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Research Matters!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012 8:00 am

FIT Sustainable Interior Environments graduate students (counter-clockwise from left) Stefanie Krzyzamiak,  Olesya Lyusaya, Christine Kwon, and Alina Coca with Andres, a Cooper Union graduate student and tour guide, at 41 Cooper Square in New York City.

Last summer, a small group of 10 design professionals enrolled in FIT’s MA program in Sustainable Interior Environments.  But our journey began months before, as each of us was contemplating the idea of starting graduate work in sustainability, asking ourselves: Why do we care? And what can we do about it? For most of us this was to be a career move, driven by our strong conviction that there must be a more responsible way to design and build. The urge to find answers we could believe in and practice these every day is what brought us together.

The program began with some healthy debates over the societal impact of design. These discussions exposed both our commonly held and conflicting ideals of sustainable design. During the first semester, our assumptions about sustainable design were challenged and we understood that simply taking a stand for the environment and the people who live on the planet is not enough. Design lives within a context that includes more than just materials and aesthetics. We learned how to push past the limits of conventional design practices by exploring literature in such areas of study as behavioral sciences and policy studies; these readings revealed to us the incredible connectedness that takes place between design, people, and the natural environment.

While our classes give us the big picture strategies about how we can make a difference, it is the back and forth between our personal research and our collaborative approach that encourage discussions and fast-forward thinking. Collectively, we constantly ask ourselves: What resonates with us? What information do we select? What do we report on?

As working professionals who dedicate time outside of our workweek toward our studies, we are constantly navigating the inevitable hurdles of time-consuming research. This same struggle is reflected in the real world. Behavioral research and policy analysis are often lacking in the business of interior design because… well, it’s too time-consuming. Interior design is a service-based industry that depends as much on market economics as any other service. But so far the profession has failed to recognize the value of and necessity for research initiatives.

The business of interior design centers primarily on aesthetics. While it may be difficult to find conversations about behavioral research within most interior design firms, we must take into account that these tools exist in other industries solely to increase profits. Knowledge gained through research works! So if a multi-national corporations success can be attributed to extensive social research, then we can take this same model to impact the growth of sustainability and build healthier environments.

While we are in grad school to explore what “endures,” we know that we have to break the current modus operandi in order to illuminate both the themes and pillars of sustainable design – Environment, Economy, Equity – and expose how these three E’s are not nearly enough.  Research is what sheds light on how we have to look at the pillars of cultures, what Jane Jacobs identifies as education, community, sciences, family, and government.

The Sustainable Interior Environments MA program at FIT gives us the tools and resources to bring behavioral research and policy analysis to design. As a result, sustainable design no longer feels like a Sisyphean mission to us. And while we can’t predict the future, we hope we can set the pace for research to take place in the interior design field.

Stefanie Krzyzamiak is an interior and home textile designer. You may contact her directly

Interior Design Research

Monday, April 9, 2012 8:00 am

Sustainable Interior Environments graduate students (from L-R) Michael Wickersheimer, Alina Coca, Shannon Leddy and Christine Kwon chat with 

keynote speaker Dr. Stephen Kellert at the annual FIT Sustainable Business and Design Conference on March 27, 2012

As designers we are constantly asking questions, both large and small, general and specific. Who are the users of a space? What kind of design will provide them with a functional yet beautiful interior environment? When can those tiles be shipped? How long is it going to take them to get here? Where can I find some inexpensive reclaimed wood for a client asking for sustainable building strategies but doesn’t want to spend a lot of money?

To answer these questions, we perform what we think of as research. We make some phone calls or log onto the Internet to find the information we seek – often with wildly varying degrees of success. To address the bigger questions, we consult programs and meet with clients and users and delve into our own creative pasts to develop design solutions that are uniquely suited to a particular place at a given time. There’s one question, though, that we don’t seem to ask ourselves nearly often enough: Why?

Why, for instance, does the built environment affect patient outcomes in hospitals? Why is there a disconnect between what design students think they know about sustainability and what they actually know about how it works? Why do green buildings seem to enhance worker productivity? Why are suburban communities seemingly less interested in developing sustainable building strategies than urban and rural ones? While these are all interesting questions, none of them has an even remotely simple answer. In fact, answering each one would take a significant amount of research above and beyond an afternoon spent surfing the web. And who has the time?

Well, I do. I’m making time. I am a graduate student in the first year of a brand-new MA program, Sustainable Interior Environments at FIT. My classmates/colleagues and I are all working design professionals and educators with a common interest in how sustainability and design intersect and interact with the social, ecological, economic and behavioral sciences. And we are currently in the process of developing our capstone project (thesis) proposals similar in scope to the questions outlined above. As we maneuver through these next months, some of us will share our experiences here in order to shine a light on what it takes to begin to ask the necessary questions and what kinds of skills, other than design, we need to develop in order to be effective and successful researchers.

This will be a struggle for us, but I mean that in the best possible way. Our explorations in the program so far have included ecology, environment behavior research, chemistry, and sustainability best practices – things that for most design students are a far cry from weekly studios and perspective drawing, but really allow for an integrated and holistic understanding of sustainability to begin to develop. We might not be used to writing research papers and taking midterm exams, but the challenges we face in taking on this material effectively mirror the challenges inherent in a new way of design that fully embraces the many facets of sustainability.

It was the multidisciplinary nature of this program which initially drew me in; it’s what keeps me going when I hit a dead end in research or can’t find exactly what I’m looking for – there’s always another way to approach the question or a new angle from which to frame it. The resulting skills can only help me as a designer, since flexibility and resilience are extremely beneficial when dealing with things like new technologies and the ever-evolving strategies of sustainability in the built environment. Join us here for more posts on the topic of research in design and learn right along with us: we’ll discuss what we’re working on, what we’re learning, how we go about it, and why it’s so important.

Michael Wickersheimer is a freelance interior designer who specializes in health & science spaces. You can contact him directly at

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