The Present and the Future, D+EA

Collage of DEA images

The Department of Design + Environmental Analysis combines innovative design thinking with insightful design research to understand how our daily lives are impacted by the built environment. It is the human-focused mission to create better, more sustainable, and more healing environments through design that makes D+EA unique among other design programs.

Through multidisciplinary training that goes beyond the traditional design education, D+EA is tackling problems from a people, process and place perspective to create strategic, sustainable and healthy futures by design.

Approach and impact

The Department of Design + Environmental Analysis (D+EA) is not your typical design department. D+EA faculty, students, and alumni are part researchers, designers, and social scientists – focused on tackling real-world problems by looking at the systems involved and using evidence-based design to offer solutions.

For Mardelle Shepley, chair and professor of D+EA, it is the human-focused mission to create better, more sustainable and more healing environments through design and acute awareness of our social responsibility as designers that makes D+EA unique among other design programs.

“We’re engaged in a celebration of aesthetics and dedication to addressing human needs,” she said. “More so than other design programs, we keep them balanced so that we’re focused on both human needs and aesthetics.”

Shepley thinks that research and creative scholarship inform and inspire one another, and siloing the two is a mistake for students and innovators. To help students understand the benefits of what she calls an “integrated mind,” Shepley created the course Art and Science, in which she tries to convince students that art and science are the same.

“My concern is that people will come to college already labeling themselves as artists or scientists when in reality they are fully capable of doing much more in one or the other fields; they may have incredible talent that they have not been able to express,” she said. “We live in a world with so many big problems. We really can’t afford to limit ourselves in terms of what we can potentially achieve.”

D+EA’s emphasis on design strategy, research and user experience makes the interior design program – the only one in the Ivy League – a stand out as well. Every several years each accredited interior design program need to be re-accredited. The maximum length of accreditation is six years, which is only granted to programs meeting the highest of the Council for Interior Design’s Accreditation standards. D+EA received the full six-year accreditation at the last review.

“The implication is that we are a model for other programs looking for the support of the accrediting process,” Shepley said. Designing an environment is a interdisciplinary endeavor, she explained in addition to the contribution of the client, there are engineers, lighting specialists and multiple other specialists. Thinking of interior design as a system of people working together and the aesthetics of what is being designed usually produces a better outcome.

The same, Shepley said, is true of the outcome achieved by collaborating across disciplines. “The strength of Human Ecology, from my perspective, is that it’s a relatively small college with an incredibly wide range of disciplines and a strong social focus. All of our departments are interdisciplinary, D+EA particularly so. It makes for this highly energetic situation where people are forced to think outside of the box just to understand one another.”

Joining the conversation are three exciting faculty new to the department this year. Saleh Kalantari is an architect interested in human-technology interactions and augmented intelligence to better simulate the environment and gauge user response to it. Cindy Kao’s wearable technology is both art and technology that can turn skin into an interface with our physical environment. Jay Yoon is an industrial designer who studies emotive response to products and how to design products to make people happier.

 “We didn’t look to replace faculty with new faculty hires from identical backgrounds,” Shepley said. “We were looking to hire faculty who were change-makers in the world and at the same time had a significant interest in creating socially responsible design. We don’t have anyone like them. They are helping us move toward the future because they are each looking at the world in different ways.”

Ecological design

After a devastating earthquake, such as in Haiti in 2010 that killed over 100,000 people and displaced 300,000 more, survivors are left with the question of what to do with the rubble and how to rebuild. John “Jack” Elliott, associate professor of Design + Environmental Analysis, thinks his Triakonta building system is a sustainable solution for rebuilding efforts that could minimize future destruction caused when the earth shifts.

The Triakonta system consists of 30 faced polyhedron nodes connecting struts of three different lengths to form triangulated structures as simple as a gabled roof building or as complex as a geodesic dome. It is designed for disassembly, relies mostly on renewable materials, is reconfigurable, and the components can be made just about anywhere.

A full-scale, bamboo-based version is being field-tested in the Dominican Republic and Elliott spent spring break putting one together in Nepal as part of the earthquake recovery program for the Phukri Ridge.

“The government was recommending poured-in-place concrete after the earthquake in Nepal,” Elliott said, “which is not a great solution because if they’re not built right they become death traps. That was the case in Haiti where the people who died were crushed by buildings. Even if they don’t fail catastrophically, they aren’t fit to live in after an event like that, and they’re too difficult to take apart so you have all these concrete relics. They consume a lot of fossil fuels and contribute to poor air quality.”

Elliott and Kifle Gebremedhin, professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell, are the recipients of a 2019 China Innovation Award from the Cornell China Center to begin a seismic analysis of the Triakonta building system.

“In China they’re building large-scale shake tables that you can put a full-scale building on and test its performance during a simulated earthquake,” he said.

Elliott said the award is seed money to travel to Shanghai University, meet with officials and fabricators to discuss logistics and get a sense of the level of enthusiasm and support. If that goes well they will apply for funding for the second phase: constructing and testing a Triakonta structure in China.

Learning in living laboratories

Each spring Rana Zadeh, assistant professor of D+EA, teaches Innovations in Healthcare Research & Design, a multidisciplinary, hands-on class that prepares students for accreditation in evidence-based design. In the past, Zadeh has partnered with a community organization, such as a hospital or a senior living facility, and asked students to form consulting teams working on design solutions for those organizations. This year, however, students were asked to think about how to improve palliative and supportive care services for marginalized communities in Tompkins and Cortland counties.

After a site-visit to Brookdale Senior Living, where students had the opportunity to meet with community stakeholders, Zadeh split the class into multidisciplinary teams with a variety of backgrounds. In addition to training them to apply their education in real-world settings, Zadeh’s class offers students an opportunity to practice communicating across disciplinary divides.

“In the beginning they are a little uncomfortable, it might feel a little alienating to sit next to someone from a different discipline, but by the end of the class they are comfortable with each other and have learned to speak the languages of one another’s discipline,” Zadeh said. “When they learn to communicate across disciplines there’s usually this ‘ah-ha’ moment where they realize, oh, I can use this tool from your discipline for solving this problem in my discipline.”

Jared Senador, MHA ’20, took the course specifically to have this collaborative and multidisciplinary experience.

“We all got the same information but what stood out to each of us was a bit different based on our disciplines, so our projects varied,” Senador said. “Our team’s mission was engaging families around the area in enhancing physical, emotional, spiritual and social well-being. I want to work in community outreach in a hospital setting, so when we talked about utilizing the strengths of the community around Ithaca, I thought of how to get the community involved in enhancing the well-being of people in palliative and supportive care.”

Senador suggested adopting something similar to the Friendship Bench project developed in Zimbabwe, where “community grandmothers” help to bridge a gap in mental health treatment by being available for conversation and support. Taking the local weather into account, Senador’s team designed a modified Friendship Bench with waterproof envelopes for pamphlets with information on available services and numbers to call for support. 

At the end of the semester each consulting team presented their design solutions to executives from Hospicare & Palliative Care Services, Cayuga Medical Center and CareCompass Network, among others. Students presented designs for collecting and distributing recycled medical equipment, storing medical supplies in centrally located lockers for traveling nurses who have patients throughout the two counties, meditation and mindfulness training for patients and family members, community garden volunteers to enhance patient access to natural areas, a website that could be an information hub for all stakeholders and more.

Zadeh thinks of her role in the classroom as a facilitator for learning and collaboration among the students in the same way that she thinks of D+EA as a facilitator for communication and collaboration across disciplines.

“D+EA is a unique place in terms of its multidisciplinary and systems-thinking approach,” she said. “It’s a department for problem-solving and critical thinking. We are all committed to making a difference and applying our research to improve the world around us. In that sense, it was a real fit for my approach to research and design.”

This year’s class was sponsored by the Systems Engineering program and Cornell Institute for Healthy Futures.

Design meets human development

Adolescents and young adults (known as AYA’s) facing a life-changing cancer diagnosis have the added difficulty of treatment centers that are not designed to meet their unique needs. As the biology of AYA cancer is so similar to pediatric cancer, AYA cancer patients – who range in age from 15-29 – are often treated in pediatric hospitals surrounded by primary colors, balloons, stuffed animals and sick infants.

Human Behavior and Design Ph.D. student Kathryn Peditto, who successfully defended her dissertation this May, wondered if this was not only a design issue but a development issue as well. How does being surrounded by such age-inappropriate designs impact patient outcome and what can researchers learn from AYA patients to influence more effective design practices?

In order to explore uniquely AYA issues of the built environment, Peditto surveyed over 100 AYA’s who had been treated in facilities nationwide, some who were still in treatment. She identified 22 characteristics that could impact an AYA treatment environment – including motivational message boards and having access to outdoor space and natural light. Of the 22 characteristics, the respondents considered all inadequate.

 “With the survey we found that the adequacy of the built environment and your feelings of social support were related to your health-related quality-of-life at a clinical significance,” Peditto said. “That is really exciting because health-related quality life has a billion different factors going into it – primarily whether or not you actually feel sick.

“If we can show that there’s clinical significance to the design of our built environment, that’s an incredible statement. It’s not a medication, it’s not something that is directly physiologically affecting our health-related quality-of-life, and it’s something that designers can control, not doctors.”

Peditto then held a series of design focus groups for fifteen AYA survivors from across the country to discuss their experiences and the design elements they would like to see more of in AYA treatment facilities. Much of what they highlighted related to increased opportunities for social support: comfortable seating for friends and family to feel more at ease while visiting and visitor beds in patient rooms.

Based on her findings, Peditto has developed a set of evidence-based design guidelines presented in terms that should be familiar to designers, architects, practitioners and healthcare administrators alike. She is working with Teen Cancer America, which builds teen lounges and recreational spaces in cancer facilities, to incorporate her research into future lounge designs.

“I am not an architect and would never claim to be an architect, but it’s a great example of the future of design where we’re using research and scholarly evidence to inform the decisions that we make,” she said. “That to me is this exciting gray area between art and science where D+EA is working.”

Peditto said she had difficulty finding the right graduate program at first – one that would allow her to grow her social research skills and apply them to issues of design without having to decide between psychology or systems engineering. When she learned of D+EA, she said, it was an easy choice.

“I love being in a department with both designers and social scientists and people who consider themselves both,” Peditto said. “Working with graduate students who are architects is an incredible opportunity that you don’t get in any other department. It’s a different way of thinking about the world around you. To have those perspectives in your academic cohort – accessible to you at any given time – really makes for a thoughtful, rich, diverse learning experience.”

New Minor in Healthy Futures

The Department of Design + Environmental Analysis and the Cornell Institute for Healthy Futures (CIHF) offered undergraduates university-wide a minor in Healthy Futures for the first time this year.

The minor is a combination of specific courses across design, health care policy and management, and hospitality, an immersion seminar, and an internship. Of the 17 required credit-hours, nine are distributed along tracks designed to get students to take courses outside of their major.

“If you’re a D+EA student pursuing our minor, you’re going to be pushed toward a track that involves more classes outside of D+EA and more in hospitality and health care management,” said Brenda Smith, CIHF Program Manager. “But, if you come into the minor from health care management you’ll follow your track into more design courses and more business courses.”

Smith said the minor offers formal training that exposes students to the key disciplines that will make them more marketable when looking to join the workforce, and the multidisciplinary experience that will help them excel once they do.

During the summer, the minor’s first students will be interning with Northwell Health, Mather LifeWays, Boston Children’s Hospital and one student will be designing a new wellness space for the Dean of the Cornell Law School. CIHF Program Manager Nikki Cerra said, “The internship allows students to be more versatile and so more likely to get a job. They look better on the application because they might have a degree in design and then this internship in hospitality or health care and are that much more versatile and flexible for the job market.”

Mardelle Shepley, chair and professor of D+EA, explained that hospitality and health care are increasingly overlapping and the minor is designed to prepare students to excel in the changing landscape.

“In health care we’re trying to treat patients as if they were guests and to provide environments that are supportive and nurturing,” she said. “In hospitality, there’s an emphasis on wellness and services that can support the wellness of their clients. The minor focuses on these intersections and it prepares students to go out in the world with a more unique perspective than if they’d been siloed in one program or the other. When you partner with people from different backgrounds, you’re more likely to problem-solve in creative ways.” 

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