Photography: Todd Winters
As research director of Perkins+Will’s Human Experience Lab, Dr. Eve Edelstein, Assoc. AIA, has the unique opportunity to both study how the brain responds to architectural stimuli and then to apply those learnings to design choices. Edelstein’s background ranges from neuroscience and clinical neurophysiology to architecture—the one constant being a focus on evidence-based strategies and tools that inform and improve health and well-being. From a keynote address at the AIA Conference on Architecture 2017 to groundbreaking work with light and color, she’s subtly and explicitly influencing the future of design.
One of the things I’ve been most grateful for is training in anthropology, which actually inspired me to take a neuroarchitecture class. Then it turned out that Marian Diamond—one of the best teachers at Berkeley—was teaching the graduate neuroscience course and sent me down that particular path. I realized that I didn’t just want to observe, as you’d do in anthropology. I wanted not only to ask but also to measure. I moved toward the cellular and then realized that the nexus between the cellular sciences and architecture is the clinical sciences. The pragmatic process of understanding that people are messy—they don’t always do the right thing, they can’t always tell you why, and their responses to the built environment are not predictable—is in the clinical realm.
There has been, historically, a divide between building performance and human performance. I would argue that there’s no reason why they have to be divided. What we need to do is combine the information and produce best practices that serve both. We need to ask questions like, “Why do men and women differ when it comes to, say, thermal comfort? How can we design for individual comfort that, at the same time, doesn’t increase energy load? How can we look at high building performance and relate it to high human performance?”
All day I’m being asked questions: “How do we design for healthcare environments? What can be done for people with prevalent disabilities like Alzheimer’s and autism? How do I create healthy cities? How do we design creative places for our tech workers, let alone for our artistic workers?” There is no part of the brain I’m not being asked to consider. The way I approach it is project by project, topic by topic, measurement by measurement. Then I let the priorities of the designers and the users drive our strategic initiatives.
We can’t pretend that this is simple, or that someone can say, “Here’s a checklist, move forward.” It is as complex as people are. We can—we have to—learn to communicate to our teams and to our users, and then make our knowledge fit a real process. We have to make research real. —As told to Steve Cimino