Architecture Students Explore Links Between Design and Health

May 16, 2012 — Where we live influences not only how we live, but how healthy we are. If a city is walkable, residents might experience better health. Green spaces that take advantage of the natural environment may nurture emotional health.

Students taking four courses in the University of Virginia School of Architecture this spring explored the link between design and health, which is a research focus for the school. They designed a city and a wetlands-based recreational and educational park; mapped the health of an environment to help find the best place to relocate U.Va. Medical Center's Primary Care Center; and explored the power of nature in a "healing landscape."

Architecture School Dean Kim Tanzer said, "Design and health is an especially promising area not only for research, but as part of the Architecture School curriculum. That so many faculty and students are embracing other disciplines to expand and enhance research related to issues of design and health has broad implications for individuals, our public spaces and the planet, and is rapidly becoming a staple of the academic experience here at U.Va."

"INTERSECTION: Health + the Built Environment," an exhibition of selected works from students in the four courses, will be on view in the school's Elmaleh Gallery May 19 through June 6. The exhibit is sponsored by the Center for Design and Health.

Here's an overview of the students' projects.

Designing a New City

Third-year students produced a design for a new city – Forney, Texas – on an almost 1,000-acre site just outside Dallas. They worked with developer and alumnus Taylor Armstrong, who is developing what is currently agricultural land into a new city based on its relation with the landscape and nature.

The students were challenged to include what cities need – schools, housing, commercial and civic buildings, as well as a medical center – while taking into consideration mobility, health, water, energy use and "walkability."

Architecture chair Iñaki Alday said the projects provided "new opportunities for new development that could be different and better." "One of the problems we architects will have to face is not only small interventions, but the problems of changing and creating cities," he said.

Working in six teams, the students broke down the project into steps: First consider a master plan, then tackle other design aspects one by one. For the buildings, they looked to what other architects had done and researched and adapted prototypes for housing, civic buildings, senior residents and medical facilities with an eye to creating healthy environments at the building scale.

One plan, "Filtering Forney," was based on the natural topography of the land and the flow of water. Roads were placed at high points and ponds were placed at low points. Water, including recycled wastewater collected from homes, played a major role; it was channeled through neighborhoods and landscapes to create a series of wetlands. Pedestrian pathways encouraged people to walk and to gain a better understanding of the landscape, said team member Phoebe Harris. "The spaces around the wetlands are parks, which provide gathering places."

Developer Armstrong said, "Dallas gets its weather in big doses. Collecting water is wonderful and I applaud that."

In another project, dubbed "Green/Grey," students used ponds and a "green-loop" of walkways to help foster community. "Pixels," a third project, took an abstract approach to exploring the infrastructure, a plan that could be translated into a built form. Another project wove farming zones of various sizes into the design. "Team Texagon" oriented groups of houses toward neighborhood swimming pools and had public buildings overlooking small bodies of water – all with the idea of people being able to enjoy the restorative power of water.

Armstrong said, "I am blown away by the level of sophistication of these third-year students. My inclination would be to take pieces from each to combine in one solution."

Making an Educational Wetland

How do you turn a former industrial landscape into a wetland that provides educational and recreational opportunities?

Working with the city of Portsmouth, Portsmouth Public Schools and community partners, U.Va. students re-imagined an area known as Paradise Creek as a public park. They designed and completed construction documents for park structures intended to engage urban children in hands-on exploration and learning, including a wetland learning lab and rainwater filtration pavilion.

Architecture professor and associate dean for research Phoebe Crisman led the project, building on the successful Learning Barge project, which engaged U.Va. students in the design and construction of a floating, environmental classroom on the Elizabeth River.

A Healthier Location for a Health Care Facility

Creating a conceptual framework for how to design healthy environments by using geographic information system mapping and "Healthy Development Measurement Tools" was the focus of a pilot course, "Design of Healthy Environments," led by architecture lecturer Schaeffer Somers with collaborator Matthew Trowbridge, associate research director at the School of Medicine.


Students drawn from urban planning, architecture, engineering and environmental sciences applied their research to help Dr. Norm Oliver, director of the U.Va. Primary Care Center's Department of Family Medicine, consider possibilities for moving the center from its location at the U.Va. Medical Center complex. The Center for Design and Health facilitated the project.

The students identified three possible relocation sites. At one, their research uncovered the need for a space that neighborhood residents could use for activities and meetings. Another site could include a local produce market and expand use of nearby trails by making parking at the site available after hours.

'Healing Landscapes'

Reuben Rainey, a professor emeritus of landscape architecture, led "The Healing Landscape," which explored the design of "healing" environments for a wide range of health care facilities. The patient-centered design ranges from family medical facilities in Honduras to mental health facilities to rooftop gardens for the U.Va. oncology clinic. The cross-disciplinary course, which Rainey has taught for 25 years, draws architecture, landscape architecture, planning, pre-med and government students.

"It's exciting that more work in design and health is going on in the school and that it's getting into the curriculum in terms of the design studio," he said.

– by Jane Ford