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Interview Series: Terri Peters

This is part of a series of interviews by physician and journalist, Dr. Amitha Kalaichandran to explore purpose, resilience, and brushes with our healthcare system by leaders in the health and wellness community in North America and globally.

Terri Peters
Terri Peters

Terri Peters is an architect and researcher whose interdisciplinary work maps new trajectories of ecological design through contemporary practice, academic research and pop culture.  She is an expert in sustainable housing and her research focuses on the architectural and social implications of the built environment, with a focus on more holistic qualitative parameters and wellbeing. She has published more than 20 peer reviewed journal and conference papers on sustainable housing and the impact and evaluation of daylight in homes. She is the editor of “Design for Health: Sustainable Approaches to Therapeutic Architecture” Architectural Design, 2017 and author of “Computing the Environment: Digital Design Tools for the Simulation and Visualisation of Sustainable Architecture” John Wiley and Sons 2018 which looks at how environmental data can be feedback into design process. She has a global perspective, having lived and worked in Vancouver, Tokyo, Paris, and London, and Copenhagen which was her adopted home for seven years. After 12 years abroad she is currently back in her native Canada, as an Assistant Professor at Ryerson University investigating the intersections of building science, environmental design, and wellbeing.

1.What prompted you to focus on healthcare architecture/design? 

During my PhD work, which was focused on social housing I realized that the aspect of ‘people’ in that housing was missing, specifically the social impact of buildings. We know the buildings we spend time in, and our surroundings, greatly impact our wellbeing, but how does this become part of how we work? We need to be able to back up our observations and claims as designers and I think the new-ish movement towards evidence-based design, where design decisions are based on more than a designer’s intuition and experience, but also on results and interpretations of scientific evidence, can help improve design. 

On a personal note, growing up in Canada and then living in bigger cities like London, where I did my professional degrees, and then in Copenhagen where I did my PhD, these places can be seen as quite dark, dreary places but I loved them. I always say maybe this is why I study daylight, because I appreciate every drop of it! In Copenhagen our apartments had lots of natural light and natural ventilation, it really shaped my thinking of how positive and life affirming a home can be. There’s this concept in Danish of hygge, or contentment, a cosy feeling. Another concept in Swedish is lagom which means something like “just enough is enough.” these are important concept in life to me and I lived and experienced them in my time in Denmark and they continue with me now.

So with all of that together, I realized that if we designed spaces in hospitals and other settings to be intentionally mood enhancing, that could make us all feel better.

2.Why is design important to our well-being?

When we design a building, we know that the decisions we make, however small, impact the moods, ideas and wellbeing of people using the spaces. Prioritizing daylight, fresh air, variety of spaces and environments with views to nature are some of the ways we address this depending on numerous other variables like site and program.  We know that these decisions about building form, materials, adjacencies and sequence of spaces, and other variables change our perceptions of spaces and places and help shape our interactions with others. 

Design, simply put, impacts how we feel, and not just in health care environments, but in our day to day experience in our homes and where we work. According to the World Health Organization, depression is the greatest cause of disability worldwide, and architects have a role to play in making spaces that do more than satisfy program, budget and site, but that make us feel better.  In architecture schools, students learn about building performance and aspects of sustainable design, but rarely are methods, metrics or examples of health promotion or spaces that encourage positive social interactions explored in any depth.  There is a wealth of knowledge in allied fields such as environmental psychology, and published studies in areas such as public health and sociology that can be tapped into to enrich the architecture curriculum. The increased focus in schools on environmental performance of buildings must be paired with understanding trade-offs and co-benefits for human performance and wellbeing – after all, buildings are for people.

3.You had an interesting personal brush with the healthcare system in two different countries. What was that like?

I had my two children in Copenhagen at Rigshospitalet, the Royal Hospital. It was built in the 1970s, but had windows that open, large rooms, and lots of daylight that enters into the lobby and patient rooms. I am really sensitive to my environment and I found that the quality of that room impacted my mood and experience.

And it was a major contrast with being in a Canadian hospital which wasn’t designed with these well-being components in mind. I broke my elbow last winter and was forced to wait in a place that had a low ceiling, was crowded, no fresh air. I actually felt sicker! And to top it off it was hard to find where I needed to go – I spent a lot of unnecessary time just navigating: it wasn’t designed with ease.  In Denmark, the culture is built around design. The way people speak about it and appreciate it is really unique.

4.How did this experience impact your work as an architect and architecture professor now?

I have the challenge of teaching 1st year students what sustainability is, when often the work-life balance of many architecture students is poor. We hear that many of them are very stressed and finding it hard to thrive. We often discuss the power of building design as health promotion tools.

Architecture is unique in that you experience it whether you want to or not: the impact the buildings have on us is so extreme. When it comes to environmental psychology, which links to designing for health, we know that people have a natural inclination towards nature, whether it’s the savannah or long views. The

biophilia hypothesis (biophilic design) specifically describes this affinity to nature, daylight, natural materials.  

Salutogenic design is another school of thought, which keeps stress reduction at the core. Earlier this year I became “WELL® Certified,” which is a new modality that evaluates qualitative and quantitative biophilia as it relates to health promotion. They measure things that are really exciting, because it’s centered around how people respond to being in a building. There’s a huge emphasis on daylight and nutrition, fitness, and well-being. For instance, they measure daylight differently. Traditionally in architecture we usually measure how much of the building’s floorplate is well lit without needing to turn on the light, its called spatial daylight autonomy and it means that area doesn’t need artificial light 50% of the time. The idea is related to productivity. The Well® Standard measures “equivalent melanopic lux,” which is a fancy way of describing the impact of light on the physiology of body, so for instance the impact on alertness, and sleep.   

In my courses I describe a concept I coined called “superarchitecture,” which means buildings that do more than minimize the impact on the environment but that exploit and maximize the synergies and benefits to people:  everything from building strategies like green roofs, daylight, fresh air and natural ventilation, shading where appropriate, outdoor spaces all these strategies that we know improve the environmental performance but that really also benefit our quality of life in tangible ways.

5.What does thriving mean to you?

Thriving is having time and energy to purposefully devote yourself to what you want to do. Technology can play a role in that, not only in making us feel more connected to each other, but by helping us make better decisions about what we want to do. It also involves how our environments help bolster our ‘emergency reserves’ to handle the unexpected, a protective buffer in other words. Last, when I think of thriving I think of resilience. There’s an emerging interest in architectural research and practice around building resilience and passive survivability. Much of how we think of the resilience of buildings may be applied to people as well. Daylight and views to the outside are big ones – we need these to feel at ease and to have the capacity to deal with disturbance and change.  The current thinking around building resilience in building science and architecture is too focused on how buildings would survive in extreme weather or in an earthquake – what about us? How can our buildings help us survive and bounce back?

6.What are you most looking forward to with health design in general?

Looking forward to more interdisciplinary studies – for instance working with more healthcare professionals and building partnerships. I’ve been collaborating with psychologists regarding concepts of resilience in architecture and environmental psychology, which is undergoing a resurgence right now. I’m also excited about how we apply data, specifically how we can visualize the results of simulations, and how people can interact with visualizations and change our behavior to do more of what we want to.

I go to lots of industry meetings and workshops to understand what the potentials are with data and how they can benefit people.

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