Building Design with Health in Mind

Thanks to the healthy building movement, it is more common for building designs to promote employee health, but there is a gap between theory and application. One Baylor research team sought to bridge that gap, and they needed a computer scientist to accomplish the task.

Building Design with Health in Mind

Whether an office building promotes health is an issue being addressed through the burgeoning field of study in evidence-based design. Thanks to the healthy building movement, it is becoming more common for buildings to promote employee health through the strategic location of food options, elevators, restrooms and windows. Other factors include the types of lighting utilized, the availability of nutritional food options and standing desks.

The evidence-based design field has grown since its foundational years in the early 1980s. It more readily factors employee health into building plans in ways similar to the trend toward environmentally friendly building design.

It is believed that more businesses would join the healthy building movement if the research typically found in academic journals and conferences made its way into the hands of the people who shape environments. One Baylor research team sought to bridge that gap, and they needed a computer scientist to accomplish the task.

A Natural Interdisciplinary Fit
Erich Baker
Erich Baker, Ph.D.

As chair of Baylor’s Department of Computer Science and professor of bioinformatics, Erich Baker, Ph.D., has built a long career in applying his disciplinary expertise to problems in a variety of fields. Biology, chemistry, statistical sciences and economics are a few of the departments with whom he has partnered in research. The chance to partner with Human Science and Design was a new opportunity, but in a way, a return to his roots.

Debra Harris, Ph.D., associate professor, and LesLee Funderburk, Ph.D., assistant professor, in Baylor’s Human Sciences and Design Department, are co-principal investigators on the project, a collaboration that grew from Harris’ work in evidence-based design. Prior to joining the Baylor faculty, Harris partnered with Jane Rohde, principal of JSR Associates, a Maryland-based healthcare and senior living design consultant. Harris and Rohde earned a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for a software program that aggregated truly evidence-based research on health, wellness and structures into a program that would then interact with building information modeling (BIM) software used by the design and construction industry, providing information that could help make the building healthier in the design process.

Debra Harris, Ph.D.
Debra Harris, Ph.D.

For Baker, the opportunity to partner with them to create software that helps designers and architects construct healthy buildings was a natural fit. As the son of an architect, he began using computer-aided design (CAD) programs at a young age. His first job after college was writing software for CAD programs.

“In many ways, this project was like coming home,” Baker says. “It’s great to bring our ideas from bioinformatics into a completely different field such as architecture and design.”

The software is an idea that fits into the evolution of healthy buildings over the years. Certifications from LEED or Green Globes have become a standard part of constructing sustainable buildings. A natural progression from sustainability was a more detailed focus on the interior environment that could impact the health of the people who work there daily. Organizations have construction certification standards such as the Fitwel certification, which supports healthier workplace environments to help improve occupant health and productivity.

The challenge is that not every designer has the resources or expertise to integrate those standards during the design process. This interdisciplinary team is developing a system to assist design professionals  in this process.

DLesLee Funderburk, Ph.D.
LesLee Funderburk, Ph.D.

“When it comes to healthier buildings, they don’t have the time and resources allocated to do what we’re doing to collect research that makes a difference,” Harris says. “That’s what we’re doing — giving them the information and creating a pathway of accomplishing health goals for their clients, making it as easy as possible to see the information and then make decisions based off it and their client’s goals.”

Such a project required meaningful funding, and the SBIR grant has supplied over $1 million for the project—with about $400,000 in research funding coming to Baylor since the grant began.

Research Integration and Translation

“If you’re designing a part of a building, the software should recognize the building component that you’re working with and tie it to literature,” Baker says. “For the designer, it could be a pop-up screen that says, ‘If you make this window three feet larger, you can satisfy certain requirements for health.’ Or, if you install a water fountain, you want your people to walk a little further to get there. Or, when you think about lighting: What is the research on lighting and cardiac outcomes? And you have to think about building codes as well. That’s what we curate as a team.”

Integration of the design research, building codes, certification requirements, BIM and more was a combination no one had yet tackled. To do so effectively also required a translation for the software as the project moved into Baker’s computer science lane. Funderburk and Harris are analyzing decades of research articles and filtered the findings through a scoring system developed by Harris to ensure that the best ideas would be passed to Baker for inclusion.

“It’s important for only titles that are truly interventional to be included,” Funderburk says. “When Debra and I find the scientific articles published on interventions, it is meaningful to stakeholders like CEOs, who can know that the recommendations like standing desks, choice architecture and other design qualities are things that are really good for them to include for the health of everyone sharing the building.”

The research approved for the program needed to be able to interact with the world inhabited by designers — square footage, room concepts, windows and doors. Baker and his computer science colleagues are creating such language.

“This is a novel piece from a computer standpoint. We’re developing an architectural ontology, a control set of vocabularies that describe building components,” Baker says. “It takes the abstract knowledge of a building, along with the parts of a building, and places them in a very strict hierarchy that allows our computers to navigate them and make connections.

“When you think of an ontology, it’s a door, and a door has hinges and knobs, and hinges have screws and pins. If you take all the parts of a building, you can deconstruct them into these ontologies. The software system recognizes that it’s a door, that doors have these things, and can use that information to navigate the research.”

The program has developed from a pilot phase to a second phase, moving toward an actual product. The ontology is one part of that evolution. Another focus has been algorithm optimization, which improves speed and quality and uses machine learning to find as-yet undiscovered solutions. Something not yet being in the literature doesn’t mean it’s not true.

“Some things just haven’t been published yet,” Baker says. “Knowing that, we’re using machine learning to fill that gap and predict things that have yet to be found.”

The product could become more novel to the stakeholder disciplines through the integration of predictive machine leaning that knows which connections matter most based on past research and can recognize possibilities currently untapped. That could provide a multiplier effect that businesses who invest in employee health already know: Healthier employees are better employees with a positive impact on the organization’s overall success.

That is driving momentum for Baker, Harris and Funderburk as they collaborate to build something that no single discipline could create. Baker expects the software to go live in the fall of 2022.

“A lot of times as a researcher, we’re far removed from the final outcome to see how it impacts people,” Baker says. “It’s a good feeling to see that this work will pay off in a very tangible way. Once the software is operational and they’re using it to design buildings, it would be kind of neat to actually walk through a structure that you helped, in a small way, improve somebody’s health.”