Why human centred design makes a difference in architecture

Lantern Madison assisted living interior ‘street’

Dementia and Alzheimer’s are common amongst patients living at Lantern’s assisted living facilities in Ohio, US. Jean Makesh, who heads up Lantern, has put together a five-part programme that aims to prolong each stage of the diseases, thereby stalling the rate of degeneration in the brain. One of these parts is called Patient Environment.

Another scene from Lantern’s interiors

Here, the Patient Environment mimics the memory of living in an average suburb, whilst maintaining the safety of a secure facility. Almost like a set at Disneyland, the corridor accessing each room is actually a fake ‘street’ accessing each ‘home.’ Front porches, weatherboard cladding, street lights, planters, green carpet to represent grass — all of these are intended to trigger memories in the patients.

“The design is meant, in part, to connect to Alzheimer’s patients who often retain early memories from their first few decades of life, even as they slowly lose things from later years.” says Makesh

Whilst this article is not intended to argue the merits of postmodernism in Northern America, or discuss whether styling is ‘architecture,’ this is a classic case study in Human Centred Design.

Human Centred Design [HCD] focusses on the needs of the end user, rather than issuing prescribed typical solutions that may not address any actual needs. It is a bottom up approach, not top down. It is collaborative, not patriarchal. It is generative and iterative, not singular in concept.

Pioneered by IDEO and open sourced for all to use, it is something that can form part of your design process. In short, it follows a strict design process to deliver lateral design outcomes. It assumes a beginner’s mind, engages curiosity and inquiry, and an optimistic attitude. Through three phases of inspiration, ideation and implementation, the end users will together undergo the process of deciding as a group what their needs are, and what outcomes might deliver solutions for these identified needs. It is important that the group participate and contribute, and together they cull ideas that aren’t suitable and promote ones that are.

HCD process using post-it notes

“Doesn’t this cost a lot of money and time?” I hear you say. Yes, it costs time, however, I have found that it saves money through proposing alternative non-building solutions, as often built solutions to a problem are the most expensive. Furthermore, for organisations that rely on inclusivity (e.g. churches, child care centres, NFP offices), a participatory design process is undeniably necessary to ensure everyone is heard and valued. Lastly, a building once complete may often not solve the original issue at hand, yet money and time poured into it now becomes a finger-pointing exercise of blame for this glaring oversight.

Let me demonstrate via another case study, this time between two clients of mine for a typical architectural commission in Australia — a home renovation.

Client 1 — walks me through her house and tells me exactly what she wants built. Removal of walls here, new north facing window there, a new laundry addition, new balconies above; the list goes on. She is well researched with multiple images on Pinterest and from Country Living magazines. We draw up exactly what she is after, obtain engineering and a building permit, until her builder tells her a price that is 3 times her initial estimate. We go back and end up redesigning it with some cheaper options.

Client 2 — walks me through his house and tells me ideas he has around what he wants built. Removal of walls here, new roofed additions there, new ensuite, new rear deck overlooking the pool; the list goes on. He, on the other hand, isn’t as well researched, and simply tells me how he likes to live — entertains on the deck, watch movies on the outdoor screen from the pool, cook up a storm, have a long bath to relax, hates cleaning, hates gardening — low maintenance everything. We draw up several options, including one that is a house reduction, as the existing footprint is already large enough to accommodate his needs. The cost of build is therefore cheaper than he imagined, so he splashes out on some better movie projection equipment and bathroom fixtures.

How is this ‘Human Centred Design’? Client 2 allowed me to understand who he is and how he lives — he didn’t ask me for 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms as if he’s an advertisement for selling real estate. He gave me insights into his values and priorities, letting me know WHY he wanted a feature in his house, not WHAT he wanted. Simon Sinek’s classic TED talk is called ‘Start With Why’ for a reason — addressing core needs is far more powerful than proposing blanket solutions. Client 1, on the other hand, issued me with a list of her perceived requirements that had little to do with her actual needs and values, especially around a limited budget.

We are interesting in solving your needs to produce a great project for the client; we aren’t interested in a box-ticking exercise that yields the client a home that may not solve their actual requirements.

In short, we believe that it costs a client more to NOT undergo a HCD process. It involves inherent trust in the designer/facilitator to reveal all of your underlying needs, as well as trust in the design process to uncover an outcome the client may not have expected.

We at SO-DA are HCD facilitators, and can take you through this process. It can be as rigorous or light as your budget allows. 9 times out of 10 — the process will pay for itself through savings found via alternative design outcomes, as well as allowing you to be part of the process and contributing to the built outcome. It is a proven process in the IT world in Silicon Valley; its time that architecture and urban design used it too.


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