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When someone says they did research for a project, what exactly do they mean? In a 2007 editorial in the inaugural issue of the Health Environments Research & Design Journal, founding editor Kirk Hamilton, Ph.D., pointed out that for many practitioners, research may include code reviews, an examination of space requirements and scouring through catalogs and magazines. Others may think of research in terms of the scientific method. 

Research is a systematic process that aims to discover new information, solve a problem and/or facilitate an interpretation of relationships between areas of interest (i.e., a design solution and an outcome). Research is also often defined in the context of its rigor and general applicability. 

There are different types of rigorous research: basic research (conducted solely for the pursuit of knowledge) versus applied research (directed to a real-world phenomenon that helps identify solutions). 

In health care design, we are often more interested in applied research or research in practice, but even applied research can run the gamut from research conducted within a firm for a project to research conducted in academia to fill larger gaps in knowledge, and sometimes a mix of both. Let’s look at two examples of research in practice.

In a 2015 study by Nanda and colleagues, the architecture firm’s research team completed 2 1/2 days of field observations and used common spatial analyses and parametric modeling tools (travel distances, sight lines, etc.) to better understand the existing conditions in a medical-surgical unit. The spatial analysis of drawings provided one level of data and insights, but a key finding in this study was a realization that it was not just the distances and proximity between spaces but also workflows and common activity sequences (e.g., the distance traveled in getting applesauce for medication administration requiring food). It’s the work activity that necessarily informs functional adjacencies.

In a more recent example from 2023, MohammadiGorji and a group of academic colleagues used existing literature, observations and the analysis of 30 videos of surgical procedures to develop guidelines for anesthesia workspaces. Findings were grouped into themes, with rankings for importance and informed design guidance. For example, locating critical tasks within the primary field of vision to reduce distractions can be achieved with integrated displays and work surfaces allowing a view of the patient from a single position. Other themes included identifying and defining the anesthesia zone; eliminating travel into and through the anesthesia zone; the ability for reconfiguring the workspace; minimizing clutter; providing adequate surfaces for medication preparation and administration; and optimizing lighting.

The first study informs the design of a specific project while also providing a roadmap for teams to use in the future. The findings about applesauce may not be the same everywhere, but the importance of workflow and activity sequence is substantiated in other research. In the second example, multiple sources of data were used to create a generalizable set of design guidelines for a defined clinical context. Researchers identify the “whys” and “hows” in the context of applied research, even though the study is conducted in an academic context. 

Each example provides a glimpse into how practitioners can use research as part of practice, along with ways that research can be generated to inform future practice. In the end, research and practice are perfect together! 


Studies used for this column

The 2005 Dictionary of Statistics & Methodology by W. Paul Vogt defines research as the systematic investigation of a topic aimed at uncovering new information, solving a problem and/or interpreting relations among the topic’s parts. The following studies were used by the author when writing this column:

  • MohammadiGorji, S., Joseph, A., Mihandoust, S., Ahmadshahi, S., Allison, D., Catchpole, K., Neyens, D., & Abernathy, J. H. (2024). “Anesthesia workspaces for safe medication practices: Design guidelines.” HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal, 17(1), 64–83. 
  • Hamilton, D. K. (2007). “Bridging Design & Research.” HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal, 1(1), 29–30.
  • Nanda, U., Pati, S., & Nejati, A. (2015). “Field Research and Parametric Analysis in a Medical–Surgical Unit.” HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal, 8(4), 41–57.

About this column

Published since 2007, the HERD Journal is a quarterly peer-reviewed publication created through a partnership between The Center for Health Design and Sage Publications. “Heard from HERD” uses studies published in the journal as a primer to explore different topics in evidence-based design and physical environment research.


Ellen Taylor, Ph.D., EDAC, AIA, co-editor of HERD Journal and vice president for research, The Center for Health Design.