On EBD and Alfred E | New England Home

How We Know Where We’d Like to Live without Ever Having Been There

by Louis Postel for New England Home | March/April 2015


What Me Worry?
What Me Worry?

Picture Alfred E. Neuman, intrepid coastal homeowner.

Unusually high March tides are battering the last of his bulkhead. A shorn banner with his motto “What, me worry?”  flaps wildly in the gale.

Undismayed, Alfred E. clicks through Zillow for Mountain Properties – Vermont, New Hampshire, $750,000 plus, for something a little less exposed. He’s never been to the mountains in Vermont or New Hampshire, however.

How will Alfred E. even begin to know what to look for in a “Mountain Property?”

What me worry, indeed! It turns out that the emerging science of Evidence-Based design (EBD) and its close ally Neuro-Design, can now explain the uniquely human ability to adapt to an unknown environment.

It’s Alfred E.’s memory that will come to the rescue. Described as a handshake between the deep-seated hippocampus and the frontal lobe,  memory, according to the latest research does a lot more than help us recall names at cocktail parties or ace exams. It helps us project into the future. For designers, architects, developers, builders, stylists, homeowners, memories help define what makes a house a home. What will make it feel safe and dry, based on what we have known before.

“From what he knows of Cave A, and from what he knows of Cave B, our most ancient ancestor was able to envision what he’d find in Cave C, before even going inside,” says molecular biologist John J. Medina of Seattle.

Which is to say, given hundreds of choices, even the Alfred P. Neumans of the world have a good chance of picking the right cave.

Returning to the present, designers and architects have been increasingly turning to molecular biologists such as Medina, evolutionary psychologists, cognitive scientists, behavioral neuroscientists and other interdisciplinary types to help them design better caves for their clients. What originated as important but specialized evidence on how design can be utilized to move people out of hospital beds quicker, or knowledge workers to think better, has now spread into the design mainstream.

No wonder then that Evidence-Based Design, or EBD, allied with Neuro Design,, are fast becoming the essential design services for the 21st century.

Dak-Kopec at TEDx Sacramento
Dak-Kopec at TEDx Sacramento

Architectural psychologist Dak Kopek http://the-bac.edu/experience-the-bac/people/dak-kopec gets this. Featured in this magazine with aging in place design expert Lisa Bonneville, Dak directs the Boston Architectural College’s Master of Design Studies in Design for Human Health, consults and writes. He is the author of Evidence-Based Design: A Process for Research and Writing (Prentice Hall), and other books.

“I just came across an interesting study regarding real estate sales,” said Kopek. “Professionals know it’s the first and last impression that drive sales, but that the middle is basically junk. Why? Psycholinguistic studies show that our brains need the first and last of things like words for recognition, but somehow have little trouble filling in the gaps.”

“A ground-breaking design study I still find fascinating,” said Kopek, “is the one for the 786 Dreamliner. Boeing found out that increased humidity reduces air rage by producing the negative ions that calm people down. So does splashing water, for that matter.” Kitchen and bath designers take note.

In a similar vein, there’s surely a study somewhere on the positive effects of art in the home.  The Architectura Articulation exhibit at Audio Concepts on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston this Fall gave a good indication of how positive those effects could be.

Old Orchard Pier by Paul McMahan
Old Orchard Pier by Paul McMahan

Curated by Lynda McNally, the show itself captured the deep — dare we say bio-molecular —connection we humans share for the built environment – especially New England’s brownstones and cityscapes, as well as for well-crafted images themselves. Architectural illustrator turned artist Paul McMahon summed up his own experience: By no longer worrying so much about rendering his clients’ specific designs, he obtained the freedom to fully express his passion for architecture itself.

Another exhibitor at the show, Frank Costantino, turned out to be a friend, and occasional drawing mentor, of a number of leading area architects including Jan Gleysteen, John Margolis and Jeremiah Eck, which given the quality of his work was no surprise. “Before everything went digital,” said Costantino “I worked as an independent architectural illustrator for virtually all of Boston’s leading firms.” There was an upside to the collapse of the hand-drawn rendering — at least for him. “In the course of producing perspective imagery for these firms, I was able to develop my own aesthetic.” Costantino’s artistic turn in the face of adversity opened the door to a fulfilling life of teaching, doing demos…and fulfilling commissions.

Jacob Higginbottom http://www.jacobhigginbottom.com/ is an architect, triathlete, and fellow exhibiting artist at Audio Concepts. His own busy schedule includes hosting his own events at Midway Studios in the Innovation District near the Boston Design Center. A local developer partnered with a collective to buy the space for twenty-two million, and “now I show my work there several times a year. There is an emerging demographic of serious art collectors that are interested in going right to the source — to buy, as well as socialize.”

Tracy Davis
Tracy Davis

Sometimes our brains choose one cave, others two or more. “I’m seeing certain clients looking to sell their major home. They’d like to use that 2.9 million to diversify to smaller dwellings in two places, say one in Maine and one in New Mexico,” says Portland, ME and NYC-based designer Tracy Davis http://www.urban-dwell.com/ . “Condo maintenance fees are simply built in.”

And while some second-homers are looking for more of a connection to nature, Davis notes that for others it’s just the reverse. Again, this may be a function of memory, the cognitive ability to project what makes us comfortable.

“I have a lovely woman client entering the second half of a legal career that missed her connection to the Soho scene in New York,” said Davis. “So in her master we did some very euro-modern furnishings with high gloss, tone on tone walls. All the same, we used the cerused walnut side tables with cabriole legs that came from Mother and that my client had held on to ever since college. As long as you do it intelligently, it’s important to have things with that kind of emotional value.”

Just the name and address of the company, Mast and Falls Interior Design on Blueberry Lane in Concord, MA http://mastandfalls.com/, excites those dopamine neurotransmitters associated with poetry. But don’t be misled. Designers Katharine Mast and Sue Falls are also steeped in EBD, especially when it comes to aging.

“We are seeing more and more young families who want to have their aging parents with them and they’re looking to incorporate design elements that will help them live independently,” says Mast.

“Take, for example, lighting plans. Scientists have shown that older people need about three times the amount of light inside the home as adults in their twenties and thirties. Older people see high contrast black and white checkerboard floors as a series of black holes.”

“Still, you don’t have to sacrifice style. Many of our older people are ecstatic going into the next phase of their lives, excited about the future and planning on living a long time. While some Italian contemporary is too low and lounge-y, Kravet in the Boston Design Center has a whole line of contemporary chairs and sofas that you can get out of easily, many of which can be customized.”

“Right now I’m helping my father and step-mother in Virginia,” adds Mast. “We explored the elevator option, but ultimately we steered away from it. It would have been too costly and would have affected all three levels. A chair lift was a nice compromise. There’s one manufactured by Symmetry http://www.symmetryelevators.com/product-stairlift.html that enables them to go around curves and L- shapes.

Did someone say “curves and L-shapes”? While people indeed prefer curves to angles, a study by Texas Tech neuroscientist Michael O’Boyle indicates this isn’t always the case https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9-ftYNEJzo . If you care to relax the fear and emotion center in your brain’s amygdala, curves are the way to go. You may even find inspiration along the curvaceous walls of the new Center for Brain Health that O’Boyle consulted on for architect Frank Gehry. On the other hand, “ if you’re urgently trying to find your way around to the exit, angles are the way to go,” says O’Boyle.

“What, me worry?” the unflappable, freckle-faced Alfred E. Neuman can almost be heard to reply.