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    Designing for Belonging

    By thebacboston
    Feb 5, '24 10:36 AM EST

    MDS-DHH students take a group photo during Intensives week in the McCormick Gallery.

    The Boston Architectural College (BAC) was the first forward-thinking design school to launch an online Master of Design Studies Design for Human Health program (MDS-DHH) nearly a decade ago in 2014.

    “This program is the place for those who want to design to make a difference in users’ lives. It’s for those who are trying to figure out how to create spaces where users feel excited, feel a sense of belonging, and see that their environment tells that story,” Valerie Fletcher, a member of the Board of Trustees at the BAC said from the Institute for Human Centered Design, where she serves as Executive Director.

    Nowadays, design has more complex functional demands than ever before–with users’ needs going far beyond the art of form. Just a few of those considerations include climate change, natural disasters, mass incarceration, forced migration, pandemics, school shootings, a rise in dementia cases, and systemic racism.

    MDS-DHH students with BAC Trustee Valerie Fletcher.

    As a result, the skills that MDS-DHH graduates bring to the global workplace are in increasingly high demand at architecture firms, interior design studios, environmental consultancies, Fortune 500s, nonprofits, and inside healthcare systems.

    And the employment options are as unique as graduates’ backgrounds.

    Unlike other graduate design programs, this one doesn’t require any design or architecture experience. In fact, its strength is bringing together scholars and faculty from multiple disciplines, geographies, and professions in an inclusive and collaborative community. 

    The Online Master of Design Studies Design for Human Health Curriculum

    The MDS-DHH program spans four semesters of virtual study with a one-week intensive held at the BAC’s central urban campus in Boston each August. 

    The first year of the MDS-DHH curriculum affords students the applicable theoretical grounding and the empathy needed to solve real-world problems in the field as future practitioners. 

    Required courses include a deep dive into accessibility in the built environment through Inclusive Design, an examination of the effects that materials and architecture have on human health, and learning how those with various psychological, physical, or chronic conditions are marginalized or empowered by residential housing.

    MDS-DHH students experiencing navigating the built environment with accessiblity equipment around the City of Boston during Intensives week.

    The second year is focused on practical studio work and an individual thesis project. J. Davis Harte, the Program’s Director, said she personally learns from each of the second-year students as they deep-dive into thesis projects. “Often students want to contribute to research in academia but they also want change on the ground in real spaces and places,” Davis explained.

    For example, in the current second-year cohort one student’s focus is on how people living in lower-income communities can better utilize school facilities during off-usage times. 

    Another student is working on recommendations to amend the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990, to include people with intersectional challenges.

    MDS-DHH students interacting via hybrid learning during Intensives week.

    As an advocate, practitioner, and academic, Davis exemplifies making an impact in the field. Outside the BAC, she co-leads the Global Birth Environment Design Network, an international working group committed to designing spaces that make women’s birthing experiences more satisfying, empowering, and accessible.

    The possibilities for study and real-world learning in the program are wide open. Davis said, “The BAC is an entrepreneurial institution that is practice-based. We have an innovative administration and there’s lots of room at the table for collaboration in our program.”

    The Lightbulb Moment

    A current first-year student in the program, Kamilah Welch came to the BAC after working as a history teacher at a charter school, a non-profit specialist in South Africa’s townships, and an educator in a Boston-area jail. She was previously awarded a Master of Education from Boston College—but hadn’t been in the classroom as a student herself for 11 years. 

    While working as an Education Team Lead at the Partners Neurology Residency Program in Boston, Kamilah regularly visited local jails to teach mindfulness techniques to incarcerated individuals awaiting trial. All of the people she encountered would either be released or sentenced and moved to a different correctional facility. She said, “The people I met wouldn’t be staying in the prison I was visiting. I started to think about what type of space could better help them with this transitional time.”

    MDS-DHH student Kamilah Welch attending Intensives week at the college's Boston campus.

    A Google search led her to an article on trauma-informed design co-authored by Davis, and Janet Roche, MDS-DHH’17, a pioneering practitioner in the field and Chair of the BAC Alumni Advisory Council. It was a lightbulb moment for Kamilah and she applied soon after.

    Now in her second semester, Kamilah was inspired by her first in-person meeting with her cohort at the BAC this past August for the one-week intensive. It was exhilarating to meet colleagues from all over the world–all of them working their way through school with full-time jobs and many of them parenting at the same time.

    She said, “Since the Intensive, we created a WhatsApp group. People from our cohort live in multiple countries and time zones, and we are using the group to help each other understand assignments and offer encouragement.”

    Although she still has time to determine exactly what type of job she wants following graduation, courses like Environmental Psychology, taught by Davis, have given her focus for her next chapter:

    Kamilah shared, “A question that I have been grappling with is: How can design embrace people of color? I'd like to design spaces that would signal to our bodies and psyches that we do belong, and could orient individuals and communities towards wholeness rather than fracture and fear.”

    Davis is adamant that to answer big questions like Kamilah’s, it is only a matter of time until all architects and designers will need to incorporate the principles of designing for human health into every team and project.

    She said, “Since the MDS-DHH program was founded there has been a big increase in appreciation for trauma-informed design, or a built environment that directly responds to activated stress responses.”

    Self-care and wellness are no longer just niceties associated with luxury but at the core of the human need for shelter.

    Is the Online Master of Design Studies Design for Human Health right for you? For more information about applying or to set up a one-on-one conversation with an admissions officer visit:

    MDS-DHH students at Boston Public Library during Intensives week experiencing navigating the built environment with accessiblity equipment.

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The #BACbuzz blog will help to inform, educate, and share relevant and noteworthy architectural and design news happening within the Boston Architectural College and around the Boston community.

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