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The Human Element in Design for Aging

Rarely does the term “design for aging” explore indoor environmental ergonomics, the set of measurable metrics addressing what the occupant smells, hears, and feels. This article explores the principles of indoor climate engineering to meet the physical needs of those who are or will be living in “single-family” homes, which over the course of aging may become micro healthcare centers.


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I grew up with family traditions where visiting our elders was a weekend event. Mom and Dad were forever dragging us around to visit grandparents, aunts, and uncles. For the most part, I have fond memories of these trips—well, as much as any preteen kid could have—but like many children who were tethered to the same weekend program, I remember most how hot, how loud, and how stuffy my elders’ homes were.


What is Ergonomics?


Ergonomics is the scientific discipline concerned with designing according to human needs, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design to optimize human well-being and overall system performance. The field is also called human engineering, and human factors.




It did not matter what season it was … if it was summer, it was hot, and winter was perhaps a few degrees cooler, but hot nevertheless. The discomfort was partially due to the inefficiencies of the old homes, the oversized, uncontrollable furnace, and little or no ventilation.

My elders, like millions of others, also spent years around farm equipment, trains, power saws, and guns. Back then, hearing protection wasn’t considered, and decades later, this has caught up with many, so much that verbal or auditory communication is always done at one level—loud. To this day, I kid my dad that everything I learned about noisy stereos, cars, friends, and sports I learned at Grandpa’s and Grandma’s. Finally, my fondest memories are of the smell of homemade cookies and breads, but even this eventually turned into stale and occasionally foul odors, which I still experience when visiting friends in senior care or those who have chosen to remain independently at home.

As an 11-year-old, I had no idea that some day I’d be championing indoor climate engineering for my elders, and though I can still see some parts of my grandparents’ and in-laws’ homes, what I remember most had to do with my sense of smell, sound, and touch.

Within the arena of universal design and "aging in place", indoor environmental ergonomics regrettably finds itself as an afterthought, frequently; a responsibility placed on the shoulders of a mechanical tradesperson regulated only by building safety codes and judged predominately by his or her skills at assembling electromechanical parts. This completely contrasts with engineering indoor climates to satisfy the complexities of our human anatomy, an organic entity furnished with biological gifts—our senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. These sensory treasures provide indoor environmental stimulation to our brain, where indoor climate condition is interpreted based on such things as our state of mind, something not taught in construction schools. In consideration of the older adult, I would doubt that more than five percent of new projects or renovations include heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) upgrades to healthcare facility standards. Yet an 85-year-old has the same psychological and physical needs, regardless of his or her choice to live in a modern long-term-care home, designed and built to higher indoor environmental quality (IEQ) standards or to remain in a house built for younger people.

So how does one approach interior design from an indoor climate perspective?

The first step is to understand that the human body is the most simple and yet sophisticated HVAC system, unmatched by anything created by humanity. It is perfect; coming programmed at birth, working 24/7/365, self-regulating, and requiring neither batteries nor programming. Even modern-day controls based on yes/no or if/then statements cannot match the natural fuzzy logic of our brain and body where “maybe” or “gray” is the norm, and which we humans take for granted. This means the further we are away from satisfying human systems the more unacceptable the indoor environment.

The second is to learn how the brain interprets its indoor environment vis-à-vis conduction, convection, evaporation, and radiation with the aid of a complex sensory system fully engaged to feed data through the nervous system. For example, there are more than 160,000 thermal sensors in our average 20 square feet of skin area. Compare this to a single on/off low-cost switch called a thermostat, which unrealistically is expected to serve as our physiological and psychological ambassador to the HVAC system.

Last, we need to accept that the human body is modeled after Mother Earth in that it is the perfect emitter and absorber of radiant energy, which means it is a natural “green” model for heating and cooling.

If the built environment for the older adult is to be universal and adaptable, architectural, mechanical, and interior solutions must incorporate design for these unseen senses in the early consulting stages.

We can begin this task by understanding that spaces created exclusively to meet the needs of the visually impaired would be based on what we smell, hear, and feel, and yet these healing environments would serve all older adults equally well.


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The Human Element in Design for Aging:  Created on March 17th, 2009.  Last Modified on November 4th, 2009


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About Robert Bean, R.E.T.

Robert Bean is a Registered Engineering Technologist (RET) in the building construction disciplines. He is an avid student of industrial design (the way things look) and indoor environmental ergonomics (the way things feel) and participates in many associations, councils, and committees related to these fields of study. In 2007, Bean was selected as a Distinguished Lecturer for the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers. He is the editor and moderator for a not-for-profit industry site,, addressing indoor environmental quality with radiant-based HVAC systems.



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