Tom Eblen: Interior design is largely about problem solving

Herald-Leader columnistApril 9, 2012 

Tom Eblen

One of the great things about living in a university town is the ability to attend educational lectures and symposia, which are almost always free and open to the public.

I recently went to a symposium at the University of Kentucky marking the 40th anniversary of the School of Interior Design. One reason I went was I knew very little about interior design or the education of interior designers.

I was like most people, school director Ann Dickson said: "They think it's about teaching people how to choose the color of drapes."

Modern interior design is about creating the environments where we spend most of our time. It is not just about making interior spaces more attractive, but more comfortable, efficient, functional, healthy and safe.

In an increasingly complex world, designers of all kinds are more problem-solvers than anything else. Many of the problem-solving approaches discussed by this symposium's speakers and panelists are useful no matter your business.

Robin Guenther, a New York-based principal with the big architectural firm Perkins + Will, is a specialist in designing health care spaces. Why should anyone but health care professionals care about that?

Well, at 18 percent of gross domestic product and growing, health care is one of the nation's biggest industries, Guenther noted. So much health care construction is being done that it is uniquely positioned to drive the research and innovation that eventually will influence virtually all construction.

Guenther gave a fascinating presentation about how the hospital building boom is leading to innovations in energy-efficiency, environmental sustainability, comfort and safety.

Most hospitals built in the late 20th century were poorly designed, she said. Patients and staff had too little natural light and ventilation, which has proven health benefits. Guenther cited studies that show the average U.S. hospital uses as much energy as 3,500 homes — and 40 percent more energy than comparably sized hospitals in often-colder northern European climates.

In addition, she said, too little attention was paid to the array of chemicals used in carpet and other non-renewable building materials. The body absorbs many of those chemicals, which can contribute to everything from cancer to obesity.

"Shouldn't we be building cancer centers that don't contain known carcinogens?" Guenther said. "This is really a design question. How we design our materials, our supply chains."

The marketplace drives innovation, she said, and designers will increasingly be asked to play key roles in making businesses more efficient and competitive.

"Hospitals talk about a nursing shortage," Guenther said. "There's not a shortage of nurses so much as a shortage of nurses who want to work in most hospital environments." That is because today's nurses have so many more professional opportunities.

A key ingredient to successful design and innovation is what speaker Prataap Patrose called "disruptive partnerships" — bringing together people from different realms of thought and experience to solve problems.

"Problem-solving is no longer linear; it is three-dimensional," said Patrose, who directs the Urban Design Department of the Boston Redevelopment Corp.

Inclusive, structured problem-solving processes are sometimes criticized as inefficient because they take time. But Patrose said that what may seem inefficient in the short-term is often more efficient in the long-term. That is because better processes produce more effective solutions.

Patrose said 80 percent of his job is negotiation — something he never studied while in college to become an architect and urban designer.

Mayor Jim Gray, who was among a group of panelists asked to respond to Patrose's remarks, emphatically agreed. He said his background as a construction executive has been invaluable as mayor.

"Construction is fundamentally about project management and problem-solving," Gray said. "The skill sets that we have so much need for involve collaboration — designing systems to get things done."

Gray cited Lexington's recent Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force as an example of a project that combined creative vision with "disruptive partnership" collaboration and a well-designed process for translating ideas into a plan.

"It's about being on the balcony strategically thinking," he said, "and also being on the dance floor tactically thinking."

Patrose and Gray both emphasized that effective problem-solving requires being able to measure needs and results.

"The measurable becomes understandable," Patrose said. "The understandable becomes personal and the personal becomes solvable."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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