Neuroscientists, building owners, architects, and contractors discuss improving the human experience through design at Legat Architects’ fifth annual ThinkTank
What’s so special about humans? What does neuroscience have in common with architecture? Can environments boost creativity?
Ten stories above the Chicago River, more than 85 professionals assembled in DIRTT’s Green Learning Center to delve into these questions as part of Legat Architects’ fifth annual ThinkTank.
The workshop and panel discussion explored a variety of topics: scientists talked about perception and creativity. Educators shared the latest in student- and faculty-inspired design. Healthcare professionals reflected on how architecture can meet today’s needs for senior living residents and rehabilitation patients. An urban planner introduced the challenges of creating community-sensitive outdoor environments. Watch the video below for event highlights.
Attendees then took part in a guided sensory exploration of a Chicago neighborhood. During the post-workshop reception, participants enjoyed refreshments and hors d’oeuvres. Some became “avatars” and explored an advanced classroom using DIRTT’s virtual reality program, while others shared ideas on the rooftop terrace. The event concluded with the announcement of winners of a design competition for a pioneering senior living facility at Senior Home Sharing.
A Widely Relevant Topic
DIRTT’s Chris Matus and Legat President and CEO Patrick Brosnan welcomed participants. Matus discussed the virtual reality program, which allows building owners to walk through what their spaces will look like.
Brosnan, mentioning Legat’s “push for constant reinvention,” revealed the firm’s next step in innovation: reaching out to neuroscientists to further explore the impact of place on performance.
Brosnan said, “These are topics that impact every place we work, every place we live, and what we’re doing throughout the day.”
The Commonalities that Bridge Scientists and Architects: Dr. Susan Hespos
The panel presentations, moderated by Legat’s Jeffrey Sronkoski and Robin Randall, kicked off with two researchers in Northwestern University’s psychology department.
Susan Hespos, professor in the Cognitive Neuroscience program, held the presentation remote behind her back and addressed the audience. “Even though none of you can see the remote, you all believe it continues to exist. You believe it has the same color, shape, and functionality it had before, but you can’t see it, hear it, taste it, touch it. You’re going beyond the information your senses are giving you and you’re all doing it in similar ways.”
What it boils down to, suggests Hespos, is that despite their vast differences in education and skills, people perceive objects in the same ways. Hence, the key to the science/architecture connection involves “focusing on commonalities in our built environments.”
For instance, if a designer wants to create spaces that promote focus within a facility, she can identify those spaces with a certain color, shape, or other thematic element that occupants will quickly grasp.
Hespos said, “If we can harness the things we all do in similar ways and create environments that make them easy, these are the fundamental things we can offer as a science.”
Considering that many professionals spend most of their day looking at a screen, Hespos also encouraged designers to incorporate nature and daylight into their designs. She said that elements like courtyards, natural sounds, natural light, and even views to nature can create “an integrated sensory experience that is going to put people more at ease and put them in an environment that’s more conducive to getting work done.”
Seize the Wonderful Moments of Creativity: Kyle Nolla
Kyle Nolla, artist and graduate student in Northwestern’s Brain, Behavior, and Cognition program, works in a lab and studies creative cognition (i.e., the way the brain creates new things).
“The process of creativity seems a mysterious skill that we have,” she said. “How do we get insights, and how are people creating masterpieces? There’s much science to it, and we can use that understanding to create those wonderful moments of creativity.”
The key to these creative moments, according to Nolla, is the mind’s need to find opportunities for both focusing and defocusing. Architectural design responds by manipulating attention. Students, employees, and residents need spaces that support deep concentration, and spaces that enable occupants to stop and relax.
Flip the Script with Early Education: Dr. Art Fessler
Community Consolidated School District 59 (Arlington Heights, Illinois) Superintendent Art Fessler shared the story of the new CCSD59 Early Learning Center, which consolidates five early education locations in one facility.
He said, “We wanted to design and build something that our kids would have an emotional connection to, and we wanted to leverage that connection to inspire kids to learn.”
During preconstruction, the district involved as many stakeholders as possible: administrative assistants, teachers, parents, and even some of the older students.
The resulting CCSD59 Early Learning Center “flips the script” by transforming the traditional approach of teachers talking and students sitting into a learning experience that supports “the application of skill, knowledge, and content.”
Fessler also advised educators in the audience to create programs and settings that instill in children the “mindset that school is important.” He cited the little blue door that welcomes students to the CCSD59 Early Learning Center, as well as its indoor and outdoor play areas, vibrant colors, and textures that encourage touch.
The facility also conveys to parents the importance of learning: its Family Learning Center offers resources and space for family education.
Fessler said, “We wanted to send a message to anyone who enters our school that you are welcome.”
Rethinking Academic Space and the “Third Place”: Brian Knetl
Brian Knetl, associate provost, interdisciplinary student success at Harper College, explored how design can not only enhance the student and faculty experience, but also better connect the two groups.
“In higher education, meeting students where they are used to mean finding out what their intellectual and experiential backgrounds were,” he said. “Now, meeting students where they are literally means creating a physical space where interactions between faculty and students can occur.”
Knetl cited his experience with the renewal of the 50-year-old Harper College Library at the heart of the Harper campus in Palatine, Illinois. The renovation, according to Knetl, “changes the way that students and faculty interact.” With its collaboration zones, diverse seating options, makerspaces, and light-filled open floor plan, the library has become a place to “gather, connect, and create.”
During the Q and A session, Knetl talked about how sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s concept of the “third place” inspired design at the library. People typically have a third place (besides home and work) where they enjoy spending time and connecting with others. Similarly, the makeover of the Harper Library allows it to function as a third place (besides home and the classroom) for students. Knetl said, “It’s the space in the community college that keeps students on campus.”
Bridging the Gap in Senior Living: Lisa Stover
When it comes to senior living, those who have the lowest income receive government aid, while only the wealthiest seniors can afford today’s exorbitant senior housing costs. Many retirement-bound individuals who fall somewhere between those extremes face a major challenge in finding adequate living arrangements.
Senior Home Sharing helps fill that gap in DuPage County, Illinois by providing alternative living options for lower income individuals who do not qualify for government aid.
At the ThinkTank, Senior Home Sharing board member Lisa Stover introduced the not-for-profit organization founded in 1981. She also explained a plan to change its model to respond to the influx of seniors.
An in-house competition among Legat designers explored solutions for bringing Senior Home Sharing residents more privacy, while still offering them a community environment rich in activity and socialization. See below for more information on the competition.
A Mission to Get Residents Outside: Dan Ungerleider
Studies show that Americans spend about 90% of their time indoors. Dan Ungerleider, urban planner with the Village of Clarendon Hills, is on a mission to turn the tables.
“I’m in conflict with almost every architect in the room,” he said. “I don’t want you in those pretty buildings; I want you outside.”
Clarendon Hills has taken strides to encourage people to spend more time away from their couches and desks. Examples include outdoor dining spaces, weekly summer concerts, and resident-created art, which not only builds community pride and tells a story, but also helps with the “directionally challenged.”
Ungerleider said, “Instead of ‘Take a left at that brown building, then turn right at the fork,’ people are starting to say, ‘Look for the orange bee.’”
He also pointed out the village’s new, Legat-designed Metra train station. Inspired by the idea of “building as landscape,” the station includes a green roof, pavilion-like canopies, glass-enclosed warming shelters, and covered bicycle shelters, as well as plaza, seating, and rain garden amenities.
“I have a firm belief that if we can’t put our feet on the ground, we’re lost,” said Ungerleider. “Open spaces should have areas where we can touch our hands or bare feet to the ground.”
Flexibility and Financial Prudence: Dr. Jeff Schuler
Community Unit School District 200 (Wheaton, IL) engaged in a master planning process that explored new construction and updates to over 2,000,000 square feet of schools. Superintendent Jeff Schuler explained that he and other district leaders had to think about not only improving the experience for learners, but also about the realities of budget restrictions.
He said, “When you’re talking about public dollars, there’s a point at which you risk overbuilding to create all those spaces. We thought about creating flexible space so users can have different experiences inside the same space.”
Schuler introduced the recently completed design of the district’s new Early Childhood Center as an example of planning for flexibility. Each pair of classrooms within the facility has shared therapy space—students, two-thirds of whom have special needs or disabilities, get support without having to leave the classroom. Additionally, the district applied a “hoteling” concept to these spaces, meaning instructors can use them as office space when students are not using them.
Schuler also mentioned the value of virtual reality tours during planning of the school. He said that putting staff members inside the space in 3-D helped them see where they “hit the mark,” and where some adjustments needed to be made.
Pushing the Envelope in a Conservative Community: John Cain
Early last year, Bettendorf Community Schools (Iowa) decided to replace its 57-year-old Grant Wood Elementary School. Principal John Cain had to walk a careful line—he was working with a conservative community, but the district wanted an advanced facility.
At nearly twice the size of its predecessor, the new Grant Wood, dedicated on August 21, 2018, brings its preK through fifth grade students a light-filled environment that emphasizes collaboration, active learning, and community. Staff said the new school is “just amazing,” according to the Quad-City Times.
The 63,000-square-foot facility features a glass spine with a learning stair, a second-floor meeting room that overlooks the entry, multipurpose space, and a library with a makerspace and a STEM area.
Like Jefferson Early Childhood Center, the new Grant Wood brings special education services into the classroom. It also has a shared hoteling/office area designed for teachers who do not have an assigned classroom.
Cain contended that “architects pushing the envelope in conservative communities” can help many school districts take their programming to the next level.
This Doesn’t Look Like a Hospital: Kathleen Yosko
The practice of rehabilitation medicine, according to Kathleen Yosko, “is natural and holistic. It incorporates the integration of mind, body, and spirit within the healing process.”
Yosko, past president and CEO of Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, talked about her experience incorporating this philosophy into a replacement hospital at a 65-acre wooded campus in Wheaton, Illinois.
Yosko said, “We had to take into account accessibility, safety, privacy, functionality, and infection control, but we also wanted to maximize the beauty of the existing campus and grounds and develop a space that would promote the flow of positive energy.”
Like several ThinkTank speakers, she advocated indoor/outdoor connections. Her rallying cry of “more light, more windows, more outside” led to calming interior environments and abundant views throughout the hospital. “There are no bad views,” she said. “Patients are either looking at a prairie, gardens, or treetops.”
Among the spaces where patients, families, and staff can find comfort are a chapel, meditation room, and gardens. The central enabling garden, designed by Hitchcock Design Group, includes a vertical planting wall, various rehabilitation exercise elements, music, and an interactive water features.
Yosko said, “The biggest compliment someone could pay would be, ‘This place just doesn’t look like a hospital.’”
Senior Living Reconsidered: Design Competition
Five Legat teams took to the drawing board for the ThinkTank design challenge: devising a new independent senior living concept for Senior Home Sharing. The panelists served as judges, and all attendees voted on a People’s Choice winner.
Ted Haug’s Cycle of Life concept took the prize for both Overall Winner and People’s Choice. His layout uses the golden section (expanding spiral) to reflect the progress of life and knowledge from birth to mature senior years. It builds connections to nature, community, and physical health with a variety of features: solar roof shingles, wind turbines, and an intergenerational play area. A giant solar roof at the center of the facility illuminates a fish pond and a “wintergarden.”
Justin Banda and Tyler Wade got the nod for Most Innovative concept. Their Teien House design was inspired by the research of Neil Harris and John Grootjans through Griffith University. Teien House, named after the Japanese word for “garden,” introduces eight small living quarters connected by communal spaces and a series of public and private gardens.
A vibrant courtyard thrives at the heart of Tianye Zhou’s concept, which won Best Graphics honor. Both one-story shared spaces and two-story living spaces have strong views of the courtyard.
Kyle Nolla told the story of Archimedes, who was tasked with finding out whether his king’s new crown was solid gold. After many failed attempts, the ancient Greek mathematician went to the public bath to think. As he lowered himself, he saw the water rise. This observation allowed him to use water displacement to calculate density . . . and give his king an answer.
Similarly, over two millennia later, Joe Woodland sat on Miami Beach while considering a way to speed up the checkout process at grocery stores. When he started drawing in the sand, he came up with the bar code.
Those who attended the ThinkTank agreed that spaces, whether indoors or outdoors, that inspire such eureka moments are hard to come by. However, the prospects become more promising when design and construction professionals, building owners, and scientists work together to identify how occupants respond to environments. When that happens, schools, healthcare facilities, communities, and businesses can achieve spaces that improve the human experience.
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