Dak Kopec, Ph.D., MS.Arch., MCHES

Innovative New 'Design For Human Health' Program Launches at the Boston Architectural College

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There are thousands of design programs across the country, but not a single one focusing exclusively on design for human health from the human perspective. This really seems crazy when you think about it, as the built environment surrounds us in every facet of our lives and shapes physical and mental health in so many ways. From the choice between fluorescent lights versus natural daylighting, to what kind of materials to use in flooring and finishes (toxic, non-toxic), to heating, cooling and ventilation decisions, to flow and transportation within buildings and between buildings, every design decision impacts people’s health and wellbeing—either positively or negatively. Now is the time that design professionals take this subject to the next level. There are “healthcare design” specialty programs that teach designers how to design better hospitals and doctor’s offices, but there has never been an accredited US graduate design degree that focuses specifically on how to design the built environment (eg. offices, schools, homes) for optimal human health. Until now, that is! We’re thrilled to hear that Boston Architectural College has just launched a new masters degree program, Design for Human Health—the first graduate program in design studies that is broadly focused on the intersection between good design and human health.


kid looking out airplane window, airplane window

Within the past century, much of design has been object or typology based. In the development process, the human-thing relationship often comes secondary to design. An airplane, for example, came about as a human desire to fly, then the desire and need to get from one point to the other faster. How humans interacted with the plane and the effects of the plane on people was a secondary thought. This process ordering is very common in all aspects of human experience—i.e., we give preference to a select element within an ordering system. The problem with this approach lies in the unequal attention given to each of the phases. For example, one individual may give greater preference to the appetizer, salad, entree, or dessert. Most will give greater attention to the most desired step in the process; for me, it is the dessert. When it comes to our life’s work, we are more likely to give preference to the portion of the process that we enjoy most.

For architecture and design professions, preference is usually given to the art and design followed by human factors. For those who have entered into public or clinical health, or the social sciences, it is usually direct person-to-person care that garners the most attention, and then it may be health prevention through education, followed by environmental factors. While these kinds of prioritizing are natural, a void exists when it comes to human health as it relates to the totality of the built environment. Until now, there has been no singular academic program that gives equal weight to the design process in relation to the World Health Organization’s definition of health as being each person’s physical, psychological, and social wellbeing. The Boston Architectural College has launched a low residency program in Design for Human Health, the first graduate program in design studies that is broadly focused on the intersection between good design and human health.

There are professions that address environmental health. There are programs dedicated to building sciences, industrial hygiene, and industrial psychology. Many programs such as architecture, interior, and industrial design consider human factors. But none do it from an integrated holistic approach where the preservation of human health through preventative environmental modification initiatives serves as the ideological core. This is all changing with the Boston Architectural College‘s new Design for Human Health low residency program.

baby, baby crawling, baby on carpet

Infants and toddlers are closer to the ground, which places them in a breathing zone that has highest concentrations on indoor air pollutants. Infants and toddlers breath as much as three times faster than an adult which means that they are taking greater volumes of indoor air pollutants than adults.

Students in the Design for Human Health program select a topical area (e.g., alzheimer’s disease, autism, school/workplace violence), or typology (e.g. mixed use housing, recreation centers, community clinics) that they wish to study. From this subject matter, the students learn about the physical effects of short- and long-term health consequences. For example, they might study the effects of assorted indoor air pollutants to infants, toddlers, children, adults, and the elderly in terms of the person’s physical height, breathing and heart rates, and exposure levels.

crowd, crown on street, crowded plaza, crowded sidewalk

Cultures often have differing interpretations and understanding of personal space. A person’s normal everyday demeanor can be very different from when he or she is thrust into a stressful situation in which the coping threshold has been exceeded.

Students also learn about the threats to psychological health that arise from factors brought about by the built environment. This includes the advent of learned helplessness, environmental numbness, ideological communication, and coping thresholds as they relate and differ between genders, ages, and cultural affiliations.

people working in an office, office job, desk job, desk workers

The images and sights people see around them communicate a message and meaning that become internalized as an emotional reaction or feeling.

With considerations of the overlapping nature of physical and psychological health, students learn about factors that influence social health. This includes social interactions facilitated by the built environment between two or more people. These interactions could be the formation of friendship and romantic bonds, the engagement of cooperation and collaboration, or the incitement of anger and conflict. These interactions are studied and analyzed in relation to psychological factors (i.e., crowding, personal space, and territoriality) and social factors related to culture, religion, and sociopolitical norms.

classroom, traditional classroom, school house, school

Optimal learning occurs when the classroom has been designed to facilitate the primary learning activities of the course. For example, the traditional classroom design is great to impart information, semi circular arrangements are better for discussions, and tables dispersed around an instructor are more ideal for kinesthetic learning activities. Schools should be designed with classrooms that accommodate the three learning styles of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.

Waldorf School puppet show, Waldorf School, Waldorf classroom

Social and spatial density not only effects learning outcomes, but is a significant factor in the spread of infectious disease in all public environments. A kindergarten classroom at a Waldorf school provides ample space for each child and utilizes classroom designs that facilitates visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning to occur holistically. 

RELATED: Toxic schools make teachers and kids sick >

A fundamental thread throughout the Design for Human Health program includes a root cause analysis in which students identify all the stages within a sequential process, including the interaction and inhabitation of an environment, in an effort to identify situations that have led to subsequent positive or negative behaviors or beliefs. The program’s goal is to use environmental modification as a means to increase healthy physical, psychological, and social outcomes while eliminating negative effects.

The new Design for Human Health masters degree program is enrolling now for Fall 2014. To find out more about this innovative new education course, visit the Boston Architectural College’s website.

+ Design for Human Health – School of Design Studies

+ Boston Architectural College

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Dak Kopec holds a doctorate degree in environmental psychology with a concentration in perception and design and two master’s degrees, one in architecture and another in community psychology. He has served twice as a visiting lecturer at Virginia Commonwealth University in Doha Qatar and as a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii in the schools of Architecture and Medicine. He currently serves as a reviewer for Fulbright applications.

Dak’s most notable accomplishments include several journal articles, the completion of three books: Environmental Psychology for Design; Health, Sustainability and The Built Environment; and Evidence Based Design: A Process for Research and Writing. He has also authored two monographs, Americans with Disabilities Act and The Elderly Population and Designs that Protect: Incorporating Culturally Diverse Perspectives in Long-Term Care Facilities. He was also a host of a television pilot for TLC (The Learning Chanel) and hosted a second television pilot produced by Baja Posse Movies.

Dak was invited by the Costa Rican National Congress’ of Medicine and Engineering to discuss the role of design and health, and he has also testified before the California State Senate on issues of environmental health, and has been appointed by the governor of Hawaii to sit on the Hawaii Regional Planning Council. Previously, he was also invited to present on the future of design at the IDA (International Design Alliance) Congress in Taiwan, and invited to present at a TEDx conference. He is a member of ASID’s Distinguished Speakers

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3 Comments

  1. Diane Pham Diane Pham January 16, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    Great and really important program that should really be a part of all arch/design curriculums

  2. Tafline Laylin Tafline Laylin January 16, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    This is excellent – hopefully it will spur a whole new era of health designers!

  3. Yuka Yoneda Yuka Yoneda January 16, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    It’s so exciting to see more recognition of the fact that buildings need to be healthy in order to be considered sustainable. Great program.

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