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The design of physical spaces can have a profound effect on human engagement

November 20, 2014
by Kevin Turner
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Let’s get engaged.  No, not with diamond rings or bent knees.  I mean real human engagement.  Pure, peer to peer, let’s get something done, engagement.

I spent time recently at the Healthcare Design Conference in San Diego and throughout all the presentations, there seemed to be one unspoken theme that kept bouncing around in my head:  Human beings crave engagement.

Webster’s offers us several definitions, but this is the one that hits home for me. 

Engagement—emotional involvement or commitment. 

When we talk about designing spaces for people, we talk about the need for privacy, social interaction, something to do,  something to watch,  someone to talk to and the need to listen to stimulating information.  When we simplify it to that level, we can easily miss the point and make some mistakes.  Include a TV so patients have something to watch and listen to?  Have nurses check on patients regularly so they have social interaction? Get volunteers to listen to patients?  Provide jigsaw puzzles in the activity rooms? These are all useful enterprises, but they are an attempt to artificially create the visible attributes of engagement without creating real, meaningful engagement.

Patients in an inpatient unit, be it for psychosis, dependency or dementia, have been removed from their regular lives.  Their sole purpose in life while they are there is to get better, but they have no control over that process.  They are in someone else’s care.  The doctors and nurses tell them what to do to get better.  In and of themselves, they have no purpose, or at the very least, their purpose has been interrupted.  Lacking engagement, people sink to their lowest level.  They lose motivation, activity and hope.  Not a great scenario for wellness that can be translated back to the real world.

So what can we do?  Engagement looks different for everyone.  For me, it is an obsessive focus on my work.  My son loves video games.  Some people can talk about sports for hours while others love to know everything they can about the lives of celebrities.  For some it is knitting, or building tiny ships inside bottles (how do they do that?).  Most people have found what engages them and they use it as the therapy for their life. 

Many people suffering from mental illness have found these interests and use them as coping mechanisms like the rest of us and others lack that type of anchor.  If we focus on engagement, if we make those social interactions meaningful, if we listen to people talk about what they love, then we can bring energy levels and hope back.

But wait a minute. I’m an architect.  What do I know about all this?  Well nothing really, but here is what I do know.  The design of physical spaces can have a profound effect on human engagement and architects know a lot about that.  Think about spaces that people love to be in like an Italian palazzo or the coffee house down the street.  Why do people like to watch sports in bars instead of at home or love to hang out at the food court at the mall?

As humans we are drawn to places with energy; places where we can be around people—but at just the right distance to self-select our crowd—places where things are happening that we can watch, or participate in, places with natural light and interesting features.  As architects we know how to make engaging spaces.  It is what we do.  But we need your help. 

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Kevin Turner

Principal, Perkins+Will

Kevin Turner

Kevin is a recognized leader in the design and operations of behavioral healthcare facilities. ...