How to design by data? Evidence Based Design uses disciplines outside of the usual architectural sphere to influence healthcare, schools, retail and commercial buildings

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Traditionally associated with healthcare architecture, Evidence Based Design (EBD) is making inroads into being part of the process for designing schools, office spaces, hotels, restaurants, museums, prisons and even residences.

Architects have always designed using the best available evidence from engineering and material science, physics, statistics, geometry and many other fields founded on sound data,1 the difference with EBD is the increasing use of evidence from disciplines outside of the traditional architectural arena.

EBD is strongly associated with healthcare because of the existing evidence-based medicine culture.2 It makes sense that EBD has its roots in healthcare, where lives are at stake, legal implications are complex and decisions need to be justified by hard data. The movement towards EBD in healthcare can be traced back to Roger Ulrich with a pioneering study conducted in 1984.3&4 Ulrich compared the positive effect of views of natural scenery (trees) on the recovery of patients from surgery to patients in similar conditions who were exposed to a view of a brick wall. Ulrich showed that in comparison with the wall-view group, the patients with the tree-view had shorter post-operative hospital stays, had fewer negative evaluative comments from nurses, took less medication and had slightly lower scores for minor post-surgical complications. Since then, the impact of the physical environment of the hospital on the wellbeing and health of the patient has received extensive academic attention.

More recently EBD has started to be used as part of the process for designing schools, offices, hotels, restaurants, retail developments and many other types of project. By considering outcomes such as occupant’s health, well being and productivity, a well-designed building can have major benefits to those who live, work, visit or learn within it. For businesses, staff costs typically account for about 90% of business operating costs.5 Therefore even small improvements in employee health or productivity related to office environments can have a huge financial implication for employers, as staff costs typically account for about 90% of business operating costs.

In schools, students in classrooms with large windows perform better in tests compared to rooms with little natural light. Research has also shown that noise has detrimental effects upon children’s performance at school, including reduced memory and reading ability.6 In prisons, studies have been carried out on cell size, colour and texture, and the connection of those qualities to inmate depression and violent behaviour – useful data to have when designing a facility. In museums, observations have shown that 70-80 percent of visitors turn to the right when entering a gallery.

There is no single area of architecture that would not benefit from this kind of knowledge and information, substantiated research using EBD principles can help all designers make better informed decisions.

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References and further reading

Hamilton D K and Watkins D H., Evidence-Based Design for Multiple Building Types, John Wiley & Sons (2009)

Whitemyer D., The Future of Evidence-Based Design: It’s not just for healthcare anymore (2010)

Ulrich R S, 'View through a window may influence recovery from surgery', Science (1984)

Huisman E R C M, Morales E, van Hoof J, Kort H S M., 'Healing environment: A review of the impact of physical environmental factors on users', Building and Environment (2012), p.58, pp.70-80

World Green Building Council, 'Health, Well being & Productivity in Offices: The next chapter for green building'

Shield B M, Dockrell, 'The effects of environmental and classroom noise on the academic attainments of primary school children' (2008)