Wellness in Design: Higher Education

As a Senior Interior Designer on our Higher Education Team, Mary LaFrombois has been shaping experiences for student, educators and staff on campuses around the country for over 20 years. In this week's "Wellness in Design" series article, Mary discusses her passion for sustainability and wellness and how she sees the Higher Education industry embracing a health-focused future.

Why did you want to pursue the WELL AP credential?

From the start of my career, I have been passionate about making a positive impact on people through the design of space. One of my college professors taught a course on how space(s) affect people and it deeply rooted the understanding that essentially all elements within a space could alter how people perform. Becoming a LEED AP helped me understand how we as designers could make a positive impact on the environment, but the WELL certification was the missing link for me. Its approach emphasizes the health of people and their environments, allowing us to leverage space to make significant impacts on individuals and their communities. We have the ability to make a positive impact on our client’s spaces and their performance.

What strategies have you used to integrate wellness concepts into student and educator spaces?

Students spend significant time inside campus buildings. Whether in classrooms, student lounges, or their dorms, they are indoors. As designers, we look to WELL concepts to guide how we can make these spaces positively impact students rather than be a determent to their health. One of the biggest impacts we can design is air quality. Natural ventilation and access to natural light helps create great experiences, but air exchanges and filtration are also key. WELL and LEED set minimum standards for these and we often explore with our clients if there are simple, cost-effective ways to exceed these standards.

For educator and staff spaces, we integrate WELL concepts through what we call “free address” spaces in office and learning spaces design. Offering a variety of lounge types and study or impromptu meeting opportunities has always been an important part of creating ideal experiences on campus.

Mary Baldwin University's College of Health Sciences Building emphasizes wellness through ample access to natural light and placing a central stair as a design feature to encourage movement.

What design strategies promote wellness on campuses?

The impact of the pandemic this year galvanized how I approach wellness in our projects and really highlighted how buildings can either positively or negatively impact health. We need to view wellness as all-encompassing and remember that the foundation of smart space planning will result in a positive impact on the health of the building’s occupants. Planning strategies include offering a visible open staircase as you enter a building to elicit use of stairs in lieu of the elevators. We also now understand how biophilia, the connection to nature, can positively impact cognitive function, physical health, and psychological well-being. Natural light, patterning and exposure to nature make a positive impact on users, and make people want to experience a space.

We also need to remember that beyond planning strategies, integrating elements that affect the psychology of what we experience is just as important. For example, consider how the smell of chlorine may indicate cleanliness, but doesn’t create a pleasant or calming experience. WELL reminds us that is important to consider both design and policy as we strive to integrate wellness into our spaces.

Given your deep experience in Higher Education, how have you seen campus buildings becoming healthier over the years?  What do you think is next?

I am excited to see that WELL has rolled out pilot programs for education building certifications. This will help give credence to the integration of WELL certification into campus buildings. Other healthy trends include the significant focus on student safety, which has become paramount to Campus design. Within learning spaces, classrooms have evolved from lecture format to active learning environments which engage students both physically and mentally. Active Learning has proven to have a large impact on how quickly students gain knowledge and retain it.

In the last few years, Higher Education has truly embraced how different learning styles and student/educator needs should guide how we design spaces.  For example, it's now expected we provide student study spaces that allow for casual and group learning rather than just formal learning spaces.  Healthy habits, such as promoting water consumption, and alternative modes of transportation to campus are the norm. Something as simple as bottle fillers - in addition or in lieu of traditional water fountains - is now standard in our designs. Providing alternative transportation support and showers, wellness and lactation rooms are other ways campuses support the whole person. WELL now provides us a framework for bringing the health of the student, faculty and the building full circle in our designs.

Want to learn more? Connect with Mary through email or LinkedIn. You can also read more from Mary in her article Rethinking Faculty Workspaces and her interview What's Next for Sustainability in Higher Education.