DesignFWD Podcast Episode 04: Doing WELL by Place and People
Welcome to DesignFWD, a podcast series presented by Mohawk Group, where we discuss innovations in design, performance, and sustainability that positively impact the built environment. Stick around for engaging conversation with our design leaders, sustainability advocates, and progressive end users who are moving design forward.
For our fourth episode, we’re joined by Brian Kaplan. He is a longtime New Yorker, actually a native New Yorker and has practiced at many recognizable firms around Manhattan and globally.
Read the Episode Transcript
Fred Zebro: Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining the fourth episode of DesignFWD. I am Fred Zebro, Mohawk Group’s Regional Vice President of A&D.
Ramie Vagal: And I’m Ramie Vagal, Mohawk Group’s Senior Manager of Sustainability. For this episode, we’re discussing doing well by place and by people. As we transition towards hybrid and newer environments post-pandemic, what are some of the aspects we need to be mindful of? Let’s discover through our conversations today.
FZ: So we are really excited today to have an award-winning architect, designer, and educator responsible for millions of square feet of diverse program types around the globe, including offices, universities, performing arts, and places of worship. Reinforcing the role in which we play involving our health and wellbeing through the places we create, encouraging innovative planning and design strategies that balance our comfort with our commitment to a low-carbon future. Our guest today is Brian Kaplan. He is a longtime New Yorker, actually a native New Yorker. He has practiced at many recognizable firms around Manhattan and globally. Some notable ones: SOM, WRNS, and a local firm here. So welcome, Brian, and thank you for doing a podcast today.
Brian Kaplan: Hey! Thank you, Fred, and hello, Ramie. I’m so glad you invited me here today. Hi, everyone. My name is Brian Kaplan. I’ve practiced architecture and design, as Fred said, in New York for over twenty five years, and I’ve focused the last number of years on workplace and sustainabilityand well-being. I’ve known Fred for longer than I can remember, and I’m so glad to be a part of this. I got into design originally because I was fascinated by how people experience their surroundings. And I found myself seeking ways to manipulate that, really, improving those experiences and being able to do that in the arena of global design has been really really very rewarding. So I’m glad to be here and talk about this amazing subject of WELL.
FZ: Yeah, we’re very excited to have you here as well, Brian. And yes, we go back a long way, and Brian has always been the sustainability guru, and it’s very exciting. Even before sustainability was cool, Brian was doing sustainability stuff. So it’s exciting to have you here as well.
RV: Awesome, thank you Brian, again, for joining us. So let’s get this started. So, as we transition into this post-Covid 19 world, occupant well-being and safety will be a primary concern, as you know, across organizations globally. So, what are some of those initial thoughts that come to your mind?
BK: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is simply making occupants feel safe and comfortable. The people that come into our buildings, they have to have trust and confidence that their well-being and safety is the very top concern for the organization, or they won’t come back. Some have called this hygiene theater. You may have heard that phrase recently. I think this simply addresses very literally and figuratively the surface of the issue, though. We then have to focus on how we can make this an opportunity to support the people coming back to work and entering our building post-Covid. You know, this has to be in a more involved, holistic way. And architects and designers are playing a huge role in that. Recently, I presented a day-long workshop where our entire topic was really that this was a chance for interior designers to take a leading role in a truly holistic application of sustainability, which is the health of people in balance with the health of the ecology.
FZ: I love that. What was it you mentioned? “Hygiene design?”
BK: Hygiene theater. It’s an incredible topic. It’s basically how people see the staff come through and clean. It’s normally done after hours when we don’t see them. But the theater is something that’s intended to evoke comfort for people that their space is visibly being cleaned. But again, it has to go so much deeper than that.
FZ: Yeah, I think that that’s a fascinating new term. I’ve learned something new today. Thank you, Brian. I’ve made a note. And I think it also leads into another topic: WELL. We’ve been really, especially in New York, stressing wellness, and WELL standards have been something that we’ve been practicing a lot, and it’s starting to filter out into other cities. I’d like to get your opinion on WELL. What are your thoughts on it?
BK: I love WELL. I’ve had the opportunity to design with the standards, and also I’m familiar now with WELL Health and Safety. They’re both operated by the IWBI — the International WELL Building Institute. What is actually very interesting is that the HSR is informed by the WELL Building standards, and it’s the expertise of more than 600 experts from the task force on Covid 19. It’s designed for facilities, and it’s going to help building owners, management, and all the related organizations in our universe address the health, safety, and well-being of, really, their most valuable asset: the people that occupy their buildings. Their buildings and communities, they exist and play such an incredibly important role in supporting our health and well-being. We’re really coming to understand and acknowledge that as a fact, and our collective ability to prepare for and respond to global health challenges, like the one we’re experiencing right now, is going to be truly informed by our ability to use these standards. I think about something that Dr. Joseph Allen has said: “if managed poorly, buildings can spread disease, but if we get it right, we can enlist our schools, offices, and homes in this fight.
RV: Absolutely. So you know the conversation around well-being and wellness has become so much more mainstream than ever before. So one of the key points that I have liked about IWBI is that they have not only created a program that’s about certification and health and wellness, but they’ve also looked at it from a corporate standpoint. They’ve made organizations realize how productivity and engagement and resilience can be brought to the forefront of the conversation. They have figured out a way to establish this as a way to measure an organization’s performance, so not just focusing on the economic value but also the human capital. And this is really important, especially when the conversation around the environmental and social is at the forefront of the sustainability community. So then that brings us to discussing what kinds of roles do organizations play, and what kind of policy changes need to happen, and who is driving these changes?
FZ: Yeah, that’s a really good point, Ramie, and we’ve seen that with our own organization. It’s modification to policies, benefits, and really adapting to a new culture not all drive meaningful change. We’ve done that here in our New York City office, we were one of the first WELL Platinum, to receive the certification for WELL Platinum, and we did that about three years ago.It really is a whole corporate effort. Since then all of our showrooms, we strive for WELL Platinum. It’s a hard thing, you know. People forget about the big things that are driving these corporate ships, and your leadership and your HR departments really have to be involved. As you know, the ratings come from a third party, so we have to watch our dish sizes and allthe other things that go along with it, but it’s gotten our people gym memberships. It’s been an interesting journey, but what I think it’s all benefitting ourselves and our employees.
BK: I had an amazing chance to witness it firsthand as well because I had the fortune of designing a workspace for an architecture firm that I worked for. One of the things we did right from the outset is we evaluated all of the points, every single one of them. Is this a design point, or is this an HR point, or is this an operations point? And it was so incredible that nearly half of all the points you can get are actually not design. Fred, you’re saying they’re entirely related to the way the organization operates and serves its employees. It was incredible to me. I think we’re going to see a lot of momentum this way. As organizations start to emerge from Covid, the organizations are driving towards wellness strategies and policies. Covid has just laid bare what is seemingly obvious, and yet the most often overlooked fact, that ensuring employee health and safety, not to mention customer and supply chain worker safety as well, it’s critical to executing successful and sustainable business practices.
FZ: Yeah. Couldn’t agree with you more.
RV: So the other thing that has been on my mind for long, especially this past year, is how the pandemic has brought to the forefront the interconnectedness between planetary health and the people. We’ve always traditionally thought about sustainability as relating to the environment and relating to carbon emissions, but the human part of it has become so much more evident, and how one cannot survive without the other — that they both need to thrive. That has been something that has really come to the forefront in the past 12 months. So, Brian, maybe can you share with us, through your architecture practice and other work you have done, how do you approach this? What is your philosophy around this?
BK: Fred mentioned earlier this thing called Integrated Life. It’s something I really believe in because increasingly, we recognize that the work-life balance is not great, it’s out of balance. Technology has erased the physical boundaries of work. And it basically reinforces tension between work and life. I see workplace design as a need to have a response. We have to offer in the workplace now, all the opportunities we crave for joy and balance because there has to be return for allowing all that work to infiltrate into our rich and meaningful lives that we spend outside of the office. Workplace design that can celebrate us as individuals and support our humanity is really what we can use to help us establish a truly integrated life.
FZ: Yeah, that’s an awesome answer. I mean, yeah, that was very good. So we’re talking about the human and technology. We talked about the roles of design. So when we start to look at and talk a little bit about the role of design and product changes we’ve had in this new approach. And keeping in mind the existing infrastructures as well. How can current infrastructures be used to implement newer interventions in integrating indoor and outdoor environments.
BK: What I think is interesting is the principles of biophilia. Every organization I’ve worked with recently is trying to consider how to pivot and do more with what they have. To me, the design is evolving in such a way that biophilia can play a really great role. Return-to-Work initiatives are helping organizations think differently about the workplace when they consider re-mobilizing it. I’m amazed by how many of the organizations have begun to focus back inward, and they’re making a lot of decisions about space utilization that were unthinkable a year ago. One global organization I’m working with right now, they have a project in New York — they had only 60% utilization before Covid, but they’re actually considering that in their headcount projections now and their agile planning, and they’re genuinely trying to make the space better for their employees. So aside from that real estate decision, they’re considering biophilia, and we’re helping them understand how that translates into their existing infrastructure, the assets that they have today. Fred, I used to be a skeptic. When I was teaching, I would get to the part about biophilia in my lessons, teaching about sustainability and well-being. I admit I shrugged. I thought at the time, biophilia meant that you had to have fiddlehead ferns and swoopy organic shapes everywhere. I’m completely transformed. I totally believe it. I deeply deeply believe it because the more I researched, I read Bill Browning and read Steven Keller. The more I realize it’s not about that. It’s about awakening something deep within ourselves that desires a connection to nature. Often in cities that try their best to prevent that connection from happening, right? And the repetitive rows of workstations and ceiling lights and monitors, they don’t do that. And posters of forests on the walls aren’t going to do it either. So clients are starting to grasp that. They believe it, too, and I think that’s what makes it such a satisfying design challenge.
RV: Yeah, that’s very insightful. Definitely it’s not just about putting plants in the office, or it’s not just about putting a poster, like you mentioned. There’s so much more science in how to use and integrate the infrastructure. I had also read somewhere about people wanting to utilize outdoor work areas, like establishing workstations outdoors. That would be something to see how that works out, especially given when you have to take realistic conditions, like rain, into mind, but people would want to work outside if you give them an opportunity to. People now want to take lunch breaks outside, so what’s stopping them from actually working outside in the outdoor area if their offices can provide the appropriate infrastructure. So other than that, designers and architects have an important role to play, but in terms of manufacturers, especially in product manufacturers. I think they have a huge role to play in shaping the interior environment. Especially in your role, you interact with so many different designers across the different demographics in the E&D community. Have you noticed any generational shift, how people have started What kind of design trends, or even sustainability trends are these designers across the different generations focusing on? What are they valuing when they select a product or make those decisions about spaces and stuff?
FZ: Well, you know, I think that’s a good intro into our next topic of generational technology, but I think social equality has become very important in other key factors, such as carbon impact on products. You’re seeing that people are much more aware of the human aspect. Health. Of course, we’ve all experienced this year. And enhancing the planetary health and human health are all connected. Brian, I could pose it to you, too — what you’re seeing with projects and clients you deal with?
BK: Um, yeah, Zoom fatigue is real, isn’t it? I’m glad this is a podcast [laughter].
FZ: Very true.
BK: Um, like I said before, technology has infiltrated our lives negatively. It has erased the boundary that we need for balance, but at the same time, though, it provides an incredibly meaningful connection to the people we’re physically unable to connect with. My son, you talk about the next generation, let’s go to the next generation. My son is ten, and he’s been remote for school for over a year, and his most precious possession is his phone. He’s ten, and I gave him a phone because he’s able to be with his friends. Every day, he spends a little time with his friends, so technology isn’t all bad, right? And we’re designing for him in the future, and one of the remarkable things I’ve learned over the years is how to translate school design into workplace design. And as we see school K-12, university design change to incorporate technology for those students as digital natives coming to the workforce now, we see that translating into workplace design. I think it’s really fascinating.
FZ: Yeah, I think with the whole surge of technology and all of our Zooms. I agree with you — I’m glad this is not a Zoom, and I think we’ve all been forced to kinda go down that path, and I wonder how everyone is feeling about it and how we’ll deal with it going forward.
RZ: Yeah, I feel like we’re constantly connected, that there’s a constant flow of information through all the channels, whether it’s social media, whether it’s emails, we cannot disconnect at all. So that really has been on my mind — the mental health and stress levels that has caused. Earlier, mental health was not a concern that was discussed so openly. Even with so much connectivity and so much accessibility, that has actually gotten to the forefront, like mental health and how this has been impacted by just the surge of technology. So then we really need to think about how we approach these spaces for future and how that has impacted. We have to design for if we were to ever face this kind of pandemic in the future. What does that look like? Do we again lock down? What does the future look like?
BK: Yeah, as a designer, I’ve been able to design environments in many different high stress situations — students, attorneys, traders, even architects. The practice of design for well-being really makes a lot of sense, as a technique to reduce, or simply not increase the stress of a high-stress environment. The good thing about WELL, in how it exists today, is that it’s very deeply researched. I was amazed, I was just looking for justifications to get a client to grasp the concept of biophilia, and I found forest bathing, or Shinrin-yoku, as it’s also known. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything about it. It was incredible. I read the paper that was referenced in the standard because you can — that’s the best part about it — it’s a fully referenced thing. And it was really just a PhD student in Japan, walking through his town, leaving his town, entering a forest, and all the while, monitoring his pulse and blood pressure, and the way. And imagine being able to reduce the pulse and blood pressure of our clients. What an amazing world that would be, just by replicating a fraction of what it feels like to walk through a forest into the design. Imagine the place you work was designed thoughtfully, considering all five of your senses. I just think about how amazing a place that would be, and the gratitude I would feel.
FZ: Yeah. I think I would like to work there. I’m learning all these new things. And, Ramie, you mentioned earlier too, the impact on stress level, and it brought to mind designing spaces for our optimum wellness, and it hasn’t become just a healthcare thing anymore. It’s really mainstream now — in occupied space, in any space. Also, Brian, looking at all this and your background, what is your design approach and how much does the occupants’ overall well-being now translate to mental health come into play when designing?
BK: Many of my friends and colleagues laugh because I say this over and over again. They’ve heard me say this so many times. I chastise architects and architecture at large for failing often to remember who we design buildings for. To me, it’s the human condition itself is the primary design imperative. We are providing this shelter of people in our buildings. What better than to re-focus our commitment on doing that for people? Practicing the design of environments that fuel our bodies and keep us moving and inspire creativity. It comes from a holistic view of health, which is not a thing of being free of disease, but it’s a life of joy and satisfaction. I really admire WELL. I admire the IWBI — they’ve illuminated a better path for us, and once we emerge from Covid with our healthy bodies, we’re going to find ourselves needing to focus on that mental health, and I think that’s one of the really amazing aspects about these systems. They legitimize it. They justify design strategies that support mental well-being. Healthy air is important, but so is quality light and good acoustics, and even a good night’s rest. Those are just as critical to our bodies being healthy.
RV: Yeah. I like how you talk about joy because oftentimes, I was just talking to someone about how humanized is the workplace, and how, from the scale of being extremely analytical to being human and emotional, in this past year we’ve seen a lot of integration because now we’re exposed to people’s living rooms, and children, and dogs. And so, when you come back to the workplace, is that human quality going to be retained? Because that will be an important part of mental well-being. How do you adjust back to the workplace? What does the new normal look like? And especially, Fred, you’re based in New York where there is so much activity all the time. People are always out on the street, so now in this past year, how has this changed with so much digital engagement? And New York being in lockdown for so long, how are people now coping with it? What do you think are the pros and cons or the negative-positive has been of that experience?
FZ: Well, I think that (and Brian can attest to this too), I really think we also got a chance to reflect this year. With our mental well-being and our physical well-being. We retreated out of the city, most of us. We took a break. Brian went up to the Berkshires. I went to luxurious New Jersey, and we are sick of Zoom, but it does show how important the connection is. I think we are very fortunate to work in an industry where we’re very connected, and we see people often, and we’re involved in lots of activities that involve social connection. So, I think that’s very important, and what we need is the human factor. We need that balance where there’s balance needed. So, I think that a good hybrid will come out of this.
RV: Yeah. I think so too. So with that, I think that we have covered a lot. We talked about a lot of interesting elements, and I personally learned many more new terms that I wasn’t familiar with. This discussion has been really awesome, and I want to thank you guys for your time today.
FZ: Yeah. Brian, thank you so much for joining us. I did learn a bunch of new terms today, so with that I made some notes up, and the conversations was great. And hopefully you can join us again, Brian.
BK: I would love to. Thanks so much for inviting me. It was a really great conversation.
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