green building

Building Design + Construction: Mayo Clinic’s breakthrough research lab puts evidence-based design to the test

Building Design + Construction, February 5, 2016
By Robert Cassidy

There’s been a lot of talk over the past 20 years about evidence-based design. EBD is the idea that improvements to the design of buildings, particularly to their interior spaces—more daylight, improved air quality, better lighting—can have a positive effect on human health and performance. The problem with EBD is that it’s very hard to conduct truly rigorous scientific studies on humans. Was it the improved lighting that enabled students to boost their test scores, or was it better airflow in the classroom? Did that hospital patient heal more quickly because she had a window with a view to the outside, or was she just a fast healer? Too many variables, not enough controls, so it’s anybody’s guess how much, if anything, the design contributed to the outcome.

The Mayo Clinic and Delos, the developer of the Well Building Standard, have teamed up to bridge this information gap. They have built a 7,500-sf laboratory at Mayo’s Rochester, Minn., campus, where researchers will perform sophisticated, reproducible (that’s important) scientific studies on design’s impact on human health and performance. The goal, according to Delos COO Peter Scialla, is to expand the concept of environmental sustainability to embrace what he calls “biological sustainability.”

The Well Living Lab, designed by Centerbrook Architects & Planners (with Knutson Construction as CM), has six experimental modules that can be formed into a variety of indoor spaces: an open-plan or closed office floor, a kitchen, a hotel or hospital room, a classroom, etc. The walls, floors, ceilings, fixtures, and plumbing—yes, even the plumbing—can be completely reconfigured.   The Well Living Lab has six experimental modules that can be formed into a variety of indoor spaces, including an office, kitchen, and hotel room.    The modules, as well as the furniture, casework, and finishings, are loaded with sensors so that test subjects’ responses can be captured without having to attach wire leads to them.

For example, bed sensors will determine a person’s lying-down position and how much pressure is being exerted on specific body parts—information that one day could lead to ways to relieve bed sores in long-term hospital patients, or just give weary hotel guests a better night’s sleep. In certain studies participants will wear sensor-enabled wristbands or clothing to gauge heart rate, galvanic skin response, motion, skin and near-body temperature, respiration, and physical posture. Sensors embedded in walls, ceilings, appliances, and fabrics will measure factors like sound, street noise, room temperature, humidity, air particulates, and light (including spectral power density). High-definition cameras will zoom in on test subjects to record facial expressions and gestures. Research experiments will test the effect of single or multiple variables, such as air quality, supplied lighting, and daylighting, on subjects’ stress, fitness, nutrition, eating habits, performance in cognitive and physical skills, and sleep.

Further down the line, building product manufacturers may be able to use the lab to test the efficacy of their products on human health. All this activity will be managed and documented from a high-tech control room. The Well Living Lab is an important breakthrough in environmental design. If it lives up to even a fraction of its promise, it could provide designers of hospitals, outpatient medical facilities, schools, university classrooms, hotels, and office spaces with scientifically valid data to produce designs that really do contribute to human health and performance. Real science, not wishful thinking. Experiments are scheduled to begin in the next couple of months, once the Well Living Lab has completed its break-in period.   Central control room Sensors embedded in walls, ceilings, appliances, and fabrics measure factors like sound, street noise, room temperature, humidity, air particulates, and light.


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