Season 5 - Episode 524
How can buildings be designed with the health of their occupants in mind? The answers can be found in evidence-based design, where research uncovers design elements that can promote the health of those who live or work in them. Debra Harris, associate professor of interior design, co-leads a research team creating software that makes evidence-based design accessible to building designers. In this Baylor Connections, she takes listeners inside healthy buildings and previews the upcoming software launch.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith and today we are talking with Debra Harris. Dr. Harris serves as associate professor in interior design in Baylor's Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences. A longtime educator and an expert in evidence-based design, Dr. Harris has partnered with collaborators in both higher education and professional sectors to advance design that considers the health and well-being of those who work or live there. She's a co-principal investigator on a project to create a software program that enables designers to incorporate evidence-based design into the design and construction of buildings that lead to healthier facilities. We'll talk about what that means with Dr. Harris about a project that received more than one million dollars in funding through a small business innovation grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Well, Dr. Harris, I have a sense this is going to be a topic that we haven't discussed, first of all, on the program today and maybe one that people have heard a little bit about but we can dive in a little bit more. Thanks so much for joining us on the program.
Debra Harris:Thank you for having me.
Derek Smith:Well, it's great to have you here today, and as we do, let's start off with a few definitions so that we can invite listeners a little more deeply into our conversation today. Let's start off with healthy buildings. What are we talking about when we talk about healthy buildings?
Debra Harris:Well, we're really talking about creating spaces that... You know, you think about the psychology and the... Just the physicality of being in a space. And, how can you design those things to create an environment where people are making good choices and increasing activities and just living their best life?
Derek Smith:Well, we've probably all on some level during the pandemic, whether working at home, gotten used to being a little bit sedentary. So, there's some ways that as people go back to work or in different settings that you can actually design it to, I don't want to say trick people, but sort of almost beneath the surface, create some things they don't even have to think about a lot that make it healthier.
Debra Harris:Yeah. It's interesting. You can design the built environment where there's passive acceptance. So, for instance, you think about circadian rhythms and how the sun comes up and it goes down. Right? And, there are tuneable lighting systems that you can use to mimic that in an environment. So, in that case, a businessperson can provide that for their workforce where they're kind of... Their circadian rhythm entrainment... They're kind of going with the flow of the course of the day. Right? But, then you can also do things to increase choices. So, maybe you want to increase physical activity that leads to having impacts on your BMI, maybe cardiac health down the road. And, you can do that by using nudges and so you can talk people into... You can design things and then encourage them to take the stairs instead of the elevator, even if it's just for a flight. You know?
Debra Harris:And, then you build on that. So, there's great ways to do things to increase that kind of activity.
Derek Smith:The passive acceptance or adoption. That's a better word than trick.
Debra Harris:Yeah. There you go.
Derek Smith:But, that's good. That's good.
Debra Harris:We like that better.
Derek Smith:Yes. What about evidence-based design? Because, that's a big part of what we're going to be talking about.
Debra Harris:Evidence-based design is sort of fashioned after evidence-based medicine which most people have heard about. So, basically instead of thinking about doctors making choices, it's really about utilizing the evidence that's out there about the built environment to design to get positive outcomes. That... You know, basically in the disciplines of architecture and design, that has been around probably since about the early eighties mostly. Maybe late seventies. But, it's really ramped up where it's more of a discipline now and leading to a lot of good changes in terms of how we can justify designs to improve people's lives.
Derek Smith:How has evidence-based design grown over the years? Is it a factor of, well, there's more research out there now, which is certainly the case? Or, faculty researchers like you doing more to build it? But, how has it...? How has it grown over the years?
Debra Harris:It has grown. I mean, it really got its roots in health care design. So, I like to say, well, you know, if you have the CEO of a hospital, they're either a businessperson, right? Or, they're a medical person. And, both of them use data to make decisions. They're different sets of data, but, you know.... And, I think that that kind of gave us a foothold where a lot of evidence-based research in architecture and interior design was focused on health care design. But, now it's across all building typologies. There's a lot of people doing a lot of really interesting things out there and there's a lot of cross disciplinary research so you have people from other disciplines that are collaborating or even doing independent research that then lends itself to evidence that is used by architects and designers to design spaces.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Debra Harris, associate professor in interior design. And, you know, Dr. Harris, you mentioned the hospital example, but as we think about just businesses in general, as we think about people's health and insurance and, you know, I know many places have incentives even for their employees or their staff to be healthier, to use workout facilities, whatever. What are some of the interests that people have in this? What are the benefits to a business in incorporating some of these?
Debra Harris:Well, you've named some of them right there. So, if you can reduce insurance premiums, that's a win for a business. It's a win for an individual. If you can increase the health of your workforce and then you have less absenteeism, you have less illness and injuries. You have all of those things. You have a healthy workforce, then they're going to be more productive. So, from an organization side, there's hardly a downside to it.
Debra Harris:You know, for the individual, a lot of companies do have incentive programs and they might have an incentive that's focused on eating healthy or working out and they'll provide those facilities. So, that's one of those things that you can... How the building can support the incentives. Right? So, if you build it, they will come. And so, those kinds of things. Again, using the stairs. I saw this one article that was from the Scandinavian countries and it was really interesting to me because they were... I mentioned nudges before. They used jokes on the risers of the steps in the fire stairs. Fire stairs are usually pretty awful places. They're required by law and by code, so, you know... But, you know, we're talking about in design those spaces, use nice materials, provide natural light, provide decent electric lighting. You know? But, these guys actually... They would put a joke on one of the risers and as you'd go up three or four steps, the response to the joke would be there. You know? And, they were able to, through behavior mapping, to show that people were like telling their friends and then they were bringing them to the stairs to go up. You know? The stairs instead of taking the elevator. And so, you know, you see that and you see this kind of positive momentum that picks up and people are starting to do things a little differently.
Derek Smith:That's... Well, we don't have jokes but I know in Robinson Tower where I work, they have little messages on the landings there.
Debra Harris:Oh, yeah.
Derek Smith:About congratulating people on taking the stairs and think of their health.
Derek Smith:So, that's great. Hey, one other definition just as we give a... Paint a picture of who all is interested in this. SBIR. That's a grant that has led to the... That's led to the software package that we're going to talk about that you and other faculty are collaborating to create. Who is SBIR and what are their goals?
Debra Harris:SBIR is the Small Business Innovation Research Program and it's a federal program and by the Small Business Association. But, different agencies, different agencies within NIH and other organizations in the federal government have access to creating SBIR grants. And, really the idea is all of us researchers in our ivory towers, we can kind of get lost in our own stuff. Right? The idea for SBIR is they're reaching out to business people and saying this is an opportunity for you to collaborate, build collaborations and go after ideas and innovations that we think will improve the... And, for the NIH, it's all about health. Right? So, there you go.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Debra Harris. And, Dr. Harris, I want to ask you before we dive in further a little bit about yourself, coming to Baylor and this discipline. Where did your interest in evidence-based design begin? When did that happen for you?
Debra Harris:Well, I... When I got out of practice, I went to graduate school and because I really just felt like as an interior designer, that there needed to be more for me and I was searching for what that was and in graduate school, I discovered evidence-based design and I was very interested. I had a lot of experience in health care and so I kind of continued in that vein. And so, that's when I started that. I got a Ph.D at Texas A and M and was able to flourish in that environment in architecture and I've been on that train ever since.
Derek Smith:Mm-hmm. Now, so, you've taught, you've been in the private sector as well. Baylor in 2017. What brought you here?
Debra Harris:Well, I... You know, I feel like... I guess there's a couple of different things. I like... As an independent consultant, sometimes you're by yourself a lot.
Debra Harris:And, I really like collaborating. I like building collaborations. And, coming to Baylor was really good for me. I love teaching and so being able to teach the next generation of design people, that's really important to me. But, also being able to collaborate across campus with different kinds of researchers and other people, and that's been very, very good for me.
Derek Smith:Well, speaking of collaboration, you've got a great team that you get to work with on the project that we are about to discuss here momentarily. Erich Baker, LesLee Funderburk and others. So, professors from engineering and computer science, colleagues from the Robbins College that we'll talk about here in just a moment. So, let's talk about this project. You are working to create a software program that will allow building designers in the process of design to incorporate some of this evidence-based design into the building so that they are... That they are putting down on a pen to paper or in the computer, what have you, obviously. So, take us a little bit inside this project. How did it begin? Where does it stem from?
Debra Harris:Well, my partner and I... Jane Rohde is an architect out of Maryland and she... It was really her conception of this idea and she came to me and we talked about it and we had an opportunity to apply for this SBIR. It seemed tailor made in some ways. You don't find that a lot for architecture and design. So, it was a really good opportunity for us to bring all of our experience and our priorities and our... You know, the things that we contribute on both sides. Right? So, she's an architect that practices a lot in long term care. She's very much on the evidence-based design train and a very strong practitioner side of that. And then, I kind of bring to it more of the academic research side of it with a practice background. So, you know, we kind of made good partners. And, then... You know, so when we started building this team, we really have a great cross section of people both in professional practice and in academia.
Derek Smith:What is the...? If you're giving the elevator pitch to someone about this, how would you...? How would you describe it in 30 to 60 seconds?
Debra Harris:Oh, my. Okay. So, Cross Check is a software program for healthy building planning. So, the software suite has five different components to it. One of it's called... The first one's called the EBD Translator, Evidence-Based Design Translator. We have a project programmer which is really a tool to help architects [inaudible]. We all... When we start a new project, we all start with a program. We develop a program. We look at the functionality needs of the space and everything else. And so, the project programmer is kind of a systematic way to go through that process. After that... So, at the end of a project, you might have a post-occupancy evaluation to see if you met the goals of your project. So, if you had specific goals that you wanted for your workforce or for the building performance or any of those kinds of things, then you would collect data and analyze it and test it and that's what our POE tool does. And then, we also have a certification tracker. So, if you want to get Fitwel certified, Green Globe certified, LEED is out there. So, you know, we have a tool that's developed to help that process along and make it easier. So, the idea is how do you infuse evidence and create designs for healthy environments that also take the pressure off the designer and architect because they're working to design all of these things and they... But, they need us to do the heavy lifting of sorts. So, they might not have access to the same resources and evidence, but if we can provide those in design criteria and operational criteria and policies and things that they can have easy access to, that makes them more efficient and have more knowledge in pursuing those ideas.
Derek Smith:So, Cross Check is the name of the software. And, you think about what you've just described, you know, some of the problems you're trying to solve. Is the biggest roadblock to having buildings that incorporate evidence-based design just knowledge and access to that? Or, what are some...? [inaudible]. What are some of the biggest roadblocks to designing healthier buildings?
Debra Harris:I think you kind of hit it. I mean, you know, if you're at a university and you're a researcher, you have access through our library system to all these databases and research articles and we can spend hours poring over an article to find that one bit of information that is critical to what we're looking for. You know, architects and designers, design firms, they're not paying for access to have all those databases for them. They don't have the hours that they can dedicate to pulling that information and distilling it. And, that's what we're doing, is we're distilling that information into useful criteria or considerations for the architect and designer so that they can employ that. So, you know, you might have a design consideration that talks about that tuneable lighting I mentioned earlier and they might be like, "Okay, that sounds pretty good. We can hit a lot of marks. We can get a lot of benefit for health and wellness. It'll affect our sustainability plan. It can do all of these things. Where do I get that?." Okay. Well, let's go... They can spend their time investigating the best system, best component to specify for that, but we've given them the consideration and said this is what you need it for and this is why you need it. And, that justification can go a long way in helping to educate their clients about the importance of health and wellness in the built environment.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Dr. Debra Harris, associate professor in interior design in Baylor's Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences. So, I'm sure that the answer to this question that I'm about to ask you could probably take up a whole additional 23 minutes on the program, but let me ask you. So, you've got this great idea. You've got SBIR funding. Well, now what? Where do you...? How do you begin to get your arms around a project of that magnitude?
Debra Harris:Yeah. It's pretty amazing. You know, you mentioned LesLee Funderburk. Dr. Funderburk is a nutrition science professor here at Baylor. We also have Erich Baker, who is computer science. And, you know, we just... We could not have succeeded to the point where we are without our whole team. This is the best collaboration I've ever had for any project and we have... We have... Our lead programmer was a graduate student here at Baylor who's graduated and he's in the Czech Republic and we're just all stayed together. The whole team has stayed together since 2018 basically.
Debra Harris:And... But, and everybody contributes really important parts and you take away any of those parts and you don't have the whole, so... But, getting your head around it... You know, a lot of... A lot of discussions and conversations about what we really felt like was needed and required and then bringing in the computer science guys and saying, "Okay. What can we do?." Right? Because, I'm not a computer scientist. I don't know how all that works. The amazing thing is the things that they've been able to do and operationalize has made not just the software viable but also like our processes for distilling this information and preparing it to be available has become part of that computer science development as well.
Derek Smith:Mm-hmm. Well, it's a long term project. Where are you in the project? And, do you have a timeline that you're working on towards when you might get to see it in people's hands or in their computers?
Debra Harris:We do. We're... Well, we're... We have... We plan to launch by the end of July, so right now we're in beta testing for different parts of the components and trying to finalize all of the different components and get them up and running. So, you see it's not a simple linear process. So, we're really just pushing now to get it ready to go live by the end of July.
Derek Smith:That's great.
Derek Smith:If I were... If I were a designer looking at it on my computer, what are some things I might see?
Debra Harris:Well, if you go in and you sign up for a free trial, then you'd be asked to create a project and then you might go to the EBD Translator and say, "Well, what do I want to know about? I want to know about choice architecture." Choice architecture is a term that has to do with food placement and kind of like that trick you were talking about or those nudges, right?
Derek Smith:Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Debra Harris:Where you place the food in a way that people make better choices over time. And... And so, maybe that's a topic that someone searches for and when you do that, then all of the design and operational criteria that has been tied to that topic would come up with all of the evidence, so all the citations that's tied to that particular design criteria will be listed there and for each design consideration or operational consideration, it'll give you a link to resources. So, there might be other authoritative sources, guidelines, recommendations. We've connected those as well. And so, what it does is it makes the... It provides the designer... They're flush, right? With all of these resources so they can decide what the priorities are based on their project so they can decide which ones they want to pursue. If they need to justify it, they've got the evidence there to back them up.
Derek Smith:That's great. Will this be a commercial product for people to...? For businesses, companies or designers to purchase?
Debra Harris:Yes, it will.
Debra Harris:It'll be a subscription.
Derek Smith:And, you mentioned that they can take a trial. Where can people go to learn more about this?
Debra Harris:We have a website. It's crosscheck.io.
Derek Smith:Crosscheck.io. So, that's easy to remember for people to take a look at that. And, you know, in general, if maybe there's people whose interest is sparked in this conversation, are there any easily accessible resources that you recommend for people to dip their toe in the evidence based design waters or any publications? Just anything if people are interested to research more. Is it just as simple as Googling it?
Debra Harris:I think you can probably find some resources Googling it. I think that... You know, if you're in the design and architecture community, you have access through your professional organizations to things like that.
Debra Harris:There's continuing education programs out there.
Derek Smith:Well, that's great. Well, we're excited to see this launch and it's great timing to visit with you as you prepare for that. So, again, crosscheck.io. You can see the fruits of the work that you and Dr. Funderburk, Dr. Baker and the whole team have put together. Well, Dr. Harris, I really appreciate you taking the time today to visit with us and share, and congratulations on the launch and we look forward to more.
Debra Harris:Thank you. Appreciate it.
Derek Smith:Dr. Debra Harris, associate professor in interior design in Baylor's Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith reminding you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.