Credit: William Stewart


Let’s try a quick word association: “architecture” and “health.” For the public, the likely answer would be that buildings like hospitals and clinics connect the two words. And they’d be half right. There have been wonderful advances in patient care, and research supports the argument that design can promote healing and make the work of healthcare providers more efficient.

But—as I said to a group of physicians, policymakers, and architects at the AIA Design and Health Summit held in Washington, D.C., in April—an effective strategy to rein in the mounting cost of healthcare is not better treatment when we’re sick (although architects play a major role in promoting the delivery of excellent healthcare), it’s to keep us well and out of the hospital in the first place. This is also a role for design—a role that goes beyond bricks and mortar. It embraces how we shape the places and spaces in which we live. This is precisely what acting U.S. surgeon general Boris Lushniak had in mind at the summit when he said, “If you’re an architect, you are a public health worker.”

Expanding the scope of what architects do opens new lines of communication in talking about the value of the services we provide. In far too many discussions (many of which are, if we’re candid, led by us), we focus on a narrow concept of an architectural program. We talk about a project as if it existed in a vacuum—a colorful, sculptural foreground image floating in an abstract frame with only a hint of context.

That’s not how design works. Like a stone thrown into a pond, architecture initiates ever-widening ripples. Architecture influences how people move; how they are stimulated by light, sound, and color; their sense of security and mental well-being; and how connected they feel toward one another. And architecture does all this over the course of a lifespan that, ideally, lasts generations.

But the responsibility falls on architects to make that case. We need friends, of course—experts like Lushniak and the physicians and policymakers in attendance at the AIA Design and Health Summit. We need powerful allies like the Clinton Global Initiative and research universities, with which the AIA has strong ties. We also need each other to continue the conversation that links design and health in our everyday lives.

And now we can make a better case about design and health’s relationship than ever before, with the McGraw-Hill Construction SmartMarket Report survey, released last month at the 2014 AIA National Convention in Chicago. The report, which you may download at aia.org/smartmarket, documents the positive economic impact of investing in the design and construction of healthier buildings from the perspective of owners, architects, and human resources professionals. Such data is driving, and will increasingly drive, future investment.

The challenge for each of us is not to leave this report on the shelf, but to use it to inform our work for clients, shape the way we advocate to policymakers, and reinforce the way we talk about architecture to the public. The AIA’s role is to support and expand research that makes an evidence-based argument for design. Our collective role as architects is to use this information to convey how our work promotes health and well-being. Architecture has always been about more than bricks and mortar.

Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA
2014 President

Learn more about the SmartMarket Report produced by McGraw-Hill Construction and commissioned by the AIA at aia.org/smartmarket.