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| Frontiers of Design Science: Evidence-based Design

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Frontiers of Design Science: Evidencebased Design


Environmental design gradually embraces an evidencebased
methodology.
MICHAELMEHAFFYANDNIKOSA.SALINGAROS

PHOTO:DAVIDEVERS

Theresaquiet,butimportant,revolutiongoingoninenvironmentaldesigntoday.Itstartedinhospitals,ofallplaces.
Medicalsciencehaslongusedanevidencebasedmethodology.Itsatrialanderrorprocessthatgoesthroughan
evolutionarycycle:thedoctortriessomething,evaluatesit,thengoesontousewhatworks.
Inthiswaymedicinehasdevelopedaftermillenniaofexperimentationwithcures,interventions,herbalremedies,etc.
eventoday,itsapplicationisheuristic.Yourdoctormightgiveyouasmalldoseofsomething,andthenifyoufeelbetter,
willgiveyoumore.Ifyoufeelworse,stoptakingit!Doctorsstudymanypatientsandtheirreactionstotreatments,and
usethecollectiveevidencetomodifymedicinesandprocedures,andimprovethem.
Basedonthisaccruedknowledgewecansuccessfullytreatdiseasestodaythatwereoncethoughttobeinevitable
afflictions.Overtheyears,themedicalprofessionhastakenanincreasinginterestinthedesignofhospitals,becauseit
hasbecomeevidentthatthepatientshealthhadalottodowiththedesignofthespaces.Didinfectiousdiseasesspread
morerapidlywhenpatientssharedrooms?(Yes,theydid.)Werecertainkindsofsurfacesbetterorworseatpreventing
thespreadofgerms?(Yes.)Didpatientsdobetterwhentheirroomshadthekindsofdesignsthatreducedstress?(Yes,
again.)
Theseobservationsandmanyothershavebecomethesubjectofevidencebaseddesigndesignthatusesthe
evidentiarymethodsofmedicine.Graduallydoctorsaswellasenvironmentaldesignersbeganaskingthesamekindsof
questionsaboutthelargerurbanenvironment.Afterall,itdidnogoodtotreatapatientatthehospitalifhewentright
backoutandgotsickagain.SoepidemiologistslikeDr.HowardFrumkinandDr.RichardJacksonbegantolookat
evidenceof,forexample,howurbanenvironmentscouldpromotewalkingandexercise,andhownatureinfluences
healthandwellbeing.
Others,likeDr.RogerUlrich,investigatedhowenvironmentsofallkindsaffectedwellbeinginotherways,includingthe
(habituallydismissed)healthimplicationsofaestheticqualities.Theymadeanextraordinarydiscovery:the
characteristicsofnature,asobservedinplants,trees,water,aswellaspleasantviews,hadmeasurablypositiveeffects
onpatientsrecovery,stresslevels,andphysiologicalwellbeing.(Wewillhavemoretosayaboutthisextraordinarytopic
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| Frontiers of Design Science: Evidence-based Design

ofBiophiliainanupcomingpost.)
Thesediscoverieshavefedthegrowthofanew,evidencebased,approachtodesign,whichanchorshumanneeds
withinthebuiltenvironment.Yetmanydesignersstilldontappreciateit.Onekeypointtounderstandisthatevidence
baseddesignisnotasimpleformulaickindofprocesshereisFactX,anditallowsmetopopoutDesignY.Itisntlike
thatatall,anymorethanmedicinecouldbethatsimplistic.Rather,theactofdesignismorelikeaprocessofadaptive
computation.
Designcomputationsemployasequenceofsteps:trialanderrorobservationsofhowapersoninteractswithhis/her
specificenvironment,eachtimeenhancingthatinteractiontobenefitthespecifictasktobeperformedandsituatingthat
personoptimallyintheimmediatebuiltenvironment,likeanurbanplaza,abuildingsentrance,acomputerscreen,to
somethingassmallasacabinethandle.
Technicallyspeaking,thetypeofenvironmentalcomputationweusefordesignisnotatalllikecomputationusinga
formula,butmorelikeapproximationbyrecursion:keepcomputingandcheckinguntilthedesiredresultemerges.(This
kindofrecursiveprocessisknownasanalgorithm,asequenceofmathematicalstepsthatleadtowardsthesolution.)
Usingaformulacouldgivearesultinonlyonestepbutthatsnotasolutionthatislikelytoachieveasuccessfully
adaptivedesign.Adesignhastostartwithsomeinitialconditions,andthenadapttotheboundaryconditionsthe
conditionsitencountersasitevolves.Thiscanonlyhappenthroughrecursion,whichishowourdesignachieves
adaptiveevolutionandamuchbetterfitwiththeproblem.Wemighthaveaverygoodintuitionofwhatthedesignhas
toembodySteveJobs,forinstance,wasfamousforhisintuitionofthefinalqualitiesadesignneededbutthenlarge
teamsofpeoplehadtorefinethatinitialvisionandbringiterationstohimtoevaluate.Hewassettingtheinitialconditions
(whathewantedthedevicestobeabletodoforpeople),andtheywereadaptingtotheboundaryconditions.

SteveJobsshowsofftheMacBookAir,aproductofrelentlessevolutionaryiterations.
PHOTO:MATTHEWYOHE

Designcomputationsincreasetheadaptationofthesystemtowardshumanwellbeing,ascheckedbydocumented
evidence.Thegoalisnottodesignsomethingrigidlyspecific(i.e.aslaiddowninablueprintpreparedinsomeones
office)theprojectbriefandspecificationsaremerelyconstraints.
Forthisreason,theexactfinalproductisincompletelyknownatthebeginningofthecomputationonlysomeofits
importantqualitiesaredecidedbeforehand,andattainingthemdrivesthedesigntocompletion.Iftheproductis
completelyknownatthebeginning,therecanbenoadaptation.Itislikelytofailonhumanterms.This,inanutshell,is
thesubjectofevidencebaseddesign.Wewantevidenceforallthesethingsinformationaboutwhetherweareon
track,orhavestrayed,andhowtogetback.
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Wewantevidenceoftheapproachesthataremostlikelytowork.Andwewantevidenceofthedesignconfigurations
thathavebeenusedinthepast,thathaveperhapsresultedfromtheworkofotherpeoplecollaboratingtosolvesimilar
problems.Inthisway,wecanbuildupmoreusefulknowledgeaboutthemostlikelysolutionsthatwillworkagainso
calledcollectiveintelligence.
Unfortunately,ourworldisfullofdesignsthattrytoreducethisprocesstoaformula,oratemplateandtheyare,quite
simply,baddesigns.Howevermuchglitteryimageryorhighartislayeredoverthem,theyfailattheessentialjobthey
aresupposedtodoforhumanbeings.Fromthepointofviewofthefitnesstotheproblemstheyaresupposedtosolve,
wesaytheyaremaladapted.
Thosesimplisticdesignsmaytrytohidetheseflawswitheyecatchingimageryorcamouflagethemwithstriking(yet
superficial)ideasbuttheyarestillfailures.Andoftenthesefailurescanbecatastrophic.Infact,baddesignsoftenhave
somethingincommontheyproceedfromagrandtheoryoranideologyaboutwhatthedesignshouldbe.Thisis
extremelydangerous,becausetheprocessbecomesimmunetoevidence.Ifyouareworkingsolelyfromthetextofan
idea,youcanalwaysaddanewbitoftexttofitwhateverhappens.Thus,ifPruittIgoe(aninfamoussocialhousing
projectinSt.Louis)failedasamodelofLeCorbusiersTowersinthePark,itmusthavebeenbecauseitwasnot
faithfulenoughtothemastersvision.Nexttimeitsguaranteedtowork,ifonlyourheartispureenough!

PruittIgoesocialhousingcomplex,St.Louis,Missouriwasbuilt,19531956,byarchitectMinoruYamasaki,
demolished19721976.
IMAGECOURTESYFINNBAR5000

Itisoftenusefultodefineanideabyalsomentioningitsopposite.Here,evidencebaseddesigncontrastssharplytothe
applicationofareadymadetemplatethathasnotbeenadaptivelycomputed.Whyaresuchtemplatesadoptedby
society,andthenstubbornlyhungontoagainstalltheevidence?Goingbacktohistoricalmedicine,treatmentsthat
consistentlykilledpatientssometimessurvivedaverylongtimebeforetheywereabandoned.Eventually,however,the
evidencecaughtupwiththem.Butthishasbeenslowtohappenwitharchitecture.

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TheProrabuildingontheislandofRgen,Germanywasbuilt,19361939,byClemensKlotz,oneofAdolf
Hitlersarchitects.Nowlargelyabandoned.
IMAGECOURTESYOFGIORGIOMURATORE,ARCHIWATCH

Forexample,fivedaysafterthegovernmentdynamitedPruittIgoebecauseitprovedtobeacolossalfailure,the
authoritiesinRomedecidedtobuildtheverysimilarCorvialesocialhousingcomplex.Whydidtheynottakea
cautionarylessonfromsuchaconspicuousdisaster?Arguably,theiconicpoweroftheprototypeColossusofProra,
builtbytheNazisontheislandofRgen,Germanywastooseductive.Evennow,whenschemesfordemolishingthe
Corvialeandreplacingitwithhumanscalebuildingswerepresented,Romanarchitecturalacademicsfranticallytriedto
preservetheCorvialeasaclassifiedarchitecturalmonument.Thepoweroficonicimagesoverwhelmedeventhe
considerationofevidenceofwhatactuallyworkedforhumanbeings.

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| Frontiers of Design Science: Evidence-based Design

Asadexampleofideological,notevidencebased,designistheCorvialesocialhousingcomplexinRome,built
19751982byarchitectMarioFiorentinowithothers.Inthefaceofmassiveevidenceofitsdamagetohuman
lives,defendersinsistedtheprojectwassound,butjustwasntimplementedcorrectly.
IMAGE:G.PARISE,COURTESYOFATENEOFEDERATOSPAZIOESOCIET

Togetpastthisdominationofsuperficial,imagebaseddesign,ourtrialanderrordesignmethodrequiresonecrucial
featureatestablehypothesisthatcanbedisproven.Thisistheessenceofthescientificmethod,andits
fundamentallydifferentfromtheexcathedradogmatismthatselfjustifiesmucharchitecturaldesign.
ForSteveJobs,thetestablehypothesiswassomethinglikethisdesignwillbedelightfullyeasytouse,anditwillbe
beautifulinthisandotherways.Hewasfamousfortellinghisdesigners:Itsnotjustthelookandfeel.Itshowitworks.
Inmostpeoplesvocabularies,designmeansveneer,hetoldFortuneMagazine.Buttome,nothingcouldbefurther
fromthemeaningofdesign.Designisthefundamentalsoulofamanmadecreationthatendsupexpressingitselfin
successiveouterlayersoftheproductorservice.
Allofthoselayersmustbeseamlesslyintegratedintooneelegantlyadaptiveexpressiontheresultofrelentless
evolutionaryrefinements.Ahelpfullessonofevidencebaseddesignhereonethatmostcomputerfolkshavenotyet
cometotermswithisthatwearenotfinishedwithourcomputationsjustbecausetheproducthasbeendelivered.
Theenvironmentcontinuestobetransformed,inwaysthatwecouldnothavepossiblyforeseen.Theboundary
conditionscontinuetochange.So,forexample,afewcarsmightseemlikeagoodidea,butawhollyautodependentcity
turnsouttobeaverybadidea.Weneednewadaptationstotransformthewholeintosomethingmoreadaptive.Thisis
whattheevidenceshowsushowtodoifwewillletit.Butifwedont,wewillhavenowaytoarrestasurgingtideof
maladapted,failingdesigntoday,designthathidesbehinddistractingrazzledazzledecorations,paperingoveran
unsustainable,failingcivilization.
MichaelMehaffyisanurbanistandcriticalthinkerincomplexityandthebuiltenvironment.Heisapracticingplanner
andbuilder,andisknownforhismanyprojectsaswellashiswritings.Hehasbeenacloseassociateofthearchitect
andsoftwarepioneerChristopherAlexander.CurrentlyheisaSirDavidAndersonFellowattheUniversityofStrathclyde
inGlasgow,aVisitingFacultyAssociateatArizonaStateUniversityaResearchAssociatewiththeCenterfor
EnvironmentalStructure,ChrisAlexandersresearchcenterfoundedin1967andastrategicconsultantoninternational
projects,currentlyinEurope,NorthAmericaandSouthAmerica.
NikosA.Salingarosisamathematicianandpolymathknownforhisworkonurbantheory,architecturaltheory,
complexitytheory,anddesignphilosophy.Hehasbeenaclosecollaboratorofthearchitectandcomputersoftware
pioneerChristopherAlexander.SalingarospublishedsubstantiveresearchonAlgebras,MathematicalPhysics,
ElectromagneticFields,andThermonuclearFusionbeforeturninghisattentiontoArchitectureandUrbanism.Hestillis
ProfessorofMathematicsattheUniversityofTexasatSanAntonioandisalsoontheArchitecturefacultiesof
universitiesinItaly,Mexico,andTheNetherlands.
ReadmorepostsfromMichaelandNikoshere.

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