Oct. 3, 2022

UCalgary takes key role in $8.6M Canada-wide study on improving built space for all citizens

New approach goes back to the architectural drawing board with an entire community involved
Calgary research team members in Montreal for the Inaugural Congress on Quality in Canada’s Built Environment
Calgary research team members in Montreal for the Inaugural Congress on Quality in Canada’s Built Environment supplied by Brian R. Sinclair

It could be something as simple as a window to allow light into the workspace. An easy addition, and one now widely understood to fuel happier, less-stressed humans — but the benefit of natural light in building design wasn’t clear until someone risked an unconventional opinion.

“The idea of looking holistically at things, to my mind, is something that’s long overdue,” says Dr. Brian R. Sinclair, PhD, professor of architecture and environmental design, and former dean, at UCalgary.

“Many problems today are super complex, and you simply can’t have a single discipline, single field or single designer determining an outcome — it needs to be broader.”

Building better spaces and places for everyone

Such outside-the-box conversations are the crux of a Canada-wide discussion on architecture and environmental design spearheaded in part by UCalgary, and now involving 14 Canadian universities working under a $8.6 million grant led by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Entitled Quality in Canada’s Built Environment: Roadmaps to Equity, Social Value and Sustainability, the project connects 70 academic researchers with 68 public, private and not-for-profit organizations.

The results could change architectural practices across Canada, by making Canada’s buildings and spaces better places for everyone.

“Rather than just asking the so-called ‘experts’ or licensed professions what makes a good building or a good landscape, we’re also asking the end users,” explains Sinclair.

“What do you think is good, and what are your needs, and what are your aspirations?”

Healthier spaces for healthy cities

UCalgary’s explorations in the five-year project concern Designing Inclusive, Sustainable and Healthy Cities, and involve:

  • studying existing cases and best practices
  • gathering user feedback
  • developing road maps to quality
  • revising standards and norms

“The built environment is a primary determinant of public and population health, however we might not think about design’s role. For example, we’ve engineered exercise out of cities, and we deal with buildings that may be less than conducive to good health,” says Sinclair.

“In a Canadian context, we spend up to 90 per cent of our time indoors, and that being the case, we need to attend methodically and sensitively to the environments we create. The implications of design, both good and bad, can be profound.”

Voices from all stakeholders

The Calgary team includes academic experts from medicine, social work, sociology, landscape architecture and architecture.

As well, the group boasts representatives from The City of Calgary, Vibrant Communities Calgary, the Alliance for the Common Good, Sustainable Calgary, the Federation of Calgary Communities, the Calgary Homeless Foundation, the Alberta Association of Architects, the Calgary Construction Association, and Building Equality in Architecture.

Sinclair says a discussion with so many voices at the table will help illuminate how built environments can impact populations in ways one person or a single organization can’t imagine alone.

“The end goal is to have evidence-based research that results in recommendations, with those recommendations then seeing traction in government approval processes, and in education — all education, not just architecture,” says Sinclair.

“The built environment has significant, demonstrable impacts on our quality of life, wellness, and happiness. We need to get this right considering how much design matters to our quality of life.”

A vital dialogue for Canada

Other universities, including all architecture schools in Canada, are exploring design questions under four distinct themes:

  • spatial justice and heightened quality of life
  • adaptive reuse
  • inclusive design for health, wellness, aging, and special needs
  • policies supporting the reinvention of built environments

“The partnership will stimulate a vital dialogue demonstrating how those active in considering and creating the built environment across Canada can contribute to a redefinition of quality that moves us to heightened equity, more social value and greater sustainability at a critical moment for our societies and for our planet,” reads the SSHRC release.

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