Empowering Developers via Science & Psychology

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As a result of communication through Linked in yesterday, commenting on a great article posted by a colleague, I ended up on the phone that afternoon for an extensive and impromptu discussion that lasted over an hour.  I was speaking with the brilliant Mr. Steven J. Orfield, owner and founder of Orfield Laboratories, Inc. in Minneapolis, MN.

Steve Orfield has been involved in the consulting field for over 27 years. In research, he has developed acoustic, sound quality and vibration testing and evaluation methodologies involving extensive product and building performance expertise. He has taken a human factors approach to architectural technologies which he believes is crucial for high quality facility performance. Steve has authored nearly 100 articles on acoustics, audio, video, lighting and facility system design integration

Our conversation was one of the most intellectually stimulating discussions I’ve had in a very long time.  We shared our ideas and our passions for changing the world of design, and some of the required social paradigm shifts we are hoping for in the years and decades ahead.  The specific reason for me to reach out to him, was that his LinkedIn post was in the tone of “Retirement Communities” as it relates to his work in the psychology and scientific testing of the built environments where we live and interact every day.  Mr Orfield started his professional career and the pursuit of his passion 2 years before I was born, and he’s still actively pursuing his dreams of changing the way we design the world around us.  Steve is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the “Quietest Place On Earth” in his own lab!

How does one achieve The Quietest Place on Earth? Start with a room within a room, within a room: the Orfield Labs six sided anechoic chamber is a small room floating in a pit on I-beams that are on top of springs. A five sided chamber of identical construction surrounds it on the edge of the pit. Both chambers are made of double wall steel-insulation-steel. The anechoic chamber was manufactured by Eckel, the largest anechoic chamber builder in the country.

We talked about some of the well known statistics related to the baby boomer generation and the “Silver Tsunami” of 10,000 people that started turning 65 years old every day as of January 2011.  He added some valuable statistical information to my own knowledge base as well, that’s based on this section of his industry research over the last couple of years.  He did a scientific study (as he always does, it’s his approach for REAL research content in the quantifiable scientific sense, vs. what most designers and firms – even the largest Architectural firms in the world – in “polling / opinion” feedback format suggest to their clients is true “research”) and shared some of his initial findings with me during our discussion.

Here are a couple of “WOW” statistics that resulted from his research of a 90 year old in a built environment, how they experience it, and how their abilities are so drastically different than someone of a younger age.

NOTE: We here at EtMM are aware that statistically we in the U.S. will experience an increase of the 85 year old sector of the population between 1950 and 2040 that increases as a percentage from 0.5% to 5%.  That is a TENFOLD increase in the 85 year old U.S. population, most of that increase which is still in front of us in the next few decades!  

Keep that in mind as you read the following statistics…


– The average vision of a 90 year old is 20:150 (legally blind is 20:200)

– The average 90 year old is 200 TIMES more “disabled” by GLARE vs. a 20 year old.

– At age 90, approximately 70% of their interpretation and receiving of verbal communication is actually a function of LIP READING.

– The visual acuity of a 90 year old is approximately 10% of the visual acuity of a 20 year old.

 – At this age, their ability to discern space in 3-D is greatly diminished, as is their recognition of color differentiation.

There is much more research and many more statistics like this that are being collected through scientific research that is taking place at the Orfield Labs right now.  Mr. Orfield is passionate about helping the architectural industry and designers throughout the world, to be prepared for this “Age Wave” that is crashing ashore in the U.S. and other developed countries as well.  So if this is the SCIENTIFIC TRUTH about “Sensory Deprivation” in the older populations, what are we doing to incorporate this information into our design solutions?  According to the feedback he’s getting from some of the largest architectural firms in the world…. not much.  The design firm may “say” that their design is a result of research they’ve done related to acoustics, lighting, etc. but typically their “research” is a collection of data and white papers created by the vendor industry.  The manufacturers of the windows, lights, acoustical solutions, HVAC systems, etc. are the ones creating the “paper trail” being touted as research, but it’s not an independent research or an unbiased presentation, since it is derived for the purpose of product sales.

I’m excited and impressed by the work they are doing at Orfield Laboratories, Inc., and appreciative of the conscious efforts Steve is making to educate the world and bring the truth “to light” (pun intended).  All the multi-millions of dollars currently spent by retirement housing developers, studying what makes the best home environment or retirement multi-family facility for our elder communities and demographic, is (thus far) resulting in spatial and interior solutions that likely can’t even be ENJOYED by the end user – the client that has paid to move into that facility.  What’s wrong with THAT PICTURE?  Quite a bit.

The older client typically is looking for a few basic things (whether they can voice it in design language or not).  First, they actually want SIMPLICITY.  All the different colors (although color “contrast” is important) and fancy design patterns in carpets, wall coverings, and fancy aesthetic lighting schemes are confusing to them.  Second, they want a location that feels safe and allows them to see and experience the world and the “landscape” of what’s going on out in the larger space and world in front of them.  This is what I learned in architecture school as the terms “REFUGE” and “PROSPECT” (see “The Psychology of Design in Retirement Style Housing” for more detail on this concept).

Knowing what the CLIENT WANTS is the highest priority for designing any solution, and the key for a successful solution, whether that is for multi-family housing by the developer, or for “Aging In Place” in their own home or in a family member’s home for assistance with their care and helping with the older adult’s ADL’s (Activities of Daily Living).  

Design has to be “solution driven” and focused on the specifics of each client (one of the reasons we don’t promote facility-living as a first choice / first step solution for housing as our needs change with age.  The developer and designer can’t possibly, in the context of 100+ unit housing design that strives for efficiency and profitability, address this the way we can in designing your house to be your “forever home”.)

Mr. Orfield was a very impressive man to interact with, and I appreciated him taking the time to speak with me.  I hope (and suspect) he felt that it was worth his time as well, since my call to him “to set up a future call” turned into a discussion that lasted over an hour. 🙂  When he returns to his office after vacation, we’ve agreed to get on the phone again for a recorded call that we can share as a podcast with our own online communities and colleagues.  We both felt this would be a valuable contribution to our listeners / readers, and we look forward to sharing our talk with you soon!

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