhibit that is more than a physical design — it tells the story of an important research project and represents all the people who participated in the study with interactive, educational elements. Additionally, the exhibit provides access to vital information about brain health and the built environment for anyone who visits HKS and has been toured by our research collaborators from the Center for BrainHealth® at The University of Texas at Dallas, who were able to learn about the impacts of their scientific work.  

As the HKS experiential branding and research teams collect and share visitor survey results and the exhibit hits the road to other office locations, this project will play a key role in illuminating the importance of designing for brain health worldwide. 

Project Features

Five Design Trends Shaping Communities in 2024

Five Design Trends Shaping Communities in 2024

Advances in artificial intelligence, modular construction and other methodologies will bring renewed energy to the architecture, engineering and construction industry in 2024 despite economic and environmental challenges.  

In response to — and at the forefront of — current real estate and design trends, global design firm HKS is striving to revive and strengthen communities worldwide. In 2024, HKS will continue to create healthy, resilient, dynamic places that support peak performance and bring people joy. 

1 – Spaces for Healthy Living and Learning 

HKS is leveraging the firm’s research and health design expertise to help people navigate ongoing and emerging crises in health care, student health and well-being, and senior living. 

The Sanford Health Virtual Care Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota is one of several exciting HKS health care projects opening in 2024. The telehealth center will improve access to care for rural patients, a medically underserved population.  

Clinical workforce shortages will be a continuing challenge for health systems in the year ahead, according to McKinsey & Company. HKS is designing facilities to address the health care staffing crisis. To further this work, the firm is partnering with design brand MillerKnoll on a study to identify factors that contribute to nurse burnout and to learn how these factors relate to the built environment. The study findings will be published this year. 

This year HKS will also participate in an impact study to gauge how the design of Uplift Luna Preparatory School, which is scheduled to open in Dallas in January, affects student outcomes. HKS’ design of the school was informed by research into how design can support social and emotional learning.  

At the 2024 Environments for Aging conference, HKS and industry partners will present a case study of Elevate Senior Living’s Clearwater, Florida community. HKS’ design for Elevate Clearwater is intended to help address the senior living affordability crisis. The number of middle-income older adults in need of affordable care and housing options is swiftly rising, as demonstrated by a study into the “forgotten middle” senior cohort, by research group NORC at the University of Chicago

2 – Commercial Office Reinvention 

It’s clear by now that hybrid and remote work are here to stay. Changes to work habits over the last four years caused major fluctuations in corporate real estate portfolios, leading to increased vacancy rates and diminishing valuations worldwide. But according to Deloitte’s 2024 commercial real estate outlook, newer, higher quality assets are outperforming older spaces and new construction projects designed to accommodate hybrid work strategies are on the rise.  

HKS commercial interior designers are creating offices with hybrid-ready technologies and attractive amenities for companies like Textron Systems in Arlington, Virginia and AGI in Naperville, Illinois. HKS’ advisory groups have also teamed with influential companies, including CoreLogic, to develop strategies and design concepts for their robust asset portfolios that help them keep up with the evolving real estate landscape. 

The firm’s industry-leading research on brain healthy workplaces has yielded exciting discoveries about how offices that prioritize employee well-being can be designed, delivered and operated. Piloting strategies in the firm’s own real estate portfolio and advocating for “breaking the workstation,” HKS researchers and designers are setting new standards for inclusive, productive office environments. In 2024, HKS will present these ideas to a global audience at South by Southwest® (SXSW®) and continue to design workplaces for new modes of working. 

3 – New Mixed-Use and Planning Match Ups

Fluctuations in the commercial office sector and retail are providing new opportunities in mixed-use development. PwC and ULI’s Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2024 report indicates that real estate investors are increasingly diversifying or pivoting their portfolios to counteract disuse of downtown offices and regional malls.  

A shift toward developments with a variety of localized services and amenities is occurring — and HKS designers and planners are at the forefront of creating exciting new projects with unique anchors. In Hangzhou, China, the 2023 Asian Games Athlete Village Waterfront Mixed-Use is becoming a prime destination for retail and entertainment, not unlike HKS-designed SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park in Los Angeles with its newest attraction, Cosm. Beyond these new mixes, HKS designers are creating dynamic properties such as NoMaCNTR in Washington, DC, to join hotel and residential uses — a combination on the rise in many major cities. 

In 2024, HKS is expanding its ability to serve communities with mixed-use planning and design, fostering sustainable growth for cities in the years to come. The Austin Light Rail team — consisting of Austin Transit Partnership, HKS, UNStudio and Gehl — is set to finalize design guidelines for proposed station locations that will provide opportunities for Austin residents to live in more affordable locations and promote urban expansion into less dense areas. As the transit network expands, it will unlock real estate opportunities and give rise to a variety of diverse and exciting mixed-use properties. This work complements the Transit Oriented Developments projects HKS is working on to elevate the health and well-being of our communities nationwide.  

HKS designers are also set to craft a new master plan for the Georgia World Congress Center’s 220-acre campus in downtown Atlanta this year. The cohesive, sustainability-driven master plan will create a legible pedestrian-friendly environment that maximizes economic potential of the convention center campus. This will integrate the campus’ global canvas with surrounding historic neighborhoods using a comprehensive framework. 

4 – Adaptive Reuse Rising 

In their report on 2024 real estate trends, PwC and ULI write that that “the movement to convert existing buildings from office to multifamily (or any other asset class, really), offers a meaningful achievement in saving carbon emissions.”  

As part of HKS’ efforts towards sustainable and resilient design, the firm is igniting adaptive reuse for a variety of building types, such as ParkwayHealth Gleneagles Chengdu Hospital in China, a tertiary care facility created from a former shopping center. HKS’ design for Mount Sinai Beth Israel Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center in New York City reinvigorated a structure built in 1898 to create a new destination for behavioral health. HKS designers in London renovated a 19th-century office building into a 21st-century clinic. And for an expansion of Rusk State Hospital in Texas, HKS reinvented the hospital campus, which opened in 1883 to house a penitentiary, into a therapeutic and dignified behavioral health care setting. 

In a highly poetic adaptive reuse project, HKS reimagined a defunct airport terminal, which dated to the 1940s, as a creative, contemporary workspace for online travel company Expedia Group. 

In 2024, HKS will continue to advance adaptive reuse design across different markets and geographies. 

5 – Creating a Better World through ESG

Balancing holistic sustainability — including decarbonization, climate resilience, and equitable design practices — with business goals is imperative for commercial real estate investors according to 2024 outlooks by both Deloitte and PwC. Leading the architecture and design industries to a brighter future, HKS is committed to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG). 

HKS leaders recently demonstrated the depth of the firm’s ESG efforts through thought leadership — speaking at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, the United Nations Science Summit on Brain Capital, and at the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) conference, where HKS was also a Diamond Sponsor. 

Driven by ESG goals, HKS designers strive to enhance human and environmental well-being through the places they create day in and day out. The firm’s growing portfolio of high-performing projects includes the world’s first WELL-certified airport facility, a COTE Top-Ten Award-winning campus in California and a IIDA Global Excellence Award finalist hospital in Saudi Arabia to name a few. In 2024, HKS architects, sustainable design leaders and advisors will continue developing building portfolio sustainability guidelines and high-performance designs for major tech companies and educational institutions.  

HKS will also align with the Science Based Targets Initiative, which recently established building sector guidelines, to ensure the firm’s carbon neutrality goals are science-backed and can be properly benchmarked. The firm will provide voluntary disclosures about its offsets portfolio to meet regulatory requirements, enhance transparency and improve accountability. 

Most excitingly, 2024 marks the 10-year anniversary of Citizen HKS, a firmwide initiative that impacts lives and drives change through design, community service and financial philanthropy. HKS designers around the world will celebrate the pro-bono design work and service projects they have contributed to through Citizen HKS and re-commit to enhancing their communities for years to come. 

Part 2: How Do We Break the Workstation, and What Should We Design Instead?

Part 2: How Do We Break the Workstation, and What Should We Design Instead?

In the first installment in this series, we made a provocative, brain-based, and historically-informed argument for the need to break the concept of the open office workstation. This time, we’ll describe a case study of how we can break the workstation, and what we can remake in its place. In doing so, we’re also addressing the rule and tradition of the workstation – behaviors many workers have come to expect and accept without questioning why. 

First, take a look at Office Plan 1 below. Where do you go? Easy, right? You find your default seat amongst the banks of other workstations. Now, take a look at Office Plan 2. Where do you go?

Not as easy? If you’re like many experienced corporate employees, you’re looking at Office Plan 2 and not seeing what you’d expect. Your brain cannot predict where to go right now because you don’t see the traditionally placed bank of open office workstations. In other words, the concept of the default workstation you’re dependent on is no longer there. It has been broken. 

What you see instead are different groupings of desks and tables in varying sizes of space. A couple of the rooms look like they might be conference rooms, but what about the rest of the office?  

To Create Places that are Experiential We Need to Address Experiential Blindness

While trying to figure out what those other spaces are, and when you don’t have any contextual information from your past to try and make sense of the present, some neuroscientists might say that you’re in a state of experiential blindness

This sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not – it’s a huge design and behavioral opportunity to change how you make sense of the intent of a space, and what it offers you when you use it (i.e., what the space affords you). Once your brain has the context it needs to understand that intent, your experiential blindness is resolved, and in its place, you have a new understanding of that space.  

Let’s look at this smaller space taken from Office Plan 2 as an example. Undoubtedly, you have plenty of contextual information from your past about chairs, tables, and monitors, but you don’t yet understand what this space, as a whole, is intended to afford you and your team.  

Imagine that your company (a knowledge work professional service organization) communicates that the intent of this space is to help speed up idea formation in high-pressure situations. This highly flexible environment is in a layout right now that functions best when approaching a deadline, and it provides a media center for projecting and sharing work with team members in other parts of the world. It is reservable for weeks at a time and has dedicated pinup spaces so that teams can take advantage of the benefits of spatial memories of artifacts related to a project for extended periods of time. 

If communicated effectively, you now have contextual information for the intended affordances of this space. In other words, you’re starting to form a new concept of that space. What’s more, if that concept is to become stickier in your brain, this space needs a name – we’ll call it the Rapid Ops room. 

So now, when you enter the office and you see this room, you no longer have experiential blindness – instead, you see the Rapid Ops room, and this concept will become stronger and more focused over time if you use the space with teams in high-pressure situations when deadlines are approaching.

Time as a Building Block

In the previous installment in this series, we argued that the open office workstation was a hangover from the industrial era, and that it has become the default building block of the modern open office. We proposed that an office design should instead focus first on people’s needs before physical solutions are proposed. 

When you viewed Office Plan 2 above, we asked you to consider where you’d go. This was difficult because you didn’t have context for the intent of each space. When you gain more context for what each of the different spaces afford you and your team, the question of where you’d go becomes more intentional because there is not a default workstation. 

But when you’re considering where to go, what you’re really asking yourself is where you need to go in that moment to meet the demands of a specific activity – this is an issue of designing your time

In other words, a key building block for office effectiveness is the time that individuals and teams plan for different activities, whether in advance or ad hoc. This is critical because time is the common denominator among known challenges in open office workstations. It is at the core of multi-tasking (i.e., performing more than one task at a time), and unwanted environmental distractions (i.e., performing an activity at odds with others’ activities in your vicinity at the same time).

By designing our time, we are both focusing on the tasks that need to be completed (the work itself) and deciding when to get that work done collectively. This moves the dimension of time from a problematic common denominator to an ally in the fight for a brain healthy workplace. Work that is best done as a team, for example, needs to be designed together.  

But we first must understand what the work itself is. Who needs to participate, what kinds of technology, resources, and infrastructure are needed? Then, when we match activities with available spaces designed with specific intent, we help utilize those spaces at their highest value toward the organization’s goals. In many ways this may sound obvious, but for most organizations, this method of designing time necessitates a new and more intentional way of thinking about space allocation.

Rethinking the ‘Me’ in Me / We / Us

Throughout the past several decades of workplace design, the Me / We / Us framework has been used more and more prevalently. Used to categorize space allocation and justify programming ratios in floor plans, Me / We / Us essentially describes three high-level, somewhat abstract categories to help users understand an office environment. 

‘Me’ space – historically the foundational building block of workstations and private offices – serves as the primary square footage allocation in most office designs. ‘We’ space typically includes group work settings, including open collaboration, conference rooms, and sometimes shared workstations and offices. ‘Us’ space is typically characterized by social gathering and other shared activities not necessarily dedicated to performing typical work tasks, such as café spaces, lounges, and lobbies. 

In our new paradigm shift, however, the definition of ‘Me’ space needs to be modified. If there is no longer a dedicated, default workstation where you go to drop your bag and park for the day, then what should ‘Me’ space be? Perhaps ‘Me’ space is no longer about allocation of space but the policy and agency to design your time for individual effectiveness within the work ecosystem at large – in Huddle or Focus rooms, shared ‘We’ spaces, public coffee shops, or home workspaces depending on individual effectiveness, preference, and the task at hand.  

One danger here is that employees may equate this loss of traditional ‘Me’ space with a loss of perceived ownership and presence of their office experience. This is why communication of the designed intent of all the different space concepts within the office is critical, as ‘Me’ spaces may imply that other spaces are not mine. 

But when employees can let go of ownership over just one tiny part of the office (their overstressed workstation) and shift their sense of agency toward the entire office complete with all its tailored ‘We’ and ‘Us’ spaces, the value proposition of the office itself becomes more evident. 

If designed well, the value of utilizing the office for those intended activities showcases how a space can help you and your team accomplish different work tasks better than you could anywhere else, including your home workspace, because it was designed with specific intent.

One of those value-driven intents for the office space in many organizations will undoubtedly be social connection (consistently cited as a top reason for why people want to come to the office post-pandemic). We know that the strength of social connections at work has shifted over the past few years, with second and third level connections suffering most. It is time for us to consider how a more intentionally designed office environment can bolster those in-person connections we’ve lost while keeping our newer virtual connections alive and well. 

Up Next

By designing our collective time in accordance with intentionally designed office spaces, we highlight the shortcomings of an oversimplified ratio for programming. There is not some magical ratio of workstations to conference rooms to focus pods that we’re all just oh-so close to nailing down for organizations to be most effective. 

By planning and aligning our time with our intent and our tailored workspaces, we can see that square footage is better considered as a design outcome, and not as a design driver. In this installment, we have shown a case study where overall square footage remained similar. But depending on the available work ecosystem of spaces (both physical and digital) and organizational goals, one organization’s intentionally aligned real estate investment may become much smaller (or even vanish), while another’s may need to grow substantially. 

Now that you’ve seen an example of how we can break the workstation and reinvent the office as an intentional part of the ecosystem of workplaces, next time we’ll show you how we can get to those solutions with you as a client.  

Here’s a hint: It’s not simple, it requires investment in the right people and resources, and it’s all about accountability in relationships. 

What We Learned at the United Nations Science Summit on Brain Capital

What We Learned at the United Nations Science Summit on Brain Capital

About 1 in 4 firms have announced targeted solutions to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Brain Capital is not only a means to take that progress further, but to see progress through a more holistic lens. According to the Brain Capital Alliance, Brain Capital “considers mental health and brain skills . . . as indispensable parts of the knowledge economy.” At Steelcase’ sprawling location abutting Columbus Circle in New York City, a diverse group of neuroscientists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and other stakeholders from around the world gathered recently to discuss how Brain Capital can tackle society’s most pressing challenges, from behavioral health to burgeoning knowledge economies.

Countless rich questions highlighted the day-long symposium, which became a sort of Brain Capital “stress test.” But as we at HKS continue to look for ways that design can help shape and guide the future of our communities, here are five thoughts from the summit to help all of us think about how to achieve that.

Why the focus on “capital”?

Mental health disorders are projected to cost the global economy $16 trillion by 2030, according to Pawel Swieboda, who delivered an opening address. From Brain Healthy workplaces to reinvesting in behavioral health facilities or drug-treatment facilities, the financial upside for cities is clear. But value itself also needs rethinking. Clayton Mitchell pointed out that if we use traditional measures, like ROI, on everything we do, we’ll end up in the present situation.

Rym Ayadi said that capital accumulates and deteriorates driven by several factors — political, social, natural, and economic contingencies. Many panelists noted that a new global economy is possible, with Brain Capital as the fulcrum of future prosperity. Our economy is a brain economy. With the rise of automation, the skills in demand will rely more on cognitive, social, and emotional capacity.

Taking this idea one step further, Tom Osha of Wexford observed that innovation districts may be the anchors of future cities, buoyed by university research centers, clinical enterprise, and community inclusion.

What do we do about youth well-being?

Across the globe, Gen Z reports a higher share of mental health challenges than any other generational cohort, and if Brain Capital is to inform curriculum redesigns or community interventions, their voices can’t be overlooked. The morning program of the Brain Capital symposium was devoted to youth and adolescent mental health, as 1 out of 4 Generation Z people to report their mental health as fair or poor, according to the American Psychological Association. Youths today pursue health information differently than previous generations — through web-based tools, mobile applications, and online health information — and it’s the responsibility of health providers, and community stakeholders, to meet them in these spaces.

What can the built environment do about brain capital?

Marta Schantz argued that we need to take a closer look at the places we inhabit through the lens of real estate portfolios. “Greening” our real estate is a matter of growing the bottom line, and the capital trend toward “cognitively-healthy” properties is real. Investors are paying more for green buildings, and occupants are seeing them in both residential and commercial spaces.

People spend 90% of their time indoors. So why wouldn’t they have the expectation that both commercial and residential spaces promote healthier people? One study finds that workers within green-certified buildings report 30% fewer sick days than baseline.

Ultimately, the environment either promotes or impedes a continuum of care. Electrification may alleviate asthmatic symptoms indoors, and environments may proactively help neurodiverse persons or those experiencing neurodegenerative disorders. If we design for people who are most sensitive, we all benefit. Design ideals, including biophilia, access to natural light, and access to both quietude and community, stand to benefit all people. Novelty and fascination aren’t just design features, they’re critical to brain-healthy individuals by boosting creativity and alleviating cognitive fatigue. Jennifer Kolstad may have said it best, “beauty isn’t gratuitous, it’s essential to our well-being.”

How do technology and Brain Capital work together?

Steelcase’ Columbus Circle location embodies what a brain-healthy and technology-enabled space can be. Outside the main stage, meeting rooms and collaboration areas were set up around several floors where event participants could hold a meeting or take a respite from the crowd. Beautiful variations of focus spaces were ubiquitous on every floor. Each room was enabled with a screen to view the main stage. A balcony looked out over Central Park.

Technology may be a supplement to the work we must accomplish each day — but it is also the technologies that permeate a continuum of care.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reports that there are more than 350,000 health care apps on the global market today. With all that choice, the consumer is stretched to find what works. Entrepreneurship is necessary to fulfilling the goals of Brain Capital, but we need to keep an eye on “technologies that produce solutions in search of a problem.”

One of the best discussions on the evolving landscape of technology came with the final keynote by David Faigman, the Dean and Chancellor of UC Law College of San Francisco. Throughout history, industrialization has led to evolving standards of law. With radio and the television, the FCC was formed. Product liability law evolved under the new relationships between tools and users. Innovation goes hand-in-hand with the evolution of law. And product developers, operating alongside lawyers, can both protect communities while working toward innovative products.

What are the realities of today’s health care climate?

Pennsylvania State Rep. Aaron Kaufer, a Democrat, said “we’ve spent so much time destigmatizing talking about drug and alcoholic abuse, we need to spend just as much time with what to do next.” Today, the out-of-pocket expenses for mental health are climbing, especially after many states began to roll back funding for telehealth. But it’s not only about throwing money at the problem, but innovating appropriately. Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the famous Oregon study demonstrated that expanding a tenet of the safety net, like Medicaid, can only get us so far in more favorable health outcomes.

Jane Brown focused her words on the practical questions that need answering.  What are covered benefits or fee schedules? How do reimbursements mix with quality of care delivered? We’re working through a model that has long since stopped working. What is the real cost of care? Will the expansion of telehealth improve outcomes or simply reduce costs? Medicaid programs cover more telehealth programs than ever. The financial structures are problematic, however. It’s a policy issue that telehealth appointments pay less, and are chronically underfunded, because reimbursements aren’t as high as in-person visits.

Finally, if perfectly rational actors don’t fit our economic models, it won’t for the concept of Brain Capital either. Ideally, every resident would exercise, have great nutrition, and do everything possible to receive preventative care. This ideal is far from the current benchmark, where food deserts exist, population health differs considerably by zip code, and those on Medicaid receive 50% of their care through the emergency department of a health facility. People aren’t perfect, but neither are the environments built for them — and there’s much to be improved in either capacity.

A full event recap report can be found here. This event was organized jointly by the Brain Capital Alliance, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, HKS and CADRE, with the support of the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission of California as well as Kooth.

How Do Built Environments Help Build Brain Capital?

How Do Built Environments Help Build Brain Capital?

For the past two years, HKS researchers, designers and innovators have been working diligently on expanding our thinking about health and well-being to encompass brain health.

The World Health Organization defines brain health as “the state of brain functioning across cognitive, sensory, social-emotional, behavioral and motor domains, allowing a person to realize their full potential over the life course, irrespective of the presence or absence of disorders.” Another compelling definition in the British Medical Journal holds that brain health is “the preservation of optimal brain integrity and mental and cognitive function and the absence of overt neurological disorders.”

Brain health allows us to hyperfocus on the fundamental building block of human cognition and functioning — the human brain — and design environments that support and enhance it.

There is a strong economic imperative to focus on brain health. Our current global economy is often described as a “brain economy” where many new jobs demand cognitive, emotional, and social skills. Innovation is now considered a tangible outcome related to employee productivity. As automation increases, a premium is being placed on cerebral, brain-based skills that make us human such as self-control, emotional intelligence, creativity, compassion, altruism, systems thinking, collective intelligence, and cognitive flexibility.

Enter “brain capital,” an emerging imperative that pulls together brain health, brain skills, and concepts of the brain economy to enable people to realize their potential as productive members of society. It is being advanced by the Brain Capital Alliance, a public-private-people partnership to optimize the brain, brain health and brain skills in our modern economy.

The shift to brain capital in our thinking makes us pose this critical question: What if we could optimize our brains — not only to improve mental and physical health — but also to contribute to positive social and economic benefits that would increase individual and community well-being and advance our societal goals?

The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are broad-reaching and holistic outcomes that require integrated, system-based solutions. Brain health and brain capital are clearly related to SDG3 (Good Health and Well-being), but it also intrinsically tied to SDG4 (Quality Education), SDG8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), SDG9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure), SDG10 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), SDG13 (Climate Action), SDG16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) and SDG17 (Partnerships for the Goals).

Through the innovation and creativity unlocked by a workforce and youth population empowered with brain healthy habits, we will make significant progress on all 17 SDGs. A new brain capital economy will require bridging previously siloed disciplines and expertise to understand, test and draft policy to assess and incentivize the outcomes we desire.

At the upcoming Science Summit at the United Nations General Assembly, we will convene a full day event focused on youth mental health, workforce development, economic security and resilience, sustainable futures, brain + building, neuro-science law, and food systems. Advocates, neuroscientists, medical doctors, psychologists and designers will lead conversations along-side academics, business leaders, elected officials, policy experts and real estate financers, owners and operators. The brain capital economy will help us amplify and institutionalize innovation to date, while also creating a platform to accelerate creative approaches for the next frontier.

As researchers and designers of the built environment, we know that places and spaces have a big impact on how we can build brain capital and realize the SDGs. Here are five things we encourage our teams, clients, and partners to do as we kick-start the journey to design for brain capital:

1. Explore the intersection between neuroscience and architecture to unlock new ideas for design.

In the emerging field of neuro-aesthetics (a movement started by the Academy of Neuroscience and Architecture), a growing evidence base links environmental factors directly to brain behavior. Air quality impacts cognitive health, access to nature reduces stress and anxiety, novelty in environments can improve memory, exposure to arts can activate dormant synapses in the brain — the list linking design to brain health outcomes is long — and growing every day. Designers can catapult pieces of evidence into channels for transformational change through the enriched environments they design and build

2. Invest in your own brain capital through brain-healthy workplaces.

A disproportionately large portion of our life is spent at work. Work, especially in the brain economy, relies on brain health. Invest in design and operational best practices that make your workplaces healthy for your brain.

3. Build your and your team’s cognitive fitness with the same passion as you build physical fitness.

We often think about our diet and exercise for physical fitness, but we need to be intentional about our mental, social and cognitive fitness, too. Connect with people, spend time doing creative tasks that push your thinking, learn new things, and consider brain health training programs such as SMART from the Center for BrainHealth to build your capacity.

4. Think of every capital investment as a project for brain capital.

Think about a design project you might be working on — a school, an office, a hospital, a hotel, a housing development or a new neighborhood — and then place a brain capital lens on it. Are brain health and brain skills important to the project’s outcomes? Could investment in people’s well-being lead to economic benefits? How can you create an environment that gets to the core of how someone learns, heals, relaxes, lives and flourishes? These questions will help you unlock design potential for exponential impact.

5. Dissolve disciplinary silos to work with scientists, economists, environmentalists, artists and policy makers.

The fundamental premise of brain capital is bringing professionals from a wide range of expertise together to make bold, systemic change. And that starts with creative convenings beyond disciplines.

Imagine a future where everyone has opportunities to fulfil their potential — at home, at work, in any place at any time. If we work together to invest in building brain capital, we can create a regenerative world where creativity and innovation thrive and life flourishes.

• A Brain Capital Grand Strategy: toward economic reimagination. By Smith, Erin; Ali, Diab;
Wilkerson, Bill; Dawson, Walter D; Sobowale, Kunmi; Reynolds, Charles; Berk, Michael; Lavretsky, Helen; Jeste, Dilip; Ng, Chee H; Soares, Jair C; Aragam, Gowri; Wainer, Zoe; Manji, Husseini K; Licinio, Julio; Lo, Andrew W; Storch, Eric; Fu, Ernestine; et al.
• World Health Organization Health Topics: Brain Health
What is brain health and why is it important? By Wang, Yongjun; et. al

Award-Winning Research Explores Facility Modifications for Future Pandemic Resiliency

Award-Winning Research Explores Facility Modifications for Future Pandemic Resiliency

HKS research exploring health facility preparedness has been recognized with two distinguished awards—‘CORE Merit status’ by the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) and the ‘research category’ winner by European Health Design (EHDC). EDRA and the European Healthcare Design Conference highlight the project’s valuable contribution to environmental design research and its innovative approach to addressing industry challenges. One jury member of the EDRA CORE committee highlighted that HKS’ research on pandemic resiliency “sets a good precedent for the industry,” writing that the study had a large scope and many sources of data. The project, “successfully infused data science into the workflow and delivery.”

HKS’ work was one of only three project teams to receive merit status by EDRA CORE this year. Their evaluation framework helps identify excellent environmental design research that adds value, addresses industry challenges, and promotes innovative thinking. It recognizes the importance of research in practice for all stakeholders involved. A panel of diverse reviewers assessed projects and awarded Merit status to those with high scores. EHD evaluates research according to its innovation, relevance, and practical application. They evaluate work according to its originality and how the work creates innovative methods to address existing issues.

The scale of the research is a differentiator, achieved through key partnerships. In collaboration with HKS and WSP, the U.S Army Medical Command conducted Functional Performance Evaluations (FPEs) of 15 medical treatment facilities (MTFs) within the continental U.S. to understand the effectiveness of existing COVID-19 modifications and to document recommendations for potential facility improvements to create a roadmap for future pandemic preparedness. The facilities we researched totaled over 15 million square feet. A framework comprised of five constructs: safety, flow, surge capacity, staff wellbeing and flexibility, was developed to evaluate all the facilities consistently.

Retrospectives on the global response to COVID-19 pandemic has only begun. HKS’ research adds a large-scale study measuring the overall pandemic response and staff experience across over a dozen facilities—and it is this scope that allows critical insights. As the delta variant ravaged hospitals during 2021, the Center for Disease Control found that capacity reaching 75% or beyond was leading to 12,000 excess deaths per week. It’s not only an audit of surge capacities that’s needed, but a mixed-methods investigation of on-the-ground experience.

We leveraged a mixed-method investigation—an under-tapped mode of inquiry in the design industry. And we supported our investigation using several different modes of analysis to guide our conclusions. We not only studied the factors that contribute to the effectiveness of facility response during the pandemic, but the magnitude of their impacts. Facilities responded differently to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we explored the good and the bad. We found significant differences in the performance by certain factors, as well as the success between sites. After studying these factors, we also researched how facility, operations, and MEP considerations impact the overall effectiveness of facility response.

What did facilities do well, and how can they improve? Using a rule-based sentiment analysis, or a way of establishing the polarity of open-ended responses, we found that facilities developed the infrastructure to quickly mobilize telehealth appointments, creating flexibility for staff rotations, providing visual cues for safe personnel flows, and providing additional space modifications for COVID-19 testing. Many facilities also did not provide the infrastructure necessary for telework, nor did they provide clear policies and leadership in the transition to working from home. Supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) were also lacking. Our findings corroborate the reporting that hospitals were understaffed, which exacerbated poor patient care and staff burnout.

Lessons learned from this study will help to inform how to make existing facilities more resilient, as well as to inform the planning criteria for future capital investments. Here are a few key insights that directly impact how we will approach future facility design and care delivery:

Digital first solutions are challenging the status quo.

Digital health has proliferated across the healthcare industry. Emerging technology blended with physical spaces can help make care more personalized and responsive. Considering which service can be effectively delivered virtually and which cannot also helps to support more nimble and resilient care delivery during a health crisis.

Staff well-being has become table stakes. Clinical spaces must be designed for patient well-being—but also for those who deliver care. Designing for those who administer care is crucial to maintaining a resilient health system that adjusts and evolves over time. Environments and amenities may attract and retain top talent by addressing the emotional, cognitive, physical, and social needs of staff.

Optimized flows are vital for agile care delivery. Implementing agile solutions that allow healthcare to optimize flows – people, equipment, supplies, medication, and information – and avoid bottlenecks are essential to the success of efficient and effective care delivery process that can quickly pivot based on rapidly changing census and care needs.

Communication is key to building trust. Coronavirus pandemic demonstrated disconnect between front-line workers, administrators, and policy makers. Communication from leadership that is both informative and comforting is essential to bridging the chasm and building trust. Empathizing with personal stories of staff can help facilities build stronger and purpose-led teams.

The study is authored by Dr. Deborah Wingler, Dr. Rutali Joshi and Brent Willson from HKS, Dr. Abhishek Bhargava and Nolan Rome and from WSP, in collaboration with Brenda McDermott from the Defense Health Agency. The research team is actively pursuing publication in an academic journal.

How Design can Support Social and Emotional Learning

How Design can Support Social and Emotional Learning

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Over the past year and half, we’ve investigated how to improve the well-being of schoolchildren through the intersection of social and emotional learning and the built environment. The timing of our effort couldn’t be more crucial. From existential concerns triggered by climate anxiety to the trauma experienced by gun violence in schools, many school children are understandably experiencing a mental health crisis. This is the context of our research exploring the intersection of social and emotional learning and design.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an approach to education that helps children gain skills outside of typical school subjects such as math, reading, and comprehension. It matters because the approach helps children and adolescents understand and regulate their feelings, communicate with and relate to others, build strong relationships, and make empathetic decisions.

The culmination of our research project is a visual design guide — a library of evidence-based design (EBD) strategies formatted as a tool for designers of learning environments to quickly reference during the design process. Whether the intention is to create an enriched environment, understand the impact design strategies have on students and teachers, or both – the EBD strategy cards are a tool to help create enriched environments that support social and emotional learning.

Our Methods & What We Found

Before creating our visual design guide, we conducted a comprehensive literature review and ­in-depth interviews with primary, middle, and high school teachers. We initially sourced 143 articles, white papers and books, that resulted in 18 evidence-based strategies supported by 102 empirical research studies that have demonstrated outcomes associated with teachers and learners. We then interviewed school teachers who participated in one-hour semi-structured virtual interviews where they elaborated on how they define social and emotional learning, their ideal working environment, and their perceptions of the current school environment in regard to SEL. Here are a few findings from those conversations:

What the Findings Mean

The visual design guide provides a research-informed framework to create spaces that augment and support social and emotional learning. Our guide is intended for stakeholders as they move throughout the design process, and when they are documenting design intent. Those who use our guide are instructed to print out cards, fold them in half, while referencing the comprehensive evidence to provide rationale for design decisions.

The design of physical space can be used as a tool to support or augment existing pedagogical practices in classrooms – advancing the agenda to provide students with competencies in SEL by stimulating diverse affordances (sensory, cognitive, motor, and social) within their learning environments. Being intentional through design can help attain social and emotional learning goals for the environment . A good school building has spaces for both learning and working and should include a multitude of spaces. A few of the recommendations we suggest in our design guide are to institute:

Why Is This Important?

This work underscores the critical role of social and emotional learning (SEL) in education, especially given the current mental health crisis facing children and adolescents. Our visual design guide emphasizes the need to integrate SEL considerations into the design of learning environments to foster emotional regulation, empathy, and communication skills. By doing so, this visual design guide serves as a valuable tool for designers, offering evidence-based strategies derived from a comprehensive literature review and teacher interviews to positively impact students and teachers in their learning and working spaces.

This report emphasizes that intentional design cues can have a significant impact on the social and emotional well-being of students and educators. It highlights the importance of incorporating a range of design elements, including variety, privacy, sensory control, and support for the whole person, in school buildings. By stimulating diverse affordances within learning environments, educators and designers can help students develop competencies in SEL.

What’s Next

Our next step is implementation. In designing educational facilities to improve K-12 students’ outcomes, researchers and designers will leverage our design guide—a library of evidence-based design strategies formatted as a tool for designers of learning environments—to create and implement better learning and working spaces.

Teachers engage in a variety of work modes and utilize multiple tools to effectively do their job, and the guide can help designers provide a variety of psychological needs met within their working spaces and their students’ learning spaces. The design of physical space can be used as a tool to support or augment existing pedagogical practices in classrooms by stimulating diverse affordances (sensory, cognitive, motor, and social) within their learning environments.

This work is a product of coalition-based research bringing together the Center for Advanced Design Research and Evaluation (CADRE), Uplift Education, HKS – funded by the ASID Foundation. Next steps for the coalition include an impact study, investigating how the move of a Pre-K-12 school from a dense urban setting devoid of green, open space to a new location with an open quad green setting and enriched interior affordances transform well-being, academic outcomes, and college-readiness for at-risk and first-gen students. Learn more about the coalition.

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The Whole College Athlete: Designing for Success On and Off the Field

The Whole College Athlete: Designing for Success On and Off the Field

The career of a storied professional athlete begins early—with a passion and preternatural skill, neighborhood pickup games and youth sports, and finally, collegiate-level competition. University or college coaches and administrators understand this trajectory, and they’re preparing incoming student athletes for long careers, whether on or off the field. Because, on average, colleges support 20 sports programs—of which only 2% are expected to turn professional after college. It’s just the statistical reality that few athletes will become the next Tom Brady, despite the stories abounding of elite athletes playing longer into their career. This is where the concept of the “whole athlete” comes into play.

The “whole athlete” means supporting innovations for peak performance and the means to support an athlete as a well-rounded student. Today’s student-athletes represent the pinnacle of not only physical, but also mental fitness. At HKS, we’ve leveraged this concept to create guiding design principles for collegiate sports facilities, integrating health facilities and the latest science in sports medicine, brain health, and related fields.

HKS embarked on a research project in 2021 to learn more about leveraging the built environment to enhance athletic performance, recovery, and well-being. An interdisciplinary team including experts from HKS’ Sports & Entertainment and Health practices, and the firm’s Advisory Services group, identified five characteristics of facilities design that support the whole athlete. Such facilities are:

To apply this framework, we reviewed the literature to build on our acute understanding of athletes as an accumulation of experiences, from youth sports up until they step foot on campus. And we’re applying study findings to explore how these experiences intersect with the latest trends in research that bridge healthcare and medicine with facility design.

Facilities at the academic core can bind student athletes from diverse backgrounds to reap the true benefits of youth sports participation—socially, physically, and cognitively. Most origin stories begin with the true benefits of youth sports participation. Before their Hall of Fame careers—and before they stepped foot on a college campus—Tom Brady, Sue Bird, Bo Jackson, and Jim Brown came of age as multi-sport athletes. While there are risks, youth participation in organized sports is generally a net boon to mental health, as summarized by a large systematic review of the literature. Leveraging brain-health-informed environments will continue to help student-athletes in their athletic careers and beyond.

That’s our aspiration, but how do we get there? And how do we first embrace the sheer diversity of student-athletes?

Before Jimmy Butler played for Marquette and then garnered the name “Jimmy Buckets,” he slept on friends’ couches all through high school. In 2014, as the debate around pay and sponsorships first took off, former University of Connecticut basketball star, Shabazz Napier, famously stated that he often went to bed, “starving.” To add context to these anecdotes: many student athletes come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, meaning that inclusive design is a critical complement to supportive policies and practices. Once on campus, student athletes undergo athletic, academic, psychological, and psychosocial transitions—and the uniqueness of these experiences, intersecting with all that’s come in the past, means many require greater resources and coping strategies.

Taking a step back, today’s collegiate athletes differ significantly from those of previous generations: there’s increased professionalism—through sports science resources, academic resources, coaching and training opportunities. This fall, the entering class of Freshman was born in 2005, making these student-athletes digital natives. In all that’s to be considered for how today’s collegiate athletes are different than those in the past, it’s symbolic that an athlete like Paige Bueckers, UConn’s star guard, has 1 million followers on Instagram, a technology didn’t exist as Sue Bird, also a UConn alum, entered the WNBA draft in 2002.

The diversity of student-athlete backgrounds impacts planning decisions for collegiate sports facilities, too. Researchers have found that of 125 Division 1 campuses, only 13% had “athletic academic support programs located in or adjacent to the academic core of the campus.” Athletic support services removed from campuses’ academic core create a greater degree of student-athlete segregation—a clear problem that symbolically and physically removes student-athletes from the broader collegiate community.

Advancing sports medicine means better recovery, better performance, and better long-term health. Consider the following stories. In 2013, the Florida State Seminoles saw an 88% year-over-year drop in injuries because the team adopted wearable technologies from Catapult GPS. And one randomized clinical trial found that patients who received a few weeks of pain reprocessing therapy saw a significant drop in reported chronic back pain. These are advances that have significant implications for today’s student athletes. Designated recovery spaces, such as cold/hot tubs, compression therapy rooms, and foam rolling/stretching areas, can help athletes address muscle soreness, reduce inflammation, and promote relaxation after training sessions or competitions.

The average collegiate athlete spends 40 hours per week in athletic-related activities—and moderate and vigorous exercise makes up a significant portion of this time. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that Americans get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week—but only  1 in 4 Americans meets these goals, according to the CDC. There’s a healthy balance to be had—and while the average American is more likely to be overcome by a sedentary lifestyle, athletes are more concerned with burnout.

As competitive athletes push the body and mind, they also push research to show the outer bounds of what the body and mind can achieve. On this front, a research question would be: what is the body’s limit with intense exertion? NIRS is a technology that measures hemodynamic activity, or changes in blood flow, throughout the brain which shows that athletes may reach physical and cognitive exhaustion after too much exercise. Consider the extreme exertion of a marathon or a long-distance competitive swim. Researchers found that over the course of the race, participants saw 6 percent in grey matter atrophy. For student-athletes, this fact carries implications for design.

Over the past year, we’ve explored brain health in connection to office workers, but the concept has far broader implications, from college to the workforce and beyond. Cognitive fitness for athletes is a key concern that needs attention to avenues for not just mental health services, but proactive social health strategies, opportunities for creative expression, rest and recovery, and socialization.

Athletes need access to healthy choices, and design strategies to make the healthy choice the easy choice. To determine where this happens, Point-of-decision design, a “person-centric” construct provides personas and journey mapping to determine key areas. Through this lens, on-site dining and nutrition counseling provides pre-training nutrition and post-training replenishment of glycogen stores, hydration, anti-inflammation and recovery nutrition.

Recovery is pursued in tandem with better performance. Beyond medicine and nutrition, you may have read about virtual reality capabilities and bio-mechanic analyses in sports: transitioning a batter’s swing, a swimmer’s stroke, and a defenseman’s slapshot into data for next-level athletic performance. Efficiency translates into a faster time or higher shooting percentage, because altogether, each new advance means a more holistic and tailored approach for each athlete.

We’ve discussed a holistic approach to today’s athletes, and recent advents in sports medicine, and we apply these insights into the built environment.

Importantly, we’re looking to integrate principles of enriched environments to athletic facilities. Space must be integrated at multiple levels. Versatile facilities provide for multiple student-athlete needs, but without planning considerations, students may become isolated from the broader academic community. Facility design should go hand-in-hand with planning. Several colleges and universities are integrating sustainability and academic goals into the design of sports facilities. Arizona State University joined the Green Sports Alliance, pursuing zero-waste status. The Sun Devil Fitness Complex nudges athletes and visitors alike toward green behaviors, while leveraging sustainable design features.

But taking a step back for context, less than 2% of student athletes go pro, but most student-athletes either want to continue their academic studies after graduation or leverage transferable skills gained from athletic participation for a career. At the University of Florida, Trinity Thomas recently tied the record for the most perfect 10s in NCAA gymnastics history. Watch an interview here where she discusses how she got into gymnastics, and how she looks to apply a major in physiology and kinesiology to a career in sports medicine.

Consider the NCAA GOALS study, with the most-recent iteration produced in 2020. Two-thirds of student athletes wanted to pursue graduate studies, and a vast majority reported that collegiate-sports participation provided transferrable skills to future careers.

And thinking about the long term, we must focus on brain health. Design principles related to brain health brings together student and athletic needs—quiet zones, study spaces, and technology integration.

Thinking about mental well-being and brain health, the placement of facilities and academic support systems should serve to integrate student-athletes, not isolate them. In 2020, the NCAA GOALS study revealed that feeling a sense of belonging is on the rise among student athletes—although there is room for improvement. Today’s student athletes are treated uniquely but distinctly from the rest of the student body. Student athletes have unique needs, but they also want better integration with their campus peers.

Thinking about mental well-being and brain health, the placement of facilities and academic support systems should serve to integrate student-athletes, not isolate them.

All dimensions of athletic facilities begins with planning—and student athletes are a population integral to this vision. HKS’ UC San Diego North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood creates truly mixed-use experiences by first understanding how students live and learn. The campus is the largest living and learning community in the University of California system and promotes well-being and sustainability through the integration of living space, retail space, dining experiences, and outdoor and public spaces.

In all, collegiate sports facilities are advancing by incorporating innovative designs and features that support the holistic needs of student athletes, including their academic, physical, and mental well-being. These modern facilities prioritize accessibility, inclusivity, and sustainability while integrating advanced technology and resources to optimize athletic performance and recovery. By creating comprehensive and adaptable environments, collegiate sports facilities are elevating the student athlete experience and fostering success both on and off the field.

We Need to Break the Workstation

We Need to Break the Workstation

For decades, workplace headlines have abounded with doomsday depictions of the open office. “Is the open office dying?”The open-plan office is dead. Do this instead.” “The truth about open offices.” “The immortal awfulness of open plan workplaces.

Most of these stories catalogue heaps of research pointing to lower productivity, less collaboration, and higher distraction. But these arguments are not addressing the real culprit head-on. The office struggles because the physical building block of the workplace – the workstation – is trying to be all things, all the time, for everyone.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the combination of a desk, a monitor, and a chair near other desks, monitors, and chairs. The problem arises when that combination is seen as a default, affording all things from creative collaboration to individual focus to virtual connection to rest and recovery all at once.

That’s asking a lot of this one humble design feature.

It’s where we tend to spend most of our time at the office, and it’s where we often do more than one task at the same time. We have a workstation addiction. With that, our workstation is overextended, and it is multi-tasking as much as we are.

Because the open office is the standard for most contemporary office spaces, focusing first on what’s not working with the open office workstation is critical. It’s the linchpin that needs to be pulled before the rest of the workplace can be remade and revitalized for purposeful intent.

Importantly, most doomsday stories about the office confuse the distinction between the physical description of design elements with what those design elements provide for users. So instead of the workstation serving as the default physical building block of the office, what would happen if people were the focus? This design conversation would then change from being based on physical solutions first to one that considers what employees workspaces signal to them – i.e., what each space affords.

Instead of the workstation serving as the default physical building block of the office, what would happen if people were the focus?

A Lack of Evolution

The workstation is the hangover from the industrial era, where employees were interchangeable work points on a factory floor. While this factory floor work was centered on the value of employees’ production of physical goods, this model hasn’t meaningfully evolved much further for most organizations to this day.

The workplace has continued to use industrial era management techniques to define what the office should look and work like, without considering what new types of work might require. This thinking evolved from the iconic SC Johnson Administrative Building where office workers at desks in the open plan could be surveilled by management.

The design of the SC Johnson Administrative Building enabled surveillance by management. Source: Frank Lloyd Foundation

As repetitive tasks and access to information increasingly migrate toward AI, the value of humans is in knowledge work, especially creativity and innovation. So why do we continue to default to a model that was designed for mass production and surveillance? That open office was designed around space and management to contain the work; it never was designed to enhance or even enable freedom of thought.

Complicating the situation is the recent pandemic-related shift in how we approach thinking about the office. The pandemic has led us to rethink how and where we are able to get work done (essentially anywhere, thanks to technology), and for some, the purpose of the office, but it hasn’t led us to collectively rethink the workstation – that is, until now. That’s what we at HKS are doing today.

The Workstation as a Destructive Default

When most employees enter their open-plan office, they seek out their workstation first, whether assigned or unassigned. Why? Because the workstation has become default, and for many, it has always been default. In other words, we have become reliant on our workstation to do all the things we need to do when we’re in the office. It’s our home base and we’ve become dependent on it.

When we focus, ideate, connect socially, co-create, plan, virtually collaborate, rest, and reflect, among so many other things at our workstations, we also do those things around our coworkers. This means that one employee’s behavioral intent is often at odds with another’s nearby. One’s unplanned, casual collision is another’s distraction. One’s deep thinking, focused work is another’s isolation. One’s accountability is another’s surveillance, lack of agency, and lack of trust.

In our collaborative study with the Center for BrainHealth, we found that managing distractions was a key challenge for focused work in an open office environment, and that 6 out 10 employees were dissatisfied with the lack of environmental control. We also found that 71% of our total observed workplace activities at the office were happening at our workstations – including focused work, virtual collaboration, interacting in person, and even cognitive breaks.

Unsurprisingly, this all-embracing perception of what the workstation affords us enables multitasking. 43% of our employees reported frequent multi-tasking. Moreover, multitasking was related to lower ratings of effectiveness and even to increased burnout.

These findings are not revelatory in themselves. An affordance-driven, rather than a physical design-driven, perspective of the workstation helps us understand how we’ve placed too many responsibilities on one solution, and where they are at odds. It also helps us understand how our workstations are multi-tasking right alongside us.

The result is our collective concept of the ‘workstation’ that has become untenable and unfocused.

71% of our workplace activities at the office happened at workstations

The Rest of the Office

Just as the workstation can’t be all things all the time and still be effective, the office as a whole will likely not be able to be all things for all people. The office is part of a larger work ecosystem – ideally, a system of intentional and distinct parts that work together across different spaces, often globally and virtually.

Of course, where we work matters because not all environments are suitable for all tasks. If the intent of those different spaces is distinct, clearly communicated, and legible, we can envision more suitable journeys throughout a workday for employees struggling with distraction, multitasking, and agency.

And when we start to consider our work as happening in a larger ecosystem of spaces that afford different things, we might be able to add valuable nuance to the growing number of terms that fall flat due to their inherent overgeneralization (see: hybrid work, flex work, remote work, return to work, return to office, post-pandemic workplace).

A hypothetical journey over the course of an intentionally planned work day

If this discussion were happening decades ago, we might be able to get away with small nudges for what the workstation’s role was in the office. But now, the workstation concept is far too historically ingrained in our work culture, resulting in a bad habit that is challenging to fix.

One of our brain’s superpowers is the ability to learn and form concepts, and to use them to predict how our bodies will interact with our environment. The longer we keep reinforcing and using those concepts, the more powerful they become. When we see something resembling a workstation, that concept will be activated, as will our long history of associated behaviors and habits.

If we want to break the workstation addiction we have to fundamentally change the concept of the workstation – so that instead of a “station” to anchor all work activities, clear affordances are seen in the many work environments that an office provides, empowering workers to align their intent with where and when they can do their best work, depending on role, task, personality and unique sensory needs.

In the next installments, we’ll show how we’re going to break the concept of the workstation and what we can remake in its place. Here’s a hint: Think again about that time when you’re first walking into the office. Let’s say you want to settle in, orient yourself while planning your day, or maybe just crash for a moment with a coworker while checking email. Instead of heading to your default workstation, you don’t, because you do not see one. Instead, you see distinct spaces dedicated to serving your needs in that moment. What’s more, when you head to those spaces, you’ll be around coworkers engaged in activities conducive to, not at odds with, your own.

HKS Receives AIA Michigan 2023 Unbuilt Award for Community-BLOC

HKS Wins 2023 COTE Top Ten Award for UC San Diego Living and Learning Neighborhood

HKS Wins 2023 COTE Top Ten Award for UC San Diego Living and Learning Neighborhood

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) announced that HKS has won a 2023 COTE Top Ten Award for the design of the University of California (UC) at San Diego North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood. The design-build project team members included HKS, Clark Construction, Safdie Rabines Architects and OJB Landscape Architecture. HKS also worked with UC San Diego and the Center for Advanced Design Research (CADRE) to form a research coalition for the project.

Established in 1997 by the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE), the annual award celebrates 10 projects that exemplify the integration of design excellence and environmental performance. Entrants to the COTE Top Ten Awards are evaluated against AIA’s Framework for Design Excellence, which comprises 10 principles to help architects achieve projects that are zero-carbon, equitable, resilient, and healthy.

“This honor is more important to us than I can say,” says Dan Noble, President and CEO of HKS. “For years we have worked with our clients and partners to put into practice the principles we hold as fundamental and foundational in our pursuit to merge performance with beauty. This project is the realization of how through purpose, knowledge and relationships we can create places that are good for the people who use them and good for the planet.”

“This project is the realization of how through purpose, knowledge and relationships we can create places that are good for the people who use them and good for the planet.”

Dan Noble, President and CEO
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This landmark construction project at UC San Diego, the largest in the university’s 62-year history, includes eight general assignment classrooms, three residence halls, two academic buildings,  administration offices, underground parking and public amenities.

While expanding their facilities within the context of a state-wide housing crisis, increasingly extreme heat and rising sea levels, UC San Diego chose to prioritize sustainability and well-being. Today, the North Torrey Pines Living Learning Neighborhood (NTPLLN) is the largest higher education project in California to achieve LEED Platinum certification.

“North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood is a shining example of UC San Diego’s commitment to sustainable design in the built environment,” said UC San Diego Senior Director of Project Quality Management Walt Kanzler. “This spectacular LEED Platinum project is the new home for Sixth College and the School of Social Sciences and the School of Arts and Humanities. With open spaces, art, dining, the new Craft Center and residential space for 2,000 undergraduate students, it embodies our values and welcomes everyone to live, learn and play in an exceptional, inspiring environment.  Many thanks to the amazing team that developed this once-in-a-lifetime project!”

Data from the first year of occupancy show that NTPLLN has reduced its measured EUI by a whopping 81% while realizing an 8.2% reduction in students’ self-reported depression rates. This decrease occurred at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when mental health was in crisis.

Data from the first year of occupancy show that NTPLLN has reduced its measured EUI by a whopping 81% while realizing an 8.2% reduction in students’ self-reported depression rates.

Turning Design Excellence into Effective Leadership: A Conversation with HKS CEO Dan Noble

Turning Design Excellence into Effective Leadership: A Conversation with HKS CEO Dan Noble

At HKS, we believe design can change people’s lives for the better. We strive to create beautiful buildings and communities that bring people together and solve real problems.

In his 39-year career at the firm, HKS President & CEO Dan Noble has observed the parallels between extraordinary design and impactful leadership. He’s noticed that the same character, purpose and relationships that contribute to excellent design lead to successful governance.

Reflecting on HKS’ legacy – and looking towards the future – Noble recently shared his thoughts on the firm’s rich history, his personal journey as a designer and leader and how lessons he’s learned from the design process translate into effective leadership.

What key aspects of HKS’ heritage are important to you as a leader?

HKS was founded in 1939 by Harwood K. Smith and his wife, Kate Robertson Smith. Harwood was an amazing entrepreneur, architect and artist. Born in Evanston, Illinois, he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to Dallas to pursue his passion for, and hone his skills in, architecture.

Harwood set the tone for informality and mentorship at HKS. He was known for walking through the office and engaging even the newest architects in discussions about what they were working on. That informality and humility, and the spirit that we are all in this together, set HKS apart today and contribute to our familial culture.  We are a large firm with a small firm culture.

For an 83-year-old enterprise, our line of succession is not very long. I am only the fifth President & CEO, building on Harwood’s legacy.

How has your journey at HKS progressed from design leader to President & CEO?

My tenure at HKS began in the fall of 1983 after I graduated from North Dakota State University and worked briefly with smaller firms in Houston. Today, HKS employs over 1,500 people across 26 offices worldwide. When I started at the firm, we were about 200 people strong, with one office in Dallas.

I was fortunate to work under the direction of past HKS presidents, Joe Buskuhl and Ralph Hawkins. With Joe’s leadership, the firm became known for our management and technical expertise. Ralph was equally interested in design excellence and geographic expansion.

I became Global Design Director of HKS in 2002. I had always worked collaboratively on projects but now I had a more active role in elevating our design firmwide and helping project teams find creative design solutions. The design problem, for me, shifted from developing solutions for individual buildings to creating more successful and creative design teams. I was still hands-on with design, participating in pinups and charrettes, but I had to transition from doing to directing.

What does Design Excellence mean to you?

Design Excellence of course encompasses aesthetic considerations, such as scale, rhythm, proportion, repetition, proper editing, delight, beauty and harmony. But it also entails building performance, enhancing the human experience and understanding the behavioral science of improving the environment.

The process of creating and executing an excellent design is more alchemic than paint-by-number.

What lessons have you learned from design that translated to your role as President & CEO of HKS?

Over the course of my career, I’ve learned that Design Excellence correlates closely with leadership excellence. Qualities that are essential to the design process – collaboration, incubation, iteration, failure, empathy, connection, innovation and humor – are just as important to effective leadership.

Collaboration – Bringing diverse teams together to discover the most creative solutions is something HKS believes in highly. Best practices in Health design may inspire solutions in Education, Hospitality ideas may make Workplaces more user-friendly and understanding crowd movement for Urban Planning can inform design solutions for our Sports group. And of course, Research can be a huge differentiator for all our practices. HKS works across practices and geographies to bring our clients the best talent available worldwide.

Incubation – Part of finding great solutions is listening to multiple stakeholders – including clients, consultants, users and community leaders – and letting ideas settle in. Let the game come to you a bit. Slow down to go fast. Taking time to engage with diverse partners can help you arrive at effective design solutions quicker. Being open to new ideas is essential.

Iteration – Once you collect that feedback, you can begin exploring ways to create solutions. Here is where you must exhibit some humility. Ego needs to take a back seat. It doesn’t matter where the best ideas come from, we build off each other’s ideas. I like it when a project team leaves the room and nobody knows exactly where an idea originated, but everyone feels like it was kind of their own.

Failure – As HKS’ Design Director, I tried to create a safe space for people to experiment. Being vulnerable and open to others is essential to innovation. As a leader, you have to avoid jumping in and trying to solve other people’s challenges. Sometimes design ideas fail, but failure is an important teaching moment. I routinely engage in 360-degree reviews to receive feedback on my own performance and try to continually learn how to be a more effective leader.

Empathy – I love being an architect. I love being hands-on and in the thick of things. But as HKS’ Design Director and later as the firm’s President & CEO, I had to learn to step back and let others find solutions. Sometimes people don’t do things the way you would. But having the patience and empathy to let people find their own paths is important to developing the next generation of leaders.

Connection – Finding that synergy between place, purpose and design is what great architecture is all about. Finding essential connections between people is important to designing a successful project and to running a successful business. After all, people create the synergy that results in great design solutions.

Innovation – True innovation is hard to come by. At HKS, we strive to hire people who are constantly challenging the status quo. And then we let them experiment, fail and learn. We’ve developed an entire Innovation sector to bring focus to this type of thinking and working. Developing this sector may have been HKS’ most transformational move. Do you want to be a commoditized vendor or a trusted advisor and partner? In the end, our brains and our thoughts are the most valuable assets we can offer the world. What can be automated and commoditized will be. Let’s not compete in a race to the bottom.

Humor – As a leader, you can’t take yourself too seriously. We spend most of our waking hours working with others – we can make it fun and fulfilling or a chore and a drag. The gift of humor shouldn’t be minimized.

How can leaders design and build better teams?

Part of being an effective leader is being in touch with your people, developing friendships and learning people’s strengths and weaknesses, passions and personalities. With understanding and empathy comes trust. Our people are our differentiators. Hire the best people you can find who share your values and give them the tools, training and mentorship they need to grow and evolve. And then get out of their way. Let them figure things out.

High-performing teams are built through inspiration, transparency, a certain degree of ambiguity, and diversity and inclusion.

Inspiration – Our job as leaders is to emulate the transparent culture that we aspire to, to establish the strategic direction we want to go and to inspire others to come along. In the book, The Way of the Shepherd: Seven Secrets to Managing Productive People, Kevin Leman wrote, “If you want your people to go above and beyond, they must see your passion, your heart. If it’s greatness that you want, it’s greatness that you must give.” You can’t be afraid to show that you care and that you’re passionate and committed to your purpose.

Transparency – Two things I continue to strive for as a leader are more transparency throughout the firm and the support of an effective feedback loop that includes all our people, regardless of their rank or experience. People walk into my office all the time – I encourage it. We have an “Ask Dan” feature on the HKS intranet that goes directly to me and enables people to ask me anything they want, anonymously or not. We’ve also instituted checks and balances to make sure every member of HKS’ Executive Board, including me, is holding true to our Strategic Plan. We are all held accountable to the firm’s established values and vision.

Ambiguity – I’ve learned to accept holding opposing ideas in my head at the same time. Decisions aren’t always black and white. Embracing the messy gray is crucial – it’s where the most profound solutions come from. I like to say that I’m comfortable with ambiguity as long as we’re clear about what we want to achieve.

Diversity & Inclusion – It’s no surprise to hear that our profession has lacked diversity, especially in the leadership ranks. This is partly because people tend to hire and promote those who are most like themselves. To help break this pattern, at HKS we have created a robust Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion program with a dedicated JEDI Director who is leading community outreach, education and enrichment programs that are helping us build a more diverse team and leadership. These efforts include our recently launched partner diversity program, HKS xBE, which is designed to help disadvantaged businesses build relationships and pursue new opportunities in the architecture and design professions. Diverse teams give rise to innovative thinking and increase the value of our work in the communities we serve.

How do you view the future of leadership at HKS?

We are fortunate to have a cadre of qualified people who can step into leadership roles. What I am looking for in our future leaders is innovation, creativity, empathy, grit, honesty, humility, optimism and heart.

HKS in 2023: Projects To Get Excited About

HKS in 2023: Projects To Get Excited About

Named by Fast Company as one of the Most Innovative Companies in 2022, global design firm HKS is looking to grow our business and bring exciting, positive impact to communities around the world this year.

From improving design through innovation, research and equity-centered approaches, here’s an insightful snapshot of some projects and initiatives that we’re excited to see in 2023:

Pioneering Research and Designs that Transform Communities

1. Brain Health Research – HKS recently launched brand-new findings from the brain health study we conducted in partnership with the University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for BrainHealth® with insights into how people and companies can work smarter, more collaboratively and healthier. The report also includes what we’ve learned about designing workplaces to enhance cognitive functions and well-being.

2. Project Connect – The Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) just announced a major partnership with an international design team led by HKS, UNStudio and Gehl to create system-wide architecture and urban design for the light rail program of Project Connect, a major expansion of Austin’s public transit system.The collaborative team is getting to work on designing a technologically advanced, human-centric transit experience true to Austin’s culture and landscape.

Stunning New Places to Work and Relax

3. HKS New York City Office – Located in the NoMad neighborhood of Manhattan, HKS’ new New York City Office will open this spring. With a design inspired by the city’s complex transportation system and artistic culture, the office will be a center of creativity and innovation that serves as gateway destination for HKS’ global clients. Goals for the design include adaptable collaboration, acoustic comfort, access to nature and daylight — all key elements to support the health and productivity of designers working in one of the world’s biggest and busiest cities.

4. The Ritz-Carlton, Portland – HKS crafted the vision, developed the planning and strategy, sculpted the interior architecture and designed the furniture and finishes of the Ritz-Carlton that debuts this summer in downtown Portland, Oregon. This 35-story mixed-used high rise was created in partnership with Portland-based GBD Architects and BPM Real Estate Group. The interiors of the multifaceted building’s hotel, residential, retail and office spaces celebrate the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, native culture and craft and Portland’s spirit of exploration.

Game-changing Venues for Extraordinary Entertainment Experiences

5. ES CON Field Hokkaido – ES CON Field Hokkaido ballpark is a 35,000-capacity baseball stadium scheduled to open for play this spring in Japan. Home to the Pacific League’s Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters Baseball Club, the complex is the heart of a dynamic, master-planned mixed-used development. The stadium’s retractable roof and sliding glass outfield doors – which help grow natural turf – are among many firsts for a ballpark in the Asian market. Other highlights include a pair of 88-meter-long video boards that create an immersive digital experience, and traditional Japanese onsen natural hot spring baths that fans can enjoy while watching games.

6. Cosm — The first public venue for global experiential media company Cosm is undergoing construction throughout 2023 at Inglewood, CA’s Hollywood Park, home of HKS-designed SoFi Stadium and YouTube Theater. The venue will feature live sports, entertainment events and arts and music experiences in a future-forward immersive digital technology environment. Cosm is sure to bring even more cutting-edge entertainment value to the Los Angeles area when it opens next year.

State-of-the-art Education and Health Care Environments

7. Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center O’Quinn Medical Tower at McNair – The new O’Quinn Medical Tower, opening this spring, will house the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center, outpatient radiology and endoscopy services and an ambulatory surgery center. The medical tower and an adjacent 850-car parking garage addition are part of a multi-year project to consolidate patient care on Baylor St. Luke’s McNair Campus in Houston. This campus is located next to the Texas Medical Center and new TMC Helix Park, an area under development for world-class health care and research innovation.

8. UC San Diego Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood – Opening in the fall, UC San Diego’s Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood is a mixed-use student residential community that will also serve as a major public gateway to UC San Diego’s campus. Comprised of five buildings with student housing, academic, administration, a conference center and amenities such as dining, retail, and fitness, the Neighborhood is designed to enhance well-being and minimize environmental impact.

9. Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU Patient Tower – This full-service pediatric facility in Richmond, Virginia includes emergency, inpatient and outpatient care all connected to a robust academic medical center and the hospital’s award-winning CHoR Pavilion, also designed by HKS. Because children’s health care often causes significant stress on young patients, families, and care team members, the tower’s research-informed design is intended to create an oasis for children and make people feel calm and at ease. All areas feature easily navigable circulation patterns, natural light and soothing artwork and are intended to promote choice. The building will open this spring.

10. Mount Sinai Beth Israel Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center – Work at the Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center for Mount Sinai Beth Israel, a teaching hospital in New York City, involved the complete renovation of a six-story structure originally built in 1898. The facility, due to open this spring, is designed to support mental health care, physical health care, addiction treatment, social services and integrated outpatient care. It will be the first center for comprehensive behavioral health care in New York state.

Looking Ahead

These HKS projects, along with many others scheduled for 2023, continue to demonstrate how architecture and design can bring joy, comfort and connection anywhere in the world.

“These projects reflect our commitment to service and pursuit of excellence for our clients, partners and colleagues in the new year,” said Dan Noble, HKS President and CEO. “We appreciate the collaboration and partnership that led to these successes and look forward to the future.”

These projects reflect our commitment to service and pursuit of excellence for our clients, partners and colleagues in the new year.

Dan Noble, HKS President and CEO

Getting to a Brain Healthy Workplace

Getting to a Brain Healthy Workplace

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Why brain health? We’ve written before about the need to embrace mental health through the prism of brain health. This emerging and growing concept encompasses neural development, plasticity, functioning, and recovery over the course of our lives. In some ways, brain health is to mental illness what physical fitness is to disease. The current study focuses on employees—while we still have our eye on broader societal concerns, including isolation, anxiety, and various problems that come with balancing technologies in the digital age. In short, we found that brain health strategies work—those who engaged the BrainHealth SMARTTM Strategies experienced a marked improvement over the course of our year-long study, as measured by the Center of BrainHealth®’s BrainHealthTM Index. On a fundamental level, our work shifts the conversation about workplaces.

“It’s time to change the narrative around how we work and fully leverage our brain capital. And it starts with the actions we take internally, with our own people, to help them emotionally, socially, and cognitively thrive.”

Dan Noble, HKS President and CEO

In 2021, HKS partnered with the Center for BrainHealth for a pilot program to investigate the role of place, process/policy, and technology in creating a brain-healthy workplace. The Center for BrainHealth is a nonprofit research institute dedicated to advancing the science of brain health,” how the brain best learns, reasons and innovates; actionable ways to protect it from decline; and proactive protocols to repair and generate brain systems. The organization developed a training program for brain fitness that works just like any physical fitness regime, leveraging 9 BrainHealth SMARTTM Strategies that prime the brain to calibrate mental energy, reinforce strategic thinking, and ignite innovation.

The core of our research leveraged a representative sample of HKS employees who participated in the program by completing a brain health assessment, accessing training modules, and translating brain health strategies into their daily lives. Additionally, five HKS Living Labs participated during the summer of 2022, as employees returned to the office at a higher frequency as part of their flexible work experience. We captured data and insights through surveys, observations, and interviews. We also convened semi-structured gatherings with colleagues, as well as both virtual and in-person think tanks.

In all, we determined seven key findings from our year-long study. Some corroborate past studies—such as the growing need to address distractions and multitasking. At the same time, others contribute new elements to discussions on mental health. Here are a few key insights from our report:

1. The brain can be trained.

Our study showed a statistically significant increase in brain health index for individuals who went through the brain health training.1 Those that completed the core cognitive training had a higher average than those that did not.

2. Managing distractions is a key challenge for focused work in the office.

The office isn’t only for collaboration—workers need spaces deliberately designed for focus work. Acoustics and a lack of environmental control consistently ranked lowest in satisfaction among design elements.

3. Multitasking is related to reduced effectiveness and increased burnout.

43% of our study’s participants said they frequently multitask—a bad habit related to a host of issues, including burnout. Our workstations are also multitasking alongside us.

4. Where we work matters, and using a range of spaces helps.

Creating a range of spaces based on task type or working modality may unlock innovation. We found that when participants used a range of spaces, satisfaction with collaborative work effectiveness in the office was higher.

5. Digital and physical workplace habits need time to develop.

Our satisfaction with individual and collaborative tasks increases with the time we spend in specific locations—we need time to acclimate to our environments for optimum efficiency.

6. Being together in-person is related to improved connection to team and increased opportunities for informal knowledge sharing.

Over the course of our 10-week study, collaborative behaviors increased and perceived connections to one’s team increased.

7. Perceived connections to one’s team are strong, but connection to the community is lagging.

After months or years of remote work, we must continuously evaluate how hybrid work arrangements impact interpersonal relationships across the organization.

By creating workplace affordances, we translated our key findings into strategies for our work environments. Workplace affordances are how we perceive environments to meet our needs. Based on the research, we proposed five primary affordances: focus, exploration & ideation, collaboration & co-creation, rest & reflection, and social connection. Affordances denote the end goal of how users will engage an environment—but they also begin with a question. Consider—how does the workplace foster social connection and community building? Or, how does our workplace afford us the ability to focus?

We then identified three fundamental habits underpinning a workplace designed for brain health—these are our workplace ABCs. First, the intent of a task must be aligned with the chosen environment. Based on the work an employee must accomplish, they must leverage the unique digital and physical affordances available to them. We also identified that workers need balance throughout the workday. Balanced habits are about intentional variability: working in different modalities and accessing a diversity of spaces designed to meet those needs. Finally, connection is critical to the workplace for brain health. This means connecting with others to boost a sense of belonging and provide a sense of purpose. Relating to how we align what we do with where we work and finding balance, connection also means equipping workers with the autonomy to choose and the authority to have control over their environment.

What’s Next?

We’re embracing the experiment: building on what we’ve gathered from our Living Labs and insights that we’ve gleaned from those who participated in our year-long study. We know that we’re not done yet. Our firm’s Flex Work policy is changing based on our learnings. We’re partnering with the Center for BrainHealth to develop a brain healthy workplace certification to encourage brain health practices and build accountability. We’re also focused on how our brain health explorations support unique business needs, so we’re developing a robust business case and toolkit for brain-healthy workplaces that will extend the work from this insights report into actionable real estate tools and measured impact.

Citations: 1 Zientz, J., Spence, J., Chung, S. S. E., Nanda, U., & Chapman, S. B. (in review). Exploring how brain health strategy training informs the future of work. Frontiers in Psychology.

How is Design Excellence Shaping the Future of Health Care?

How is Design Excellence Shaping the Future of Health Care?

Since 2020, the world has focused on health as we learned to live through a pandemic. The connections between personal health, community health, caring for patients and supporting caregivers are concepts that HKS’ global design teams are addressing in myriad ways as we explore how we can all live healthy lives, together. Here’s a glimpse at how some of our projects around the world are shaping the future of health care.

Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, Marcus Tower: Responsive, Flexible Design

Marcus Tower at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital demonstrates how facility design can help communities meet changing health care needs, even in the most challenging circumstances.

The expansive, 16-story Marcus Tower is designed to serve as a destination for cardiovascular care in the southeastern U.S. It has space for up to 408 patient beds and 16 technically advanced operating rooms, in addition to cardiac labs and other acute care services.

When the Integrated Project Delivery Team for Marcus Tower began initial design work in 2016, they developed a set of guiding principles and metrics by which to judge the success of the project. This proved vital when the world was gripped by a pandemic during the tower’s construction.

“We were able to open early, because decision making was so efficient on that project,” said Anthony Montalto, Chief Design Officer and Partner at HKS.

Piedmont Atlanta Hospital opened several patient units at Marcus Tower in April 2020, nearly four months ahead of schedule, to help meet a pressing need for intensive care beds due to Covid-19.

Montalto credits the streamlined design and construction process to the team’s agreed-on measures of success. “It was easy to align around them,” he said.

“We were able to open early, because decision making was so efficient on that project.”

Marcus Tower is prepared to respond to future community needs, as well. The patient rooms are designed to serve acute care and intensive care patients. This gives the hospital the flexibility to adapt patient units for different acuity levels, as necessary. In addition, shelled space on the patient floors will enable the hospital to build out additional operating rooms, recovery areas and patient units in phases.

Emory Musculoskeletal Institute: Beauty and Performance

Emory Healthcare’s Emory Musculoskeletal Institute (EMSK) integrates beauty and performance in a sustainable, intelligent, user-centered design.

EMSK is a six-story research and treatment center located in the Atlanta suburb of Brookhaven. The fluidity of motion and the structure of the musculoskeletal system are referenced artfully throughout the building’s design, in celebration of the Institute’s mission to help people regain physical motion and activity.

Smart building features reduce energy and water consumption at the facility and create a comfortable, easy-to-navigate environment for patients, visitors, physicians and staff. Custom smartphone apps provide digital IDs that automate functions such as unlocking doors and calling elevators. Electrochromic glass automatically adjusts to a lighter or darker tint depending on ambient sunlight, to control temperature and lighting in staff areas on the building’s south side. The building’s external airflow mixture is automatically monitored and adjusted to ensure the amount of carbon dioxide in the facility remains below industry benchmarks, to increase occupants’ comfort and productivity.

A 650-kilowatt solar photovoltaic array is in production and scheduled to be installed atop EMSK’s parking garage early this summer. This is one of several features that make the facility a leader in energy-efficient design.

“We’ve identified the path that it’s going to take to achieve net zero” at the facility, said Teresa Campbell, Studio Leader for HKS’ Health team and a Partner at the firm.

According to Campbell, reducing the energy load from a building – particularly an energy-intensive health facility – requires several strategies. Installing efficient mechanical systems, being mindful about glazing and solar heat gain, providing a renewable energy source and purchasing renewable energy credits all contribute to EMSK’s energy performance.

“These activities come together to neutralize energy consumption,” Campbell said.

“For a health care project, it’s pretty exciting. There’s a lot of alignment between trying to do no harm to the planet and trying to bring wellness and healing.”

Almoosa Specialist Hospital Bed Tower Expansion: International Culture and Context

The design of the new patient tower at Almoosa Specialist Hospital, located in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, honors the hospital’s Middle Eastern culture and context.

Created in association with Saudi Arabia-based DAR Engineering, the 230-bed LEED-Gold certified patient tower nearly doubled the size of the hospital, bringing the facility’s total bed capacity to 380.

The tower is designed to serve patients and visitors from throughout the Persian Gulf Region. The Sidra tree, a native tree that symbolizes qualities such as community, shelter and nourishment to people in the Arab world, inspired the design.

The Sidra tree is a key element in Almoosa health service’s logo and branding. “They wanted to tie their brand identity to creating that type of environment,” said Jorge Barrero, a Regional Design Director and Principal at HKS. “Something that’s welcoming, something that’s healthy…something that provides protection and brings well-being.”

The patient tower stands atop a podium that houses the building’s mechanical systems, surgery department and entrance lobby. The tower itself is a curvilinear form that represents a leaf.

“It was a challenging form for a health facility, but as team, we embraced the idea,” said Barrero.

He explained that the curved shape provided for little repetition in the design of recurring spaces like patient rooms, but that it gives the hospital a distinctive, meaningful, dynamic appearance.

The shape of the tower also takes advantage of prevailing winds, directing increased airflow to shaded terraces on the building’s west side. And curved windows maximize views from the patient rooms, to elevate the experience for patients, families and caregivers.

The design inspiration continues throughout the building’s interior. For example, each floor of the tower features graphic imagery derived from the Sidra tree, to help people feel welcome and cared for.

Sanford Health Virtual Care Center: What’s Next in Health Facility Design

Sanford Health’s Virtual Care Center (VCC) provides a preview of what’s next for health facility design.

Construction is underway on the two-story structure, which is scheduled to open in 2024 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

The first floor of the VCC will house an Innovation Center and an Education Institute that will serve as testing and training grounds for tools and applications to advance virtual caregiving.

On the second floor, clinician workspaces outfitted with sophisticated telemedicine technology will connect directly with Sanford Health’s satellite clinics, in order to expand care for the health system’s rural patient population. Services will include on-demand urgent care, behavioral health care and primary care.

One of the main challenges in the design of the VCC was to create a building that is inviting and represents Sanford Health’s commitment to excellence in health care but won’t be mistaken by patients for an outpatient clinic.

A contemporary interpretation of Sanford’s traditional Collegiate Gothic architectural style provides visual cues that the VCC is a new type of building.

The facility’s layout metaphorically describes its programming, with the more grounded research and education activities taking place on the first floor and the cloud-computing-based virtual caregiving activity taking place above.

Vertical windows tie the floors together and afford access to daylight and views on all four sides of the VCC. “We wanted to provide really good daylight and views all around, especially in an environment where people are going to be sitting at their desk most of the day,” said Barrero.

A ground-floor terrace and upper-level balcony give visitors and staff additional connections to the outdoors.

Making a Difference

Research shows design can make a difference in patient outcomes, said Jason Schroer, Global Director of HKS’ Health team and a Partner with the firm.

“Our design process has evolved because of our knowledge and understanding of how design can impact outcomes,” he said.

HKS has created a robust research database to guide informed health facility design decisions, along with a Design Intent Documentation tool that helps project teams record the rationale behind design decisions, identify metrics to measure effectiveness and link design strategies back to the project’s guiding principles. As the Piedmont Atlanta Hospital Marcus Tower project demonstrated, this process is key to individual project success. It also drives continual improvement at HKS.

Research shows design can make a difference in patient outcomes.

Researching, identifying and recording ideas to explore in health design enables project teams to measure the impact of those ideas once a facility is built and operational, said Schroer.

By applying this knowledge, he said, “we’re going to be better for the next project.”

Erin Peavey, HKS Architect and Design Researcher, agrees. “We are constantly learning through our buildings,” she said.

Looking ahead, Schroer said designers “have a unique opportunity to be influential” in addressing health equity, by engaging with a broad range of health system and community stakeholders during facility design development.

This idea is aligned with the AIA Framework for Design Excellence, a set of principles HKS follows to promote public health, safety and welfare through our work.

Peavey noted that given the high cost and constantly changing nature of health care delivery, every health design project is a huge investment and huge opportunity to increase the triple bottom line: social, economic and environmental progress.

Every building can “help make a more just, equitable world,” she said.

Towards Wellness in Design: A Framework for Evaluating the Urban Built Environment

Towards Wellness in Design: A Framework for Evaluating the Urban Built Environment

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Why Is This Important?

How can the built environment foster positive health outcomes long before any patient steps foot into a hospital? According to the United Nations, approximately 68% of the world’s population will be living in cities or other urban centers by 2050. Urban design has the potential to be at the forefront of improving overall population and community health in the years to come. For this reason, it is vital for communities to identify, evaluate and prioritize designing for wellness in the urban built environment.

Figure above | Original graphic. Derived from Statista using data from the UN Population Division, World Economic Forum.

This study examines two main points. First, the study examines urban design strategies for wellness, such as designing for increased physical activity or better nutrition, and these strategies’ role in impacting the health and well-being of an urban population. Second, the study seeks to create an observational methodology for measuring how existing urban design in the built environment negatively or positively impacts population wellness, with the outcome being a new tool that can be leveraged for informed decision-making. In addition, this study explores insights into the variety of built environment metrics that influence human behavior towards wellness. By delving into the field of urban design and wellness, we help increase understanding into how urban design can contribute to a broader spectrum of care.

Figure above | Original graphic. Derived from Heinle Wischer Und Partner

What We Did

This study utilizes two reviews of the literature, the creation of an observational tool to test existing environments, and pilot studies of the tool to examine how communities can benefit from understanding design for wellness in their own urban built environment.

An initial literature review was conducted to understand how urban design and planning influence health and wellness broadly. Thirty-two urban design metrics, divided into five categories, were identified from the literature as influencing either psychological or physiological aspects of human health. From there, a second literature review was conducted to understand the characteristics of existing observational tools for health and wellness.

Based on the findings from the second literature review, a novel tool was developed that analyzes urban design characteristics for positive wellness outcomes. The tool, called WellMap, was created using descriptors and diagrams that allow one to score a specified study area. WellMap is designed to lend insight and prioritization to what a community or project site could do to contribute to overall healthier decision making. The WellMap tool is complemented by a design guideline matrix that offers urban design strategies dependent on the resultant rating, an Excel scorecard that automatically visualizes comparative results, and a client template for project teams to create a one-pager that summarizes all information.

What We Found

Literature review #1:

Literature review #2:

Five Factors Were Identified From the Literature Review That Influence Physiological and/or Psychological Wellness in the Built Environment:

Design Factors

Designing communities with provisions for physical activity (namely, walkability) has a sizeable impact on wellness. This impact is felt both through formal massing that affects human physical activity and through influencing external factors, such as vehicular speed, which are linked to vehicular and pedestrian fatalities.

Diversity Factors

A mix of land use and accessible destinations, such as shops within neighborhoods and communities, influences whether people choose to commute via walking, connect multiple walking trips or participate in leisurely walking.

Density Factors

As density tends to encourage mixed-use facilities, sufficient densities alongside other built environment factors increase the probability of individuals walking for transport and creating local businesses that attract people and support a local community.

Distance Factors

Access to facilities such as public parks, green spaces, health care facilities, grocery stores, third places, etc., support positive healthy lifestyle choices by allowing people to be active or practice other healthy behaviors.

Destination Factors

Major anchor institutions that spur economic development by helping to create mixed-use destinations increase the probability that residents and visitors will decide to participate in physical activity.

These five factors formed the foundation of the WellMap tool, which was piloted in three distinct areas within Atlanta.

Pilot Study Analyses

Figure above | Original graphic. Wellness + the built environment as a system of systems that interact with each other in the built environment, rather than singular variables.

Findings and insights from the literature reviews, WellMap tool creation and pilot studies led to the development of key considerations, design goals and a design considerations matrix for urban design and wellness. These are compiled into a comprehensive report of the study and a full PDF, Excel spreadsheet and one-page template of WellMap that is available for use and distribution to project teams.

What the Findings Mean

A decentralized, holistic approach to health and wellness in our communities is trending, and urban design for health affirms this through consideration of how buildings, streets, public spaces and communities foster health and wellness for all. WellMap seeks to make stakeholders aware of the larger context in which they are operating and how their project can tie into an existing network of wellness fluidly and efficiently by identifying inequities in the built environment. What we have learned is that although urban design by itself does not ensure wellness, designing for networks of wellness can positively influence healthy human behavior. Efforts toward understanding how the built environment can foster wellness should be focused on identifying applicable study areas for project sites, evaluating what components within the study area are most important and prioritizing concrete metrics to determine how best to intervene.

There are several directions that future research could lead, many of which involve testing and evaluating the efficacy of the WellMap tool, as well as its connections to wellness and health care at large. Viable options for exploration include improving user observational methodology through testing for inter-rater reliability, recommending ideal study area sizes and cross referencing WellMap scores with contextual health data to determine associations between urban design and health outcomes.

As the rise in population in urbanized areas worldwide increases, so should our efforts in designing our cities and communities to support health and wellness. This is our call as designers to respond with knowledge through designs and strategies that maintain positive health long before anyone steps foot in a hospital. The built environment and the design of the everyday will become a first line of defense and a major influencer of population health at large.

Figure above | original graphic. Health care delivery models in communities.