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Designing buildings to improve health

Stanford researchers investigate how to design better buildings that can improve their occupants’ health and productivity.

Are the buildings that we live and work in stressing us out?

The answer is probably yes, according to Stanford engineer Sarah Billington, PhD, and her colleagues. They also believe this stress is taking a significant toll on our mental and physical health because Americans typically spend almost 90% of their lives indoors.

During a talk at a Stanford Reunion Homecoming alumni celebration, Billington described a typical noisy office cut off from nature and filled with artificial light and artificial materials. This built environment makes workers feel stress, anxiety and distraction, which reduces their productivity and their ability to collaborate with others, she explained.

Now, Billington's multidisciplinary research team is working to design buildings that instead reduce stress and increase a sense of belonging, physical activity and creativity.

Their first step is to measure how building features -- such as airflow, lighting and views of nature -- affect human well-being. They are quantifying well-being by measuring levels of stress, belonging, creativity, physical activity and environmental behavior.

In a preliminary online study, the team showed about 300 participants pictures of different office environments and asked them to envision working there at a new job. Across the board, the fictitious work environment was viewed as important to well-being.

"In eight out of the nine things that we were looking at, there were statistically significant increases in their sense of belonging, their self-efficacy and their environmental efficacy when they believed they were going to be working in an environment that had natural materials, natural light or diverse representations," said Billington.

The researchers are now expanding this work by performing larger lab studies and designing future field studies. They plan to collect data from "smart buildings," which use high-tech sensors to control the heating, air conditioning, ventilation, lighting, security and other systems. The team also plans to collect data from personal devices such as smartwatches, smartphones and laptops.

By analyzing all of this data, they plan to infer the participants' behaviors, emotions and physiological states. For example, the researchers will use the building's occupancy sensors to detect if a worker is interacting with other people who are nearby. Or they will figure out someone's stress level based on how he or she uses a laptop trackpad and mouse, Billington said.

Stanford computer scientist Pablo Paredes, PhD, who collaborates on the project, explained in a paper how their simple model of arm-hand dynamics can detect stress from mouse motion. Basically, stress causes muscles to become tense and stiff, which changes how a computer mouse is moved.

Next, the team plans to use statistical modeling and machine learning to connect these human states to specific building features. They believe this will allow them to design better buildings that improve the occupants' health.

The reseachers said they intend to bring nature indoors by engineering living walls with adaptable acoustic and thermal properties.

They also plan to incorporate dynamic digital displays -- such as a large art display on a wall or a small one on an individual's personal devices -- that reflect occupant activity and well-being. For example, a digital image of a flower might represent the energy level of a working group based on how open the petals are, and this could nudge their behavior, Billington said in the talk.

"Our idea is, what if we could make our buildings shape us in a positive way and keep improving over time?" Billington said.

Photo by Nastuh Abootalebi

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