Research-Informed Design is Smart Design

Design is changing because our clients’ needs are changing. Driving forces are rapidly evolving, and as designers, we must have a keen understanding and ability to interpret those forces for design implications.

Research is becoming more important in practice because it allows information to be gathered about successes and failures in design – and both are equally important. By sharing this information with our clients, we work together to inform design decisions and determine how design can positively influence their organization as well as occupants of the built environment. The collective effort builds value in the research because of the need to advance knowledge in design.

Design’s ability to impact occupant behaviors, worker performance, and organizational outcomes is what makes design research intriguing. Researchers in a design practice serve to translate a seemingly complex world of research, normally reserved for the scientific community, into the design process. When starting a project, many questions must be asked. How will we know if the proposed solution will be effective? What metrics will be used to measure success? Which methodologies will help us collect data to inform the design and study the impact once the project is occupied?

Realities of Research

Availability of research does not mean that a solution will be obvious – the solution will always be a balance of client’s needs, project context, professional expertise, and collective knowledge. Research can be used to better predict outcomes, not guarantee outcomes. It is important to note that research studies alone are not the only contributing factor to a proposed design solution. Design solutions are more valuable with a comprehensive approach to data, behaviors, design strategies, organizational strategies, consideration of external influences, and delivering desired outcomes.

Many feared in the early days of design research that it would lead to cookie-cutter design. The opposite is now known to be true – research informed design is smarter design and leads to more innovation during the design process. Research also provides us and our clients a framework for studying the impact of the built environment on an organization’s top asset: its people.

Value of Research

BWBR’s research takes on several forms because our world of knowledge is never static – it’s highly dynamic and moves across our organization, in and through project teams and workflows. Using insights, experience, and effective use of knowledge we intentionally unite information across all market types to solve complex issues.

Both small and large projects have opportunities to take a deep dive into a specific topic (e.g., Are spaces being used for their intended purpose?) or to examine broader topics across several departments (e.g., workplace satisfaction). Pre- and post-occupancy studies offer an opportunity to study key metrics that contribute to the overall success of a project. In addition to conducting project-specific studies, BWBR has also partnered with university graduate students, faculty, and institutions to produce deeper dives into design topics relevant to our clients’ performance. Several studies directly involve our client partners, which create fascinating partnerships committed to finding value for all involved.

North Dakota State University A. Glenn Hill Center
Engineering students studying inside the NDSU A. Glenn Hill Center for STEM Education.

Findings from data analysis offer important insights that may have remained unknown to owners and design teams. For example, in one university’s science building, a post-occupancy study revealed that students prefer tables and chairs in lieu of lounge furniture. Overall, students and faculty reviewed the new facility as highly favorable, but the furniture placement was not quite right.

Through survey responses that were validated with behavioral observations, it was clear that students prefer furniture that better supports studying activities – including space for laptop, book, writing material, beverage, cell phone, etc. Lounge spaces without table surfaces do not easily, nor appropriately, accommodate this need. In response to the furniture selected, students were observed moving tables out of classrooms and into the informal study spaces.

The informal space mattered enough for students to want to be there, but they felt the need to physically adjust the furniture in that space to accommodate the activities they wanted to perform. Lesson learned: furniture selection matters and it is important to engage with students to learn about desired uses in a space and of furniture. Shortly following this finding, the university’s facilities changed around several furniture groupings to provide a better balance of furniture styles.

At BWBR we strive for continual improvement and innovation in our process and solutions to better serve our clients. This commitment to continual improvement creates a more engaged practice and inspires our team and our clients to exceed expectations. Creating a design culture based in research offers a more critical approach to design, informing the design process, measuring the success of those designs after implementation, and sharing the findings beyond our internal teams in pursuit of better design for all.

Stefnee Trzpuc, CID, EDAC, LEED AP, is a principal at BWBR who champions the firm’s research efforts. If interested in learning more about research in practice at BWBR or for inquiries on topics and collaborations, please contact Stefnee at

Birth Centers: Delivering the Future of Healthcare Design

Women have choices when it comes to their childbirth experience – they are dictating where to receive service and how. Where to deliver is often the number one question on their minds. Choices have created competition amongst hospitals and birth centers. The demographic shifts of age and race that are affecting our culture are now forcing hospitals to look at how they serve women in their child-bearing years. Units designed decades ago are not relevant anymore for a population that values experience as much as expertise.

As Regions Hospital saw the landscape shift, they seized the opportunity to create a birthing center that was more than state of the art; it also speaks to the heart – a place where all feel welcome, feel they have choice, and feel they have the resources of a top tier hospital for their birthing experience. The prime child-bearing demographic right now is defined by age, but it is also defined by its diversity of race. Addressing these preferences, spaces need to be both amenity-driven and culturally neutral. From color to technology, the seamless flow of the space can speak volumes to a varied audience that brings their own personal expectations and norms into the care setting.

Research has demonstrated that color can improve memory, provide positive first impressions, and help the overall feeling of a space. Interestingly, blue is the most popular color preference across all races. The second most popular color varies quite a bit. Blacks and Hispanics lean proportionately more toward purple. Asians tend to like pink, and Whites lean toward green.

Click here to read a pdf of the study.

Color can then be broken down further by age groups. According to Sherwin Williams, 41% of Millennials chose black as their favorite color. Gen X goes for greens, violets and reds while Generation Z leans towards bright neon and tropical hues.

At Regions, an effort was made to be as neutral as possible so that priority was not given to one group over another. Minimal color, patterns, and graphics were incorporated into the design, other than strategically being used as a wayfinding tool. For example, different wings of the hospital are different colors so that when a woman is in labor and walking the corridors, she can gauge where she is at and how much farther she must travel to get back to her room. This color scheme also serves for patient family members looking for the correct room. We also received feedback that women in labor prefer soothing patterns and graphics, therefore we opted for more texture in materials versus overuse of color and big graphic patterns.

Access to technology is important and should be incorporated not only into the built environment, but into the furniture as well. Just as people who are waiting to board an airplane desire use of charging stations and WIFI connections, those waiting in a hospital (or anywhere else for that matter) want the same conveniences. Sitting in a waiting room is wasted time for today’s population, so those spaces should be designed to allow for multiple functions like checking e-mails or working remotely.

The key is to eliminate waiting from waiting rooms and find ways to add value to their time. Millennial patients desire access to E-kiosks, online patient portals, social media, video conferencing, etc. Not to mention, Generation Z and Generation Alpha are growing up in a world where voice activation is the norm.  “Alexa turn on the TV” is only just the beginning.

Millennials are 25 percent of the population in the US and they seek an overall enhanced experience and want to be engaged.  Instead of separating activities, millennials like to see spaces used in multiple ways. Patient rooms should be designed to integrate family into the healing process. Think in terms of accommodating dining space, a workplace, and sleeping space for family.  They prefer a clean, simple aesthetic and are looking for a hospitality feel when it comes to their preference in birthing locations.

When it comes to making a choice on where to deliver, women are researching their options and selecting the best of the best.  They want a place that feels right, and the physical environment is just as important as the care being received. This mentality is making its way into other healthcare sectors as well. By being in tune with demographic diversity birth centers are essentially the Jones’ and everyone else better keep up.

Gustavus’ Anderson Hall Earns Interior Design Award

A reimagined student resource, Anderson Hall at Gustavus Adolphus College recently was named an IIDA Northland FAB Award winner in the education category.

Anderson Hall had been shuttered since 2011 until a remodel restored the 70-year-old building into a teaching and student resource center. The building is home to the Education Department, the Bonnier Multifaith Center, state-of-the-art classrooms, and student gather and study areas. Originally housing the campus library and humanity and social science resources, Anderson Hall opened in 1947 displaying thoughtful attention to daylighting and the play between function and openings in the façade.

The design approach in its most current incarnation reintroduced the daylight strategy that had been lost in an early 1970s remodel. Then, large window openings were filled with limestone panels as a response to the energy crisis of the time. In the newest remodel, those panels were removed or modified with new windows or glazed curtain wall. A main lobby on the second floor of the space welcomes students from the campus green, with two key campus spaces – the Edwards Atrium (a campus gathering space) and the Bonnier Multi-Faith Center – designed off the main lobby.

Floor plates were removed to create the open and airy atrium space. A monumental staircase draws people from the atrium to other areas in the building. In the multifaith space, a luminary pulls in diffused western light and draws the eyes toward a contemplative view of the Minnesota River Valley.

The interior materials used throughout the building are intended to be a soft backdrop to enhance the original architecture. Original interior limestone wall features and Terrazzo flooring were preserved and restored. Color was used strategically to highlight architectural features.

“It’s an honor to have peers in our industry recognize our efforts on this facility,” said Hanna Kuehl, CID, an interior designer and project manager for Anderson Hall. “Gustavus’ campus is warm and inviting, true to its Scandinavian heritage. The remodeled Anderson Hall is a great design that carries forward that heritage to welcome an increasingly diverse student population into the Gustavus community.”

The IIDA Northland FAB Award is the second honor the facility as received. In 2018, it was certified LEED® Gold by the U.S. Green Building Council, joining the BWBR-design Beck Hall on campus as the second LEED certified facility on campus. Among the strategies that earned it the designation was the reuse of as much of the original regional limestone as possible.

The IIDA Northland FAB Awards celebrate interior design projects that are fresh, artistic, and brilliant, display innovative design solutions, and demonstrate an integrated team approach as judged by a 3-person panel of industry experts. The awards are administered by IIDA Northland, the regional chapter for the International Interior Design Association.

Carroll University’s Rankin Hall Earns Historic Restoration Award

WAUKESHA, Wis. – Carroll University’s Rankin Hall recently received the George Gunn Award for Excellence in Architectural Preservation and Historic Restoration. The City of Waukesha Landmarks Commission bestowed the award following the completion of the BWBR-designed restoration.

The 26,500-square-foot Rankin Hall renovation concludes the third phase in Carroll University’s strategic plan to update and improve academic spaces for the next generation of students.

A cherished symbol of academic and community heritage on campus, Rankin Hall was built in 1906 and is listed on both the National Register of Historic Places and the Wisconsin Register of Historic Places. The hall is one of four historic buildings on campus located in a National Historic District. It is also designated as a City of Waukesha Landmark.

Rankin is the second Carroll building to receive the Gunn Award. Named after late architect George Gunn, AIA, the award highlights organizations and individuals whose preservation and restoration efforts successfully contribute to maintaining Waukesha’s historical integrity.

To comply with federal historical preservation guidelines, much of the building’s exterior remained unchanged. Key historic elements were restored, including the existing historic wood windows and a new clay tile roof that recreates the building’s original roof. The original limestone façade was gently cleaned. The addition of an interior elevator and entrance ramp makes the facility accessible to all users for the first time in the building’s history.

The interior renovation harmonizes modern learning strategies with existing design elements. Reconfigured classrooms with integrated technology, new collaborative study spaces that encourage informal learning, and updated faculty offices blend state-of-the-art design within a traditional setting.

“Carroll University is a great example of reverence for the past with attention to where the future lays,” said Tom Hanley, AIA, LEED AP, principal and architect at BWBR. “Rankin Hall’s restoration makes the past relevant to the modern user, reflecting Carroll’s dedication to academic excellence in experiential learning environments. It’s a wonderful demonstration in how contemporary design can live within historic preservation.”

Carroll University is currently pursuing LEED v4 BD+C Major Renovation certification for Rankin Hall following last year’s LEED Silver certification of Hastad Hall, the first building on Carroll’s campus to receive a LEED certification.

Fritz Rohkohl, the ‘R’ in BWBR, passes

Architect, colleague, mentor, president. Fritz Rohkohl carried many names during his 39 years at BWBR, but no matter the position or title, the words to describe who he was never changed: kind, generous, selfless, fun, statesman.

The fourth president in BWBR’s 97-year history, Fritz left a mark on BWBR that is found in much of the way we practice today. He had a sense of family, and in that spirit, he established a culture at the firm that was emblematic of his caring and respectful approach to business and life. For both employees and clients, he created an engaging atmosphere where all felt positive about the process through which we created spaces to serve others.

Fritz spent his whole career at BWBR. He was hired for a part-time position by Jim Hirsch, one of the founders of the modern-day version of the firm, while Hirsch was teaching at the University of Minnesota. Upon graduation, he became a full-time employee and gained a reputation for being service-oriented, fair, and compassionate, a reputation that continued through his 15 years as president of the firm.

Beyond his business demeanor and acumen, Fritz was known for his giving nature, philanthropically, personally, and professionally. He mentored many staff who later became leaders at the firm. Fritz was also known for his friendly, fun personality, promoting the social side of work as much as the professional side. Even long after his retirement, he continued to be part of what we do, attending events and meeting both staff with whom he knew and new staff that came after his tenure.

Fritz’s name became part of the BWBR moniker in 1974, a move that often is a sign of what someone does to build a business. Fritz did more than help build a business. He helped put into practice the values that so many of us in the firm live to this day. It’s an honor that we carry on as a practice with his name in ours.

Click to read more on Fritz’s life.

BWBR Welcomes Eight New Shareholders

BWBR welcomed a dynamic class of employees as shareholders of the employee-owned firm in 2019. The newly named shareholders represent the breadth of BWBR’s practice and industry offerings including architecture, interior design, project management, human resources, planning, and sustainability.

The newest class of shareholders also is reflective of the firm’s focused effort to promote equity in the profession. The new shareholders bring the total number of women with ownership in the firm to 30 percent.

The eight employees named new shareholders include:

A 97-year-old firm, BWBR is owned by about one-third of its employees. Growing significantly in the past seven years, it now has three offices, including Saint Paul, Minn.; Madison, Wis.; and Omaha, Neb. It offers services in architecture, interior design, and planning with recent hires also bringing expertise in operational services planning and historic preservation.

Other shareholders in the firm include Mark Baumhover; Melanie Baumhover; Jessica Berg; Steve Berg; Mike Boldenow; Steve Busse; Rick Dahl; Jim Davy; Bryan Desma; David Erickson; Greg Fenton; Chris Fischer; Tina Fisher; Matt Gerstner; Jeff Greisinger; Tom Hanley; Dan Hendricks; Danielle Hilmo; Scott Holmes; Dan Hottinger; Ryan Johansen; Jenifer Jirele; Scott Kirchner; Brad Krump; Hanna Kuehl; Bruce Larson; Dave Leighly; Mark Ludgatis; Stephanie McDaniel; Michael Meehan; Jason Nordling; Craig Peterson; Mike Ranum; Dustin Rehkamp; Ananth Shankar; Angela Shaw; Rachel Slette; Pete Smith; Elizabeth Stiehl; Richard Stuerman; Jennifer Stukenberg; Stefnee Trzpuc; Terri Ulrick; Vic Walker; Todd Warren; Eric West; Doug Wild; and Abbie Zeien.