Mental Health and Architecture Incubator

AIA National Strategic Council Update by Amy Rosen, Assoc. AIA and Stephen Parker, AIA, NCARB

Originally published in Connections: Citizen Architect, Issue 18, 2020.

As the “think tank” for the Institute, the AIA Strategic Council breaks into several workgroups with specific study areas each year. Through this incubator concept, the Council explores embryonic ideas that are emblematic of the future thinking we strive for as a profession. For 2020, the study areas include:

• Affordable/Equitable Housing
• Technology’s Impact on Practice
• Beyond 2030
• Mental Health and Architecture
• The Rural Agenda

Amy Rosen and Stephen Parker, co-conveners for the Mental Health and Architecture Incubator, provide a look into the Incubator’s goals and research to date.

Refinement of topic

We aim to address how social stressors weaken the ability of our members and communities to be mentally resilient. Specifically, we intend to examine mental health in relation to our designs and our community engagement processes in order to provide the Institute with a means for creating more equitable communities through the framework of the Big Move. By addressing the leadership role of the AIA and its members as collaborators within communities, we have an opportunity to:

• Encourage a broader understanding of the relationship between mental health and the spaces we design.
• Educate our community members about the mental health impacts of climate change.
• Foster productive dialogue surrounding the mental health benefits of equity, empathy, and inclusivity.
• Collaborate with fellow leaders to address the trauma related impacts of our environments.

Our topic of inquiry is specifically aimed at the trauma associated with the increasing changes in our climate and the subsequent rise of solastalgia, the lived experience of negatively perceived change to a home environment. Despite the fact that our environment and our mental health are becoming more inextricably linked, there is an apparent lack of actionable solutions related to mental health.

In light of the current crisis, our topic remains centered on trauma. However, we hope to make the best of the situation, realizing that the global, local, and individual mental health repercussions arising from COVID-19 are a potential short-term example of what may arise from the long-term and more devastating effects of climate trauma. In particular, we are examining how the elimination of social isolation, the encouragement of interactive community relationships, and the design of environments that promote equitable access to health care, housing, transportation, and jobs can aid in building communities that promote positive mental health and well-being through architecture and design.

Updated project goals & potential impacts

Goal: To foster a productive dialogue surrounding the mental health benefits of equity, empathy, and inclusivity through architecture.
Objective: Identify how these attributes can be utilized to design environments that enable equitable access to community resources and support, including but not limited
to: healthcare, housing, transportation, education, and an interactive community.

Given our niched perspective, our goal coming out of Grassroots was to gain a more well-rounded and thorough understanding of the research/knowledge already compiled, as well as the relevance of our profession and the Institute in this conversation. As we progress, we intend to maximize our outreach to allow external subject-matter experts and our rapidly changing global variables to help us define the specific questions we should be asking in the first place, rather than presume readily drawn conclusions.

Ultimately, we hope to provide an opportunity for the AIA to take a proactive, insightful, and timely leadership role in discussions of mental health and how our members can provide a positive impact, in whichever form that takes.

Alignment with the Big Move

Thus far, the AIA has defined equitable communities through a mostly design-oriented lens. Specifically looking at the Framework for Design Excellence, this mind-set is evident in the Designing for Wellness measure, for instance, in that the recommended focus topics are correlated to physical health primarily. We believe that mental health issues, such as trauma, must be expanded upon and elaborated further in the framework.

Example: Within the Design for Wellness measure, “Happiness” is cited as a key indicator of success. Within the definition of happiness, our existing focus is primarily on preventative measures (see below). Given the uncertainty of our changing climate, we must incorporate recovery-oriented measures as well.

“People are happiest when they perceive a sense of control. This can be as simple as being able to open a window or adjust a thermostat. Think about flexible spaces that can be individually manipulated and provide options to experience different environments. Generally, more choices — even if additional choices are unlikely to be chosen — will increase perceived control.

Thus, to expand the potential of the Big Move and provide the AIA with a more thorough definition of “equitable communities,” our Incubator is embracing the opportunity to perform multidisciplinary outreach to gain a more thorough understanding of the mental health implications of our design decisions, as well as the potential preventative measures
our industry can adopt. This will help us align mental health considerations with our design process and holistically address how we rebuild communities, both physically and socially, after a crisis.

Update to scope of activities and key milestone dates

We are currently working as a group to perform a deep review of the AIA Framework for Design Excellence through the lens of mental health. Specifically, we are leveraging existing research and collaborations with external subject matter experts to identify noticeable gaps in the existing Framework to inform future explorations, understanding, and opportunities for design strategies.

The Incubator hosted an informational Strategic Council working session with a guest speaker, Dr. Chabay, MD, a neurologist in Los Angeles, for a discussion surrounding neurology and architecture amidst the current crisis. COVID-19 raises a number of mental health issues to the forefront, and this call served as a resource and an opportunity to raise awareness of the wide-spread neurological repercussions of the pandemic, such as the effects of trauma, stress, and change of environment on the brain.

Over the past 6 months we have established the physical and mental health implications of community food deserts, lack of open spaces and recreational facilities as well as poor housing stock and limited economic opportunities. As our Incubator continuously evolves our focus from climate trauma to the spatial effects of the pandemic on mental health, our next cycle of investigation will include a deliberate examination of the connection between civil unrest and urban design.

This includes further diversifying our pool of collaborators and having frank conversations on the mental health burdens of marginalized communities and our role as designers. Racial inequality is directly tied to the definition and understanding of equitable communities – especially regarding the mental health repercussions therein and the accessibility of mental health resources.

On June 25th 2020, the Mental Health and Architecture Incubator facilitated the June Virtual Strategic Council Assembly. We facilitated a discussion on mental health in order to embed an understanding of the importance of mental health for architects to consider across practice. We invited two guest speakers to help frame our discussion: Frederick Marks, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Six Sigma Green Belt, and Erin Peavey, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, EDAC. Key questions introduced during this session included:

• What role does mental health play in the design of
equitable communities? How can design address
collective trauma introduced by disasters in particular?
• Mental health is not an isolated issue; its impact is broad.
How can our practices, Knowledge Communities, and
Institute incorporate mental health considerations more
• How can mental health considerations in design improve
the lives of marginalized communities in times of civil

Stay tuned for more updates on this incubator topic from the Strategic Council.

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