California-based, internationally focused nonprofit studies the intersection of neuroscience and architecture to track human responses to the built environment

By Alison Whitelaw

The last transformative change in architecture began with a simple understanding about the effects building design and construction have on our planet.

This symbiosis between architecture and ecology gave rise to the term ‘sustainable design.’

Over the last two decades, our heightened awareness about the built environment’s impacts on the world around us has led to dramatic changes in design and construction to reduce waste, increase resource efficiency and preserve scarce resources. With it, we’ve been introduced to alternative building materials, LEED standards, net-zero net and restorative strategies and the promise of a more environmentally positive future.

This design philosophy has grown to incorporate the wellness of people as an important component in the health of our planet.

Public agencies were early adopters of sustainable design practices and private industry followed suit.

Now, an emerging field of building design, at the juncture of research on the human brain and design of the built environment, may mean that public agencies again take the lead to implement novel ideas at the frontier of architecture, as informed by neuroscience.

The Intersection of Neuroscience and Architecture

Recent breakthroughs in brain imaging and mapping allow scientists to understand more about how a brain responds to its external environment. This research, focusing on the intersection of neuroscience and architecture, promises to have impacts on the design of countless public buildings, from grade schools and universities to offices, detention facilities, healthcare facilities and military infrastructure.

“I propose that a new knowledge base from neuroscience be developed that will enable designers to respond to cognitive experiences of spaces and places and allow architects to combine these design concepts with adaptive technology for the fabric of cities and buildings,” architect John Paul Eberhard, FAIA, wrote in his 2008 book “Brain Landscape The Coexistence of Neuroscience and Architecture.”

Years earlier, Eberhard was tasked by the American Architectural Foundation, a nonprofit affiliate of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), with researching how architectural settings influence the human experience. The idea stemmed from American medical researcher Dr. Jonas Salk.

Salk, who was working tirelessly to develop a polio vaccine, reached a point where he was intellectually stuck. It was the early 1950s and Salk retreated to the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi — a 13th- century Franciscan monastery in Assisi, Italy. It was here, he later claimed, that the architectural setting was so stimulating to his imagination that he saw the way forward for developing the Salk (or polio) vaccine.

“The spirituality of the architecture there was so inspiring that I was able to do intuitive thinking far
beyond any I had done in the past,” Salk recalled. “Under the influence of that historic place I intuitively
designed the research that I felt would result in a vaccine for polio.”

Salk returned to his lab in Pittsburg where he validated his concepts. Based on his experience, he believed that the human brain reacted continuously to its surrounding environment. As such, he opined, architects should have a better understanding of human experience with architectural settings.

Many years later, Eberhard helped lead this charge.

In 2003, Eberhard, with neuroscientists and architects from the AIA San Diego Chapter, co-founded the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA). This partnership brought together two professions to track, inspire and share emerging research to better understand the influences the built environment has on the human brain.

While social and behavioral research of design attributes, “provides an understanding of how humans respond, it does not explain why we have such responses,” Eberhard wrote. However, “neuroscience research could provide a knowledge base with clear evidence of why the occupants of spaces and places are affected by the design of these spaces and places,” he said.

The Impact Designed Spaces Have on the Human Brain

Evidence-based design, the process of building an environment based on scientific research, is now a well-established tool for architects. Although still limited in scope and funding, relevant, evidence-based neuroscience research has begun transforming design standards in healthcare settings and beyond.

Research by perinatologist Dr. Stanley Graven and others has shown that architectural design can affect patient outcomes. Their research showed that traditional, unregulated neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) environments can have harmful consequences on the critical sensory development of preterm neonates.

The study suggests that noise, light and other stimuli interfered with a preterm newborn’s ability to sleep and disrupted their visual and auditory development, which are among the last parts of the human brain to develop during the gestation process and are thus interrupted by a premature birth. Given such, the study concluded, the characteristics of light, sound, touch and connection are critical considerations when designing the NICU environment.

A study from the Boekelheide NICU at Sanford Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, used the metrics of periodic breathing and awake time of preterm infants to compare the differences between a conventional, open-bay NICU design to a design prototype that utilized single-family, environmentally controlled rooms. Metrics significantly improved in the prototype, leading to new NICU design standards.

In another example of a study examining how the brain reacts to its surrounding environment, the research of Huda Akil PhD, co-director and professor of the University of Michigan’s Molecular & Behavioral Science Institute, shows that the brain sustains specific physical damage as a result of solitary confinement.

While still in its infancy, this road to discovering how the human brain responds to its built environment may have untold implications and affect how public leaders are expected to lead when overseeing public facilities design and operation.

Research at the intersection of neuroscience and architecture is in its infancy, but results and applications are already happening — albeit gradually — and public leaders should pay attention.

Alison Whitelaw is the founder, and former senior principal, of Platt/Whitelaw Architects, Inc. During her 35 years in architecture, her work focused on designing public and community projects that sustain their users, the community and the natural environment. One of her designs earned the nation’s first Energy Star label for a building and was used as a model for the creation of the LEED rating system. A fellow of the American Institute of Architects, she co-founded Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture.