PLASTARC’s top picks from ANFA 2018

Missed this year’s conference of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA)? Our friends at PLASTARC have got you covered with a recap of the September 20-22 event. 

Winston Churchill believed that the design of the parliamentary chambers influenced the structure of government itself, uttering a bit of architectural wisdom: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” The influence of the built environment on the human experience is fertile ground for study, and this year’s conference of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) offered up a bumper crop of findings. The confluence of two of our favorite fields, this conference boasts an agenda (download) that is chock-a-block with research into the relationships between the spaces we inhabit and the workings of the human brain. As befits the topic, it takes place at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which was also featured in the documentary Living Salk Institute, shown at the AIANY Fall Film Social.

We’ve been huge fans of ANFA for years! In fact, PLASTARC shares a birthday with their conference, which is also a regular fixture of our newsletter. We were inspired to write about the budding field of neuroarchitecture by their 2015 event in Brooklyn. We shared research of our own at the 2016 ANFA conference, collaborating with environmental psychologist Sally Augustin to examine the effects of glass walls—frequent features of coworking spaces—on the behavior of occupants. This year, PLASTARC presented findings of amenities research we conducted in coworking spaces. We focused on features that support wellness, including those that provide a place for nursing and rest.

Here are a few other talks that piqued our interest this year:

What can we measure, and what does it mean?

This is where it all starts, as far as we’re concerned. Without good measurements, people who design and maintain spaces are shooting in the dark. Yet, as data sources multiply, how do we sort the wheat from the chaff? How do we select the metrics that actually matter?

Our top pick from this block was Stefano Andreani’s work on physical proximity and states of mind. Andreani is a lecturer at Harvard’s Responsive Environments & Artifacts Lab (REAL), which studies and prototypes the use of new technologies to improve the performance of the built environment.

In two different experiments, Andreani’s team used wearable devices to measure the experiences of subjects in various urban spaces. First, they studied how a features of the urban environment affected the attention and spatial memory of subjects. For instance, is it easier for people to remember the location of the entrance to a building, or a street corner? In a second experiment, they used a wearable EEG to track the psychological state of subjects moving through urban spaces using different modes of transportation.

Architecture of justice

We were captivated by neuroscientist Huda Akil’s keynote address: “How Incarceration Affects Memory, Emotion, and Stress”. Akil, who has conducted pioneering work into the neurobiology of emotions, depression, substance abuse, and pain, made a case for a more thoughtful and productive design paradigm for the justice system. As research reveals more about the effects of spaces on the human mind, we must consider how they shape outcomes in our justice system. It’s well-known that isolation creates psychological trauma, but design can also play a more subtle role, setting expectations of behavior and relationships. If the true objective of the justice system is to return people to society as fully-rehabilitated participants, do the designs of the spaces support that objective?

Nature and the Workplace

We love biophilic design, and this year’s conference dedicated substantial time to the psychological impact of natural patterns. We were reminded of a favorite architecture book, A Pattern Language.

Stephanie Park, Senior Lead Strategist of WeWork, presented her work on the impact of face-to-face interaction on workplace performance. Using wearable technology, the research team was able to track the amount of time people spent interacting with each other and correlate it with their productivity. She also gave us a rare glimpse behind the scenes of a WeLive space. She discussed the social network effects of the space’s unique design. For instance, by placing the laundrettes so that they are shared by multiple floors, the space encourages the groups to intermingle and build relationships. Using environments to promote helpful and healthy interactions between occupants is something we spend a lot of time studying—propinquity is one of our “Four P’s” of workplace mental health.

Learning environments

As we shared at WORKTECH Barcelona, people who design and build the spaces we work in could benefit from studying the education sector.  One of the most intriguing talks was, “I Spy with my Little Eye: A Child-led assessment of the School Built Environment” by Mairianne Halblaub Miranda et. al. They studied an elementary school in Germany, equipping students with a smartphone app that allows them to tag elements of their space. For instance, they could indicate that a given space was their favorite place to read or to chat with friends, or say which spaces they did not like using. By aggregating and mapping this data, the team could gain a better understanding of how spaces can best support learning. We love tools that democratize design. No one is more qualified to evaluate the user experience of a space than the user.

We also appreciated Kyu-ho Ahn’s work on designing school environments for children with autism spectrum disorder. Sensory differences can cause people to experience the same environment in very different ways. Ahn produced a framework to help architects design spaces with these differences in mind, balancing comfort and stimulation to support the work of educators and clinicians. By studying the experiences of and designing for people who are hyper- or hypo-sensitive, designers can build a better multisensory experience for everyone. We were reminded of this chair, which is one example of using design to enhance focus. While his team did not present at ANFA this year, Peter Barrett’s work on the relationship between classroom design and student achievement was cited by multiple speakers.

Design for Healing and Well-Being

Natural daytime light can have a large effect on both wellness and performance. The underlying neurological mechanisms were filled in by Marilyne Andersen and Victoria Eugenia Soto Magan in their talk, “Perceived And Yet Not Seen: Non-Visual Effects in Daylight Spaces”. Using an electrochromic facade, they were able to precisely control the color of ambient light passing through a window. By studying levels of alertness, fatigue, heart rate, and other metrics, they could correlate these effects to light exposure.

Satchidananda Panda, a researcher at Salk and an ANFA board member, spoke about the, “Impact of Shift Work on Circadian Systems”. A specialist in the molecular and cellular processes that underlie circadian rhythms, he highlighted the role of daylighting in health and wellness. A salient point of his: we’re all shift workers now. Though people who work 9-5’s may not think of themselves that way, always-on communication, jet lag, and the extra work they take home can cause similar disruptions to circadian rhythms. Caffeine consumption, unhealthy eating, lethargy, and other negative health effects are linked to our disconnection from the sun.

Urban space and place-making

Architect John Stewart spoke about design, experience, and memory in entertainment and hospitality spaces. Owners of casinos, theme parks, and hotels seek new tools to measure and improve the experience. PLASTARC advocates for multisensory design, so investigating such relationships as those between the smell of a casino room and the duration of guest stay are fascinating. Panned communities or attractions like Las Vegas or Disney Resorts offer an opportunity to study relationships between design and behavior in a tightly controller environment. Hospitality and entertainment environments were mentioned frequently by speakers, which reflects a welcome focus on a service model.

A while back, this article about Japanese concepts of space caught our eye. Viewing design through a cultural lense can offer new insights. This came to mind again following Rachel Zuanon’s talk, “Cultural Heritage and Memories of Places”. Her paper investigated the shared cultural memory in the Brazilian town of Campinas, and how that shared memory was tied to residents’ experience of place.

These are just a few of fascinating talks on offer this year. For more, download the full list of abstracts.  

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