Healing Design "Human Centric Solutions"

By Susan El-Naggar, ASID, NCIDQ, RID, WELL AP, LEED Green Associate. President of the American Society of Interior Designers, Illinois Chapter. Principal, Healing Environments

“Health & Wellness” is trending right now for countless reasons. With our many challenges this year due to COVID-19, we are all seeking ways to promote healing and inner peace into our daily lives. I don’t think anyone in their wildest dreams thought that a disease like this would shut down our cities, jobs, and schools. However, many people have suffered at the hands of this tumultuous disease and many have died.

This is why I would like to present to you an ASID Fellow Interior Designer who has made a significant impact on millions of lives around the world utilizing design to promote healing. She has paved the way for us to follow in her footsteps to make human health and well-being at the forefront of our building practices and design. Let me introduce you to Barbara Huelat, FASID, AAHIS, EDAC, who is the ASID 2020 Nancy Vincent McClelland Merit Award Winner. ASID National refers to her as “one of the field’s preeminent experts on healthcare design and nationally recognized for work in patient-centered design.” Barbara has been honored with numerous design awards for projects of excellence, as well as, personal recognition for ASID, Designer of Distinction, Humanities Design Award and Fellow. She is a founding board member of the Center for Health Design, Former National President of American Academy of Healthcare Interior Designers and author of two nationally acclaimed books – Healing Environments: What’s the Proof and Healing Environments for the Mind, Body and Spirit.

I met Barbara Huelat through a phone call while she was out on a morning bike ride, which is a normal routine for her. She was full of life, joy and energy, and she was such a pleasure to talk to. Barbara currently lives in Alexandria, VA, however, she grew up on the South Side of Chicago and later attended Harrington Institute to study Interior Design. She continued her graduate work at the University of Chicago. While she was writing her academic papers, she realized that as Interior Designers, our end result is to change people’s lives. This led to endless hours of research on Environmental Psychology, which examines the way our natural and built environments shape us as individuals. She began working in the Healthcare field and found that it was deeply satisfying to focus on “Human-Centric” design that became her personal philosophy. She defines “Human Centric” design as a creative approach to design problem-solving with the focus on human needs. It is the backbone of her research, writing, advocacy, leadership and design work. It’s a process that starts with people’s needs and complexities and ends with new creative solutions that solve intricate issues of the human condition. Barbara stated, “Early in my career I asked – Can our physical environment influence our health, well-being, creativity and innovation? Believing it to be so, I set out to seek evidence and define these features.” (2020)

Barbara left Chicago in 1980 when her husband received a job transfer to Puerto Rico where she birthed the first ASID Chapter outside of the United States. She continued working on interior design projects in healthcare. Then they moved to New York where she worked at several large architecture firms. One of them was Cannon Design, a multi-disciplinary and diverse firm that connects architects, engineers, interior designers and industry specialists in health, education, corporate/commercial, science and civic work. They have a proven track record of helping NYC-area organizations leverage design to solve challenges and seize opportunities. Barbara designed many Acute Care Hospitals. Later she worked at the award-winning architectural firm, Ellerbe Becket, where her husband was an architect for many years. Eventually, they started their own firm, “Healing Design,” for acute care, hospitals, ambulatory, and senior living.

Barbara’s husband passed away five years ago. She only undertakes design consulting now and no longer works on large projects. She has consulted with the government in Taiwan for senior living facilities for the past ten years to bridge the gap between institution and home. In the past, they would take care of the elderly people at home or place them in geriatric hospitals consisting of 1500 beds. They did not have the comfort of senior living facilities as we know them.

Barbara chuckled as we talked and said, “Everyone has a Pandemic Project, and her Pandemic Project was finishing a book that she started on “dementia” and she just finished it this month. “Down The Rabbit Hole, Dementia Design Survival Guide” is her third book. She said that it took the Pandemic for her to finish it. The book will be translated into Chinese and used in Taiwan for nursing homes and dementia patients.

“So often Interior Designers don’t realize that what they do is so much more than aesthetics, Barbara stated. For example, lighting affects our circadian rhythm. The circadian biological clock is controlled by a part of the brain called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), a group of cells in the hypothalamus that respond to light and dark signals. In the mornings, with exposure to light, the SCN sends signals to raise body temperature and produce hormones like cortisol. It is so important what we do as designers in the environment we create.

People can feel less stressed in an environment by our designs, and they can stay well and regain health.

Barbara at Mind Lab