Fernando Arias has worked as a mechanic for the U.S. Army and Navy, obtained not one but two graduate degrees from Columbia University (one in urban design and architecture and another in public administration with a focus on environmental science and policy), practiced architecture for seven years in both New York City and Los Angeles, spearheaded global health and built-environment challenge projects at the Clinton Global Initiative, and now has helped to create a health and wellness program for the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). “I’ve always known I wanted to take the lead on issues that impact people and the communities that they live in,” he says. “Overall, I want to raise people’s quality of life.” We spoke with Arias about his work at ASID, the aging in place movement, and the population boom Earth is expected to hit by 2050.
gb&d: I understand that in your role as the director of strategic initiatives at ASID, you’ve helped develop and implement the ASID Protocols for Health and Wellness. Can you tell us about it?
Fernando Arias: It’s a new education and technology platform to help approximately 40,000 designers and architects make smarter design decisions about projects, materials, and building components that place occupant health and wellness first. That 40,000 number is approximately 25% of the overall professional body of architects and designers and also the target audience for the first three years of this project. In practice, this is an education series that trains practitioners on health and wellness concepts and scenarios. It goes on to prepare them to use technical tools or platforms in a logical way for solving the design problems that are often solved through the sustainability marketplace and sifts through all of the labels, certifications, and standards. Right now, there’s a barrage of information, and it’s not clear what the trade-offs are if you go down one path versus another. But by taking heath and wellness as the primary driver of a design decision, you can make a better decision about how to interact with that sustainability marketplace. It’s not another standard or rating system but an opportunity to clarify through all of that and essentially provide some decision opportunities for designers and ultimately for the consumer.
gb&d: It seems as though the “aging in place” movement is very near to you. How does sustainable design relate to this and perhaps even assist it?
Arias: As more Americans are living into retirement age than ever before, more of our population is going to require extended care, so the conversation has shifted to defining innovative and effective solutions to enable successful aging. Demographically speaking, sustainable design is also life-altering design. But “aging in place” gets overlooked for the non-generational qualities of the concept, which are all about more-livable communities for us regardless of age, income, or existing health conditions. To me, design thinking is thinking in systems, and my approach to this area is to factor in the scales of the built environment—everything from interiors to buildings to communities—and then follow that user-occupance experience to the space. With this approach, there aren’t any trade-offs in selecting from the varying principles in design; instead, we have a more holistic understanding of the user’s experience. Successful design addresses health and wellness as a central driver for an optimal experience of the built environment.
gb&d: On your blog, you raised the question, “How will technology and connected devices support the ability to live in one’s own home and community independently and comfortably regardless of age, income, or ability level?” What are your thoughts on the answer to this very big question?
Arias: Well, these days it’s easy to connect, control, and monitor all the devices in your home—the lights, doors, appliances, thermostats, etc. Not only is it reassuring and cool to keep tabs on your home, but there’s all of the energy costs and savings that you can gain in the process. But for me, just because a home or a workplace is connected doesn’t mean that it’s healthier, more effective, more efficient, or more comfortable. I think that bridging the efficiency and performance components as well as the overall comfort and wellbeing components is where designers can help. They can come in and close the gap between technology and user experience to a wider range of functions such as health monitors and feedback mechanisms and integrated sensor technology. And what I mean by, “regardless of age, income, or ability level” is that when we take a look at the human experience as the nominal unit for driving health and wellness in the built environment, it’s intending to connect with the different kinds of products that are offered out there and the different scales of services available.
gb&d: I read that you’ve asked yourself what you can do to tackle the challenges presented by the growth our population is expected to hit by 2050. How is that going?
Arias: You know, I’m realizing that working to improve the human condition from the perspective of health connections to the built environment is really meaningful work. And while I have no position about population growth production—so the economics in me isn’t what compelled me to make a declaration there—I do think that preparing our people, our workforce, and our urban systems, as well as our environmental concerns, in a holistic manner will move society toward a higher quality of life. I think about my nieces and my little nephew that’s about to join the family, and I’m highly interested in ensuring that the youngest generations are able to work themselves out of complications. I think about honoring our aging community as well and understanding all of the things that they’ve learned and experienced and translating it down the generation pipeline—that’s all so appealing to me. I think I’ve been doing a lot to tackle these challenges, and really, it’s less about confronting it as though I’m standing in front of the wave but rather looking at empowering folks to make the decision to stand sideways and let the wave wash over them.