Who cares about good design?

Americans spend 90% of our time in buildings; by the time you turn 80, that’s 72 years you will have spent indoors. Of the 10% of our time spent outside, most of that is still in an environment shaped by buildings. Is it any surprise then that the design of our physical environment influences our mood, behavior, and health? Who cares about good design? You should.

Why does design matter?
“Architecture matters because it effects how you live, work, and play,” says Karen Planet, AIA with RWA Architects and the president of AIA Ohio. “Good design has an ability to improve your wellbeing, your economic stability, and help you form strong connections to the community.”

The effects of buildings on people have been explored in architectural theories from the 1st century BCE when Vitruvius published his philosophy on architecture, to the 19th century when Catherine Beecher published the American Woman’s Home offering design guidance, including the importance of ventilation. In the 20th century Frank Lloyd Wright, the City Beautiful Movement, the Congress for New Urbanism, and scores of others offered design-focused plans for the city of the future.

Today, the rapid evolution of neuroscience and evidence-based design provides new insights into how architecture impacts human health and wellness. We know providing access to views and sounds of nature (biophilic design) can reduce anxiety and pain. Buildings with blank walls or uniform facades on a block can create a sense of fear or anxiety in people.

Good design is art.“We are totally immersed in architecture,” said Paul Muller, AIA, executive director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association. “It’s at the core of who we are. We construct our identity and perception of the universe from our environment, buildings, and other people.”

In addition to shaping who we are, architecture also impacts the natural environment. The building industry contributed 38% of all carbon emissions in 2019. Architects are seeking ways to reduce those levels and promote more environmentally friendly design.

“There has been a huge shift toward ecological, sustainable, and resilient design becoming a standard of practice,” says Jennifer LeMasters Wirtz, AIA with WSP USA and co-chair of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation’s Infill Development Committee. “While LEED and other certifications are still important, good, sustainable, and resilient design makes sense to the bottom line.”

Our first impressions of cities, neighborhoods, even college campuses, are often based on their architecture. Tourist offices use skylines and streetscapes for branding. Communities leverage historic districts and neighborhood business corridors to attract investment and residents. How buildings look and relate to each other creates a sense of place, but cities are constantly evolving.

“In Over-the-Rhine, infill construction will make up 50% of the neighborhood,” says LeMasters Wirtz. “If we aren’t mindful of design, ten years from now, the neighborhood will feel totally different.”

Unlike disposable fashion and social trends, buildings are intended to last for many decades. How they look, how they interact with adjacent structures, and how they function are critical to evaluating good design.

What is good design?
The role of design in shaping our lives and creating a sense of place is undisputed, but defining good design can be challenging.

“Good design is not limited to the iconic structures we all know and love,” says Planet. “If you look closely, you will find many examples of buildings playing supporting roles that come together to form some of the most interesting communities. It is as important to consider how buildings interact with each other and the quality of spaces they create as it is to develop iconic buildings.”

Now is the time to discuss and prioritize the design values and goals of our community.Whether a large city, a mid-size town, or a rural village, the built environment where we live changes over time; old buildings are torn down, new buildings are erected. The accumulation of those structures helps form community.

Buildings don’t have to be the same style, but they need to respond to the context of a place. As cities evolve, lived experience tells us which features have worked, or not. Good design addresses accessibility, sustainability, beauty, and social factors.

“If you’d asked me ten years ago what was at the core of good design, I would have automatically gone to formal design qualities: aesthetics, proportion, scale, massing, symbolic content of buildings, etc.,” says Muller. “Today, I would start at a different point. Good design is helping people live better lives, advancing equity, and addressing climate change.”

Good design should uplift people and communities. The impact of design on our wellbeing makes focusing on design a social necessity.

Encouraging good design through public policy
Our built environment is shaped by the complicated interaction of land value, building code, zoning laws, and development incentives that vary from municipality to municipality. Although most states have a state-wide building code to ensure buildings are safe, each jurisdiction also has their own zoning codes addressing everything from the height of a structure to its use.

Cincinnati was among the first cities in the country to adopt zoning codes in 1925. Zoning codes have shaped our cities over the 20th century — and not always for the better — prioritizing cars over people, reinforcing inequality, and incentivizing sprawl.

“One of the main drivers in the community is increasing density, yet zoning emphasizes single family homes,” says LeMasters Wirtz. “Economic development and integrated design can work together.”

Cities across the country are experimenting with zoning code changes that encourage development while addressing historical issues. Minneapolis eliminated zoning that restricts residential development to single-family homes, encouraging up to three-family buildings on all residential lots. Vancouver requires density, access to nature, and preservation of views.

Pattern zoning in Bryan, Texas, fast-tracks projects in specific neighborhoods that use pre-approved models. Form-based code, as applied in Madisonville, Walnut Hills, and College Hill, allows for more mixed-use development by focusing on the form of the building instead of its use.

“The cities that demand a little more from developers get more,” says Muller. “For a long time, Cincinnati didn’t think the market here was strong enough to make demands. We are now at the point where we can do that, and we should.”

Communities that think beyond their borders to engage in regional planning can leverage additional incentives, improve regulations, facilitate financing, bring more voices to the table, and create more connected communities while planning for future growth.

“Collaboration among cities, and between cities and counties is beneficial,” says Planet. “There are often competing interests, but the more we can foster collaboration, the larger the positive impact we can have on broader community concerns.”

Encouraging good design through people
Private entities control most development and construction, so public input on design can be challenged. However, considering the impact of architecture on the wellbeing of everyone in a community, the public voice should increase with the scale of a project.

Design workshops, also known as charettes or participations, bring all the stakeholders on a project together from the developer and investors to residents and community leaders. They provide an opportunity to discuss the project and community needs early in the design process. Charettes provide a developer with design ideas and can reduce project delays and opposition by engaging all stakeholders in the process.

“Community engagement is definitely a critical part of good design,” says Planet. “Charettes are an excellent tool that designers use to listen to and engage with community members to discover important details about what is important to the community and to identify unique opportunities for the project to fulfill the needs of the stakeholders.”

Many projects are also presented to community councils, a historic conservation or urban design review boards, or other public bodies that provide feedback on design and the application of zoning codes. This may be the only opportunity for public review, so participation of community members is critical.

“Become active in your community council,” says LeMasters Wirtz. “Educate yourself on the desires and drivers of development in your community. Then figure out who you can work with and how you can have a positive impact to achieve the community experience that you want.”

I know it when I see it

Talking about design, particularly what defines good design, can be challenging. Our responses to design are often subliminal and emotional, difficult to describe. However, anyone, whether trained or not in a design field, can build their design awareness.

In addition to reading about design through the many books, magazines, and blogs on the topic, the best way to learn about design is to experience it.

Start with your block. Walk around the block and pay attention.
  • What features stand out?
  • How do the textures of different building materials interact?
  • Are there patterns in the windows, the height, or the shape of the buildings?
  • Are there empty lots or surface parking? What addition to that site could enhance the community?
  • Walk at different times of day. What impact does the light have? Morning versus afternoon sun? Nighttime illumination?
  • Walk alone, then with a friend and share your observations.
  • Walk further.
  • Do the residential blocks in your neighborhood all have the same feel?
  • Is there a commercial corridor and how is that different?
  • What do you like? What do you dislike? Why?
  • How do you feel as you explore and observe your built environment?
Good design makes room for subjective ideas of beauty, while emphasizing objective elements including sustainability, wellbeing, and accessibility. Good design is human focused, bringing delight and uplift to a community. Good design is shaped by the unique characteristics of its setting while enhancing its surroundings.

With major infrastructure investment under discussion at the federal level, new development at The Banks and in the West End, and the redevelopment of the Millennium Hotel site, now is the time to discuss and prioritize the design values and goals of our community.

“You can’t talk someone into good design after the fact,” says Muller. “It has to be a high priority for communities and decision makers from the start.”

Residents, elected officials, civic leaders, and developers all have a critical role in the design process. Demanding good design will improve our communities and quality of life. It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure our built environment improves the common good.

The series, Architecture Matters, is supported by AIA Cincinnati. Learn more at aiacincinnati.org. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the American Institute of Architects or the members of AIA Cincinnati.

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Read more articles by Julie Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter has a background in cultural heritage tourism, museums, and nonprofit organizations. She's the Executive Director of AIA Cincinnati.