Carol Rickard-Brideau knows the power of a built environment
to transform people's lives.
She's stepped into some of the world's most treasured
Catholic cathedrals - with their cavernous, vaulted ceilings
and intricate stained-glass windows - and, like countless
others before her, felt a sense of awe.
"The Catholic Church has a long tradition of using space to
communicate ideas and evoke spiritual experiences," said
But the Catholic architect believes that along with stirring
the spirit, design can improve people's physical and mental
Through her work at Little, an international
architecture and design firm, Rickard-Brideau and her
colleagues incorporate "salutogenic" design into everyday
spaces - the grocery store, health clinic, school, fitness
center and library. The term "salutogenic" means "creation of
health," and when applied to architecture refers to "measures
you can take to have a positive impact on well-being," said
Rickard-Brideau, a parishioner of St. Ann Church in Arlington
and graduate of Catholic University in Washington.
Growing up in a military family, Rickard-Brideau traveled
around the world as a child, and her exposure to diverse
spaces and designs helped inspire a 33-year career in
St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is among her favorite
structures. "You walk in and it's almost like there are
different atmospheres," she said during an interview in her
Arlington office. "You can see the stratification of smoke,
and it's just amazingly evocative."
About 10 years ago, Rickard-Brideau began studying how the
environment can have both a positive and negative impact on
physical and mental health.
"I was horrified," she recalls in a TED Talk she gave last
year. TED Talks are downloadable videos on education,
business, science, technology and creativity. "Architecture
is supposed to be the thing we use to build civilizations and
create community, and I didn't know if the buildings I was
designing were having a positive or negative effect on the
people who were using them."
Rickard-Brideau's studies led to her current focus on
salutogenic design and how it can be manifested in elements
that integrate nature and natural light and promote physical
She shares her ideas in articles, talks and at Little, where
she is responsible for "thought leadership" around workplace
issues and ideas.
Rickard-Brideau points out that although we evolved to run
between 5 and 9 miles a day, we have predominantly sedentary
lifestyles. About 87 percent of our time is spent indoors,
and 47 percent of that time is in front of screens, according
to Rickard-Brideau. "We are not using our bodies as they were
designed to be used, and this has health consequences," she
After long periods in a chair, blood begins to move more
slowly and the metabolism and good cholesterol drop. The
result is chronic diseases.
"Active design," however, can break the link between
sedentary behaviors and disease, said Rickard-Brideau. It can
be as simple as posting signs on an elevator encouraging
people to take the stairs or moving a garbage can out of a
workspace so that employees have to get out of their chairs
to throw items away.
Rickard-Brideau believes "biophilic design" is an additional
way created spaces can improve health. Biophilia means "love
of living things," and biophilic design brings nature into
buildings and other environments.
Because of our "evolutionary memory," humans are wired to
spend time in nature, she said. "Back to nature isn't just a
clever idiom. We actually have a mind-body connection to
nature that helps lower blood pressure and reduce stress
Even artificial replicas of nature can have a positive effect
Rickard-Brideau described a study by architects and
neuroscientists in which a large image of a savanna was hung
at a jail intake facility in California for six weeks.
Biometric measurements were taken on employees before and
after the image appeared. The presence of the artwork caused
stress levels and blood pressure to drop, and employees
scored higher in memory and cognition tests.
Simple accents of plants, stone, water and wood in design can
lower blood pressure and reduce stress hormones, she said.
About a decade ago, Rickard-Brideau helped create a biophilic
space a stone's throw from Interstate 66. Together with
parents from St. Ann School in Arlington, where her two
children attended, she designed a rosary garden using the
luminous mysteries, complete with a pergola intertwined with
grapevines for the wedding at Cana.
In this "relatively urban spot," children can observe the
natural environment as well as enrich their faith life, she
Rickard-Brideau also has learned that healthy building design
should support human's circadian rhythm - the physical,
mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour
cycle and respond to light and darkness.
"Our body is wired to take cues from the sun," said
Rickard-Brideau. Without exposure to natural daylight in our
offices or other buildings, our body does not receive those
signals and "suffers from chronic health problems," including
high blood pressure, depression and obesity.
Access to natural lighting through windows, skylights or
other design elements is thus integral to healthy
Some of Little's clients request WELL certification, which is
administered by the U.S. Green Building Council and
proscribes specific wellness standards. Similar to LEED
certification, which is focused on environmental
sustainability, "WELL is about human sustainability," said
Rickard-Brideau, adding that Little tries to incorporate many
of the standards in all projects.
Rickard-Brideau said her desire to improve health through
architecture and design is an extension of her Catholic
faith. "It's an effort to focus outward; it's about helping
people be productive and be healthy," she said. "It's about
being happy in the spaces we spend our lives."
Watch the video
View Carol Rickard-Brideau's TED Talk, "The Brain,
Environments and Wellness"
Tips for a healthier workday
Carol Rickard-Brideau suggests five simple ways to improve
physical and mental health at work.
1) Move. Set your phone or another device to signal
you to get up every 30 minutes and be active - go to the
water cooler, bathroom or for a brisk, short walk around the
office. Hold a walking meeting.
2) Drink more water. "Hydration is really important,
and it's something we don't do," said Rickard-Brideau, adding
that we should "drink before we are thirsty."
3) Change your posture. Get a standing desk; don't
4) Experience nature. "Nature calms your body, calms
the static in your brain, drops your stress hormones and
helps you focus," she said. Spend a few moments outside, or
bring plants or images of nature into your office. Look out a
window for a few moments.
5) Clear your head. Take a break to clear your mind
and you'll be more productive, Rickard-Brideau said. Sit back
and close your eyes for 5 minutes to decompress before
jumping back into a problem or project.