Mental Health by Design: A Q&A with Pablo La Roche

Clare Sausen October 9, 2020

Pablo La Roche is an associate vice president in CallisonRTKL’s Los Angeles office and the firm’s Performance-Driven Design leader– implementing sustainable design in projects worldwide. Today, in celebration of World Mental Health Day, we speak to him about the importance of embedding mental health care in architecture itself.

What is the importance of mental health design to you?

PLR: Good design has an impact on mental health. Obviously, it doesn’t cure any serious conditions, but research is showing that, more and more, design can help our mental health. Things like daylight, connection to nature, connection to the natural cycles of the sun and moon, clarity in the organization of the building and its layout– all of these things will help with mental health because it makes it easier to process the info we need in everyday life. Simple things like daylight also establish a reference for us to affirm ourselves to the world and see where we are. It helps everybody, and I would say especially those who face mental health challenges.

What are some of the most striking changes you’ve noticed in terms of mental health design?

PLR:  I often look at healthcare design through the lens of sustainability. I’ve seen we’re moving from a less traditional “institutionalized” setting towards settings that have more connection with their community and less isolation for patients. It’s important for people to have a connection to work activities participating in society and being productive. We can use a key principle from the mixed-use development world—work, live, play—and apply that to mental healthcare design. The more we connect with different types of people, the more we can learn from each other. This hybrid shows we can support autonomy while also having control of the environment for safety. We can then adjust the support as needed for different abilities. We want to bring patients as close as possible to society. Like everybody else we design for, they need a balance between social interaction and privacy.

How can we leverage a better understanding of mental health to create more human-centric design in any building?

PLR: When we talk about inclusion, it goes way beyond what we have to do for ADA requirements. Many of these wellbeing strategies benefit all of us— like daylight, the use of nature and biophilia— but they also have an important effect on those with certain mental illnesses. It can also be important to be able to control lighting and noise so that people with autism or sensory processing issues, for example, are not overwhelmed. There are many elements of design like this that we take for granted, but don’t always think through about how it can overwhelm the sensory systems of some people. We want to provide exciting and stimulating experiences, but we also must ensure that they’re made for everyone. That means that we need to do more interdisciplinary work, too, to understand and hear from all the people we’re building for. Since we want spaces that are enjoyed by all, teachers, psychologists and doctors should be engrained in how we practice architecture holistically—not just special needs facilities.

Personally, my son has autism. There have been places I’ve tried to bring him that he can’t even go inside. It could be the music, the lights, the sounds of the people—there’s just something that he can’t process and overwhelms his system. There are other places that might be more connected with nature with balanced daylight and better acoustics that he is more attracted to. There needs to be an awareness of that and the fact that there’s different types of people– we’re not all the same and won’t experience places the same, either. There needs to be a variety of design options for there to be design inclusivity.

How have you been preserving your mental health in difficult times?

PLR: Personally, I feel like I’ve been working a lot more, so it’s been important for me to ensure I take purposeful breaks. Something I’m very fortunate to have is the ability to get outside and take walks with my family to connect with the environment around us. Now is a time when the design of outdoor spaces is being more noticed and utilized. I know many people don’t have this same access—especially in the city—but, if you can, I think seeing the progress of the sun and having a connection to your circadian rhythm can be very grounding. Our days can be very similar and run together but awareness of the daily cycle gives us a sense of perspective.

I’m also being mindful to be grateful for everything I do have. I started my answer to this question by saying “I’m working a lot more,” but I’m lucky to have a job at all. Many, many people don’t have that privilege right now. And a lot of people– if they do have a job–  can’t work from home and face dangerous conditions amid our global pandemic. We have to think about and fight for all these people– not just ourselves. There’s a whole world out there.

My son, for example, has difficulties communicating verbally. That’s something that the majority of us take for granted every single day. It’s been a learning curve for my wife and me to find solutions for him—we even went as far as to create, with a speech and language pathologist and a computer programmer, our own app: Use2Talk. Now he has a more sophisticated tool, but before technology advanced, we had to learn to cope and develop strategies. There’s still a lot we don’t know about mental health care, but we can use what we have to play to people’s strengths and weaknesses. Right now, he’s struggling with online school and keeping up with his peers, but every day we learn how to do something better. All we can do is keep going.

Pablo La Roche: Pablo La Roche is an associate vice president in CallisonRTKL’s Los Angeles office and the firm’s Performance-Driven Design leader– implementing sustainable design in projects worldwide. His expansive portfolio includes many sustainable buildings designed with state-of-the-art tools. A tenured professor of architecture at Cal Poly Pomona University, Pablo is also an accomplished author; he has written more than 130 technical papers for journals and conferences, and his book Carbon-Neutral Architectural Design placed in the top ten in Amazon’s Energy and Buildings category. He is also the past president of the Society of Building Science Educators and chair of the solar buildings division of the American Solar Energy Society.


Author Spotlight

Clare Sausen
Clare Sausen is a Content Writer for CallisonRTKL. Based in Washington, D.C., she leverages her personal and professional experience in journalism, radio, and nonprofit communication to serve as a valuable member of the global firmwide team. Since attaining her Bachelor of Arts degree from George Washington University in Communication and American Studies, she has honed her craft of architectural storytelling across multiple platforms.