Interview - Coffee Break with Dr Samantha Hall

20th Sep 2019 • Enrichment

Spaces alive! Productivity up!

How work and learning environments impact our productivity, happiness and wellbeing is complex, and frankly we could talk all day about it!

Dr Samantha Hall is the founder of Spaces Alive. She's an advocate for re-imaging our cities and buildings to prepare for the future of work and study. She has assessed hundreds of buildings and it is her endeavour to help create spaces where people thrive.

Samantha was a finalist in the Western Australian Innovator of the Year, a recipient of an AMP Change Maker and an inaugural member of the Homeward Bound Antarctica leadership program for women in STEM.

Samantha kindly took some time out to answer a few questions about herself and this very interesting topic.

For those new to the term, what is human centred design?

It basically means designing around human needs. Which sounds pretty simple right? But what I’ve seen with buildings as that there are so many assumptions made during design and planning about what people need, but it is often misunderstood. We have to get more creative and more in touch with the users if we want to create the spaces that really work.

Can you tell us a little bit about what led you here? Was there a moment or particular memory that sparked your interest in working in this field?

I’ve been following doors as they open which has led me on an unusual pathway. I went back to university to study environmental science and did a Masters assessing whether green building rating systems were delivering more sustainable buildings. The pivotal moment came when I was assessing a building for my PhD research. I saw a man wearing a hat because the light overhead gave him a headache. He sat there all day like that. I started looking into how buildings impact our health and behaviour. It opened up a whole new world.

You help numerous workplaces and universities make better decisions about their buildings. Can you tell us a bit more about the term experience mapping and how this helps?

For years I have used post-occupancy evaluations and found that they collect great information, but land on a desk gathering dust. Over the past couple of years I’ve been working to breath new life into this process. Experience mapping is one of these methods. Participants keep a diary for me over a week, we track their experience in a space or across a campus. It’s fascinating data, and you’d never capture the emotion that comes through in a typical survey.

I love engaging with people on a more personal level like this. Sometimes I think we are too obsessed with big data and averages, and we lose the valuable bits in between.

Many of us spend a lot of time working/learning indoors, what are some of the not so obvious elements of our indoor environment that can affect our health and wellbeing?

It’s amazing how much buildings influence our behaviour and emotions. Maybe I can better illustrate this with a story. I spent a lot of time in hospital through my teens and early twenties. The memory that sits with me the most is awaiting life-critical test results in a white window-less room with fluorescent lights overhead and a loud clock ticking on the wall. The plastic seats stuck to me as I nervously sweated waiting for the doctor, and I was surrounded by crumpled magazines and an out of order vending machine. Doesn’t that image just breed anxiety? Hospitals are one sector that have grasped the benefit of healthy buildings over the past decade and the healing properties they bring (such as daylight, greenery, air quality, acoustics). I took my son into our new hospital recently and whilst we waited he played with all the interactive installations and I sipped a coffee watching him in a daylight flooded atrium overlooking a park. I wasn’t nervous at all and forgot we were in hospital, and I couldn’t get him to leave!

We have what I call micro-moments over a day. These add up and influence how we act and feel, and our underlying health. The spaces around us nudge these behaviours and feelings.

Have you noticed a shift in the design of libraries in higher education? Should we even call them that anymore!?

Oh yes, this is just fascinating, and not only for higher education. People love libraries. The high ceilings, beautiful architecture, soft acoustics and books are all factors which influence how we feel. I hear from students how they walk into a library and puts them into a motivated-to-study frame of mind. And that has been supported in some research looking at how these designs support creative thinking. Libraries are becoming the hubs for campuses, they have all the amenity a student needs. It puts added pressure on institutions however. I don’t think that libraries should transition completely into co-working spaces. Libraries serve a purpose as supporting productivity and enabling a space to focus. We need to remember that, I think we have swung too much to designing collaborative spaces for all work areas. Students choose that library space to fulfil particular tasks.

This has another interesting angle though, are our students too stressed? Are we nudging them inside too much? How can spaces nudge more healthy study behaviours?

Can you tell us something most people wouldn’t know about you?

I started out in advertising, that’s what I mean by an unusual pathway! I was selected for an internship when I finished my bachelors to an international agency in New York. It was an amazing experience, and I was even offered a job. But I realised that whilst I loved the creative side, it wasn’t for me. I travelled and worked overseas for a few years before going back to university.

(Right: Perth Children's Hospital - JCY Architects and Urban Designers, Cox Architecture and Billard Leece Partnership with HKS Inc.)