Evidence-Based Design and Ageing

by Vasiliki Kondyli

 As the demographic landscape of our cities is changing fast, the cities are growing and the population is aging. How do designers and architects respond to this challenge? Which is the knowledge and the technical assets to tackle the new needs in design?

With ageing, the experience we have of the environment is reshaped by both physical, sensory, and cognitive changes. People move slower, lose their visual acuity,  have less confidence to cross the street, or to learn new shortcuts for the path to the market. The environment, in terms of architecture and the sensory or cognitive stimulation provided, can shape cognitive processes and be more or less supportive of independent living in older age.

To define the best design practices that can lead to a stimulating but also comfortable environment for older adults, we need to know which are the characteristics of the environment that influence the experience and how to manipulate them through everyday design practice. The answer is inspired by the tradition of healthcare design. Known as Evidence-Based Design, this design approach bases its design decisions on credible research and on existing projects’ evaluation. By collecting evidence through behavioral studies in the built environment as well as in research labs, the designer can enrich his knowledge and better anticipate how people will behave in a newly designed space. For instance, taking into consideration the age-related loss of visual quality; the use of patterns and textures in carpeting should be avoided as empirical studies show that they can greatly diminish depth perception at stairs and contribute to an increased rate of fall-related accidents.

Towards this direction, new developments in design-assistive tools aim at embedding this empirical knowledge to design systems in order to facilitate design decision-making by the architects. However, despite the fact that collecting evidence about people’s behavior in space and past design experience is useful for constructing new principles for the design practice, the role of the designer or the architect has always been and will be defined by a process of discovery, and creativity. Consequently, a question for the future will be: Upon what do designers base their critical view and their creativity? An Evidence-Based Design approach is not linear or static, nor does it provide a ready-made suite of answers, it simply means that the designer has the opportunity to look beyond the limitations of his own knowledge about human behavior especially for particular groups of users such as the older adults, and to apply his critical view upon a combination of creativity and reliable information in order to better shape the environment.

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