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Design Institute for Health and Resilience (DIHR)

Proposed Name:   Design Institute for Health and Resilience (DIHR)

Classification:       Multi-mission & Interdisciplinary Research/Instructional/Training/Service

Receive federal or State funds?   YES

Seeking Provisional Approval?    YES


Problem Statement

There is growing awareness of the role the socio-physical environment plays in health outcomes.  COVID-19 has only magnified that awareness in regard to direct effects such as socio-physical distancing, ventilation and appropriate mask design, and moderated effects such as resultant social isolation and access to nature.  At the University of Utah, relevant basic research considering health-environment interactions occurs in pockets and across a wide range of Colleges (including CSBS, CMES, College of Science, College of Humanities, College of Social Work, CA+P, College of Engineering, College of Education, College of Health, School of Medicine and College of Nursing).

What is missing is a connector and catalyst for bringing work in the nexus of health and environmental design together, integrating findings in a meaningful way and then translating the work so as to find application in the built environment.

Other centers that touch pieces of this process include the PIVOT Center which focuses on technology transfer and commercialization of technological products, the Center for Medical Innovation (CMI), which offers a centralized ecosystem of concept-to-prototype engineering resources to develop medical devices, and the Utah Clinical & Translational Science Institute (CTSI) which “serves as an academic home for clinical and translational research, developing innovative health services.”  There are similar resources available for those creating technologies, medical devices and innovative health services, but not environments.  In all cases, discussion of our built and natural environment is absent.  This is not surprising given that in much basic research, the socio-physical environment actually is controlled for and is all too often assumed as a given.  But places are crafted by humans and have a significant upstream impact on human health and resilience.  As Dr. Tom Frieden is famous for saying as Director of the CDC, “Your longevity and health are more determined by your ZIP code than they are by your genetic code.”

CTSI itself describes its work as moving from T0-T4 translation. The DIHR is proposed to focus on T3 (effectiveness & practice), T4 (community & prevention) and T5 (access & opportunity) translation efforts not in regard to health services, but in regard to healthy environments.  The DIHR fills a critical gap amongst the foci of the centers mentioned here in terms of focus of concern (environmental design) and extends the domain of translational research supported at the University (See Figure 1).  It addresses the lack of a design institute at the University as a whole, and addresses a significant need in the $1.6 trillion national construction industry and number 1 economic sector in the state of Utah yet the industry that also spends the lowest percentage of revenue on research and development.

The DIHR will engage in grant and contract work to perform research, training, product/design development, consulting and evaluation activities involving an interdisciplinary mix of expertise.  This work is likely to cross-cut various unit boundaries and will ease administration of funds and other resources.  Such an interdisciplinary organization provides certain advantages in soliciting external funds, particularly for solution-seeking funders who often recognize the interdisciplinary nature of wicked problems.  Funding sources are likely to be diversified (e.g. federal, state, NGO, private philanthropies, professional contracts, training fees) and having the appropriate accounts within a single org will minimize knowledge loss of purpose and origination often found when operating within the larger College armature.  In short, the creation of an Institute in this case will facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration and enhance both operational efficiency and financial stewardship.

The DIHR also brings together two existing less formal entities (see below) that currently struggle with some of the challenges highlighted above, and thus represents an efficiency over current structuring.  Such consolidation will result in enhanced overhead efficiency and fewer financial splits and provide justification for the Institute nomenclature.


Mission Statement

The mission of the DIHR is to incubate, accelerate, and disseminate translational, applied, and action research that informs and inspires transformational change in inclusive design practices to further mental, physical, and emotional health and resilience across the lifespan and populations most impacted by environmental quality.  In so doing, it supports President Randall’s objectives of inspiring students, impacting the lives of all Utahns and innovating and generating discoveries that will change the world.

More specifically, the DIHR’s focus on translational research to transform environmental design practice (e.g. architecture, urban design, interior design) through a focus on discovery and inclusion, will assist the university in the desire for unsurpassed societal impact.  People spend 95 percent of their lives indoors in human-designed environments and the DIHR will engage in collaborative, translational research so that designs become increasingly data-informed and theory-inspired.

The DIHR is rooted in the concept of inclusive design: “a design process that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness, and social participation” (Steinfeld & Maisel, 2012).  It recognizes that design can both negatively—through the unintentional creation of barriers—or positively—through capacity-enhancing characteristics—enhance human health and resilience in an ever-changing world.  Co-designing solutions with end-users within an interdisciplinary context is core to our method, enabling us to address complex real world health challenges in systemic and innovative ways.

The DIHR would focus on translational research—the translation of science discoveries into environmental design guidance at various scales (finishes/furnishings/equipment [FF&E], interiors, buildings, campuses, neighborhoods, settlements) that benefit human health and resilience. This could range from developing

new place types such as transitional care for mental health recovery, to understanding the negative climate health impacts of certain materials, to the design of educational environments for people with autism, to the neighborhood planning principles that extend aging-in-place for cognitively impaired older adults.

The DIHR would focus on translational research—the translation of science discoveries into environmental design guidance at various scales (finishes/furnishings/equipment [FF&E], interiors, buildings, campuses, neighborhoods, settlements) that benefit human health and resilience. This could range from developing new place types such as transitional care for mental health recovery, to understanding the negative climate health impacts of certain materials, to the design of educational environments for people with autism, to the neighborhood planning principles that extend aging-in-place for cognitively impaired older adults.


Input Plans

A draft proposal has been circulated to known related UACIs, and to the Academic Deans.  The draft proposal has also been socialized with faculty we know may have interest in a snowballing type approach.  This proposal development has been shared with the Mental Health and Environment Community of Practice (MHE CoP) operating through NEXUS.  It was also presented at the VPR's Research Leadership Luncheon.

Proposed Organizational Structure:

DIHR will be housed within the College of Architecture & Planning and be led by a Director, Keith Diaz Moore (UACI Primary Administrator) who shall report to the Dean of CA+P.  The DIHR Director will be responsible to both the Dean of the College of Architecture & Planning (serving as the UACI Oversight Administrator) and a Governance Board of three university faculty, appointed by the CA+P Dean in consultation with the DIHR Director, who are affiliated with the Institute.  Initially, this Governance Board is proposed to be constituted of the following tenure-line faculty of the College of Architecture & Planning:

  • Nicole Porter, Multi Disciplinary Design
  • Andy Hong, City & Metropolitan Planning
  • Ajla Aksamija, School of Architecture.

The DIHR Director will also be advised by a national advisory committee of up to 12 high-profile researchers/practitioners, relevant business/governmental leaders, and/or community advocates external to the University.

The DIHR will serve as the administrative home for current efforts, including the Healthy Aging and Resilient Places Lab (directed by Dr. Andy Hong) and the Contemplative Architecture, Landscape and Multidisciplinary Experience Design (CALMED) (directed by Dr. Nicole Porter).

The DIHR will operate according to CA+P Policy 1-04: Governance of University-Designated Centers as well as applicable university policies. It is understood that as a UACI, the DIHR is not a faculty-appointing unit. CA+P will provide DIHR investigators the support available to all college investigators, including the pre and post grant services of the Office of Research Administration, budget assistance from the Associate Director of Budget and Finance, and Advancement functions as typically provided by the Director of Development and the Communications Manager.  It is the intention of the DIHR to eventually allocate resources for its own dedicated pre and post grant service person.

The DIHR hopes to operate out of the “Theory of Change Environments” (TOCÉ) Innovation Lab in the HMHI Translational Research Building when opened, but will operate virtually in AY25 (it seeks to commence Sept 1, 2024).

Likely inaugural affiliated faculty participants include:

  • College of Architecture + Planning
    • Ajla Aksamija
    • Keith Diaz Moore
    • Andy Hong
    • Valerie Greer
    • Nicole Porter
  • College of Nursing
    • Linda Edelman, Nursing
  • College of Social Work
    • Sarah Canham, CSW
  • David Eccles School of Business
    • Cord Bowen, DESB
  • Office of Undergraduate Studies
    • Jim Agutter, UGS
  • School of Medicine
    • Michelle Sorweid, Geriatrics

Anticipated initial personnel include:

  • (1) Post-doctoral Researcher
  • (2) Graduate Research Assistants

Activities to further the mission of the Institute will include:

  • an annual panel series (including national and local experts and local practitioners),
  • a biannual national conference on health and design (summit),
  • research funding opportunities for doctoral students on campus,
  • annual student awards program,
  • providing undergraduate research opportunities
  • curating a clearinghouse of up-to-date systematic reviews linking health and design
  • coalescing interdisciplinary teams seeking federal grant support through provision of post-doctoral research time

A key mission for those start-up dollars is to grow research expenditures by partnering with HMHI and pursue translational, interdisciplinary research programs in the domain of mental health and environment.  The broader DIHR mission will then expand from there.


External Funding


The only two proposed activities currently funded are the student awards program, which is endowed, and the biannual summit which is fully funded for the first four years.  The agreements make no conditions on mission or structure of the Institute and are directed toward accomplishing those discrete activities.

Anticipated Funding Plan:

Start-up funds include both a one-time investment of $500,000 and $90,000 ongoing operational funds for graduate/doctoral student support for students in the College of Architecture & Planning.  Currently, the college is seeking a match of an external gift for the $500,000 in start-up funds.  The College has planned to provide the Director one course release and one month of summer salary to direct the Institute.  The DIHR is planned conservatively to operate in perpetuity with an annual budget of $300,000 (in 2023 dollars) and will ramp up to that scale over three years.  With the $90,000 in ongoing student funding, that means Institute investigators will need to average a little more than $200,000 annually in research expenditures stemming from grants and gifts.  It is our strong inference that this is not only reasonable, but that current discussions already indicate great salience of this Institute with private and corporate foundations to supplement that revenue stream.  For instance, the proposed annual student awards program and proposed biannual summits are already donor funded.