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Human health and wellbeing are shaped by our built environment, but building the latest architectural research into urban development is challenging. Thanks to an EPSRC IAA Knowledge Transfer Fellowship, health and wellbeing is now a strategic priority of the Department of Architecture, as well as an expanding area of work for industry partner BuroHappold.

Professor Koen Steemers’ relationship with engineering consultancy BuroHappold has deep roots. “It goes back a long way,” Steemers explains. “Ted Happold was my structures teacher when I was an architecture student. And as the firm grew, several of our students have found a home there.”

Over the years, BuroHappold has sponsored PhD and EngD students in Cambridge and beyond, so when in 2010 they approached Steemers to find a new postgraduate to support, Jamie Anderson seemed like a perfect fit.

Before coming to Cambridge Anderson spent seven years working as an urban designer. But as practitioners’ and policy makers’ interest in subjective wellbeing grew, so did his realisation that there was a lack of good evidence in the field. As a result, his PhD focused on links between people’s environment, behaviour and positive mental health.

“It’s to do with lack of data as well the complexity of the real world, and for subjective wellbeing and the built environment it’s really early science,” he explains. “When Koen introduced me to BuroHappold, they were really interested in our ideas and agreed to top up my PhD fees. Then I spotted the EPSRC IAA Knowledge Transfer Fellowship via a CSaP email and thought it would be really good – because I knew BuroHappold so well, I could hit the ground running.”

The aim of the Knowledge Transfer Fellowship – which involved Anderson working with BuroHappold’s cities and sustainability teams for 12 months – was to share knowledge and build on growing interest in wellbeing and the built environment.

“There were lots of opportunities to meet people, share ideas and discuss how to take the agenda forward in the longer-term,” he says. “It was a great opportunity to share, build on ideas and implement the science by winning small amounts of money from clients to test ideas.”

As a result, the Knowledge Transfer Fellowship has had a positive impact all round – on Anderson, BuroHappold and the Department of Architecture – and its effect has also been felt by communities in East London. Lendlease is one of BuroHappold’s clients and a developer with a genuine interest in health and wellbeing.

“We fed into the Lendlease wellbeing and the public realm strategy for the International Quarter, their major development in East London. The strategy informed the planning application, and seeing some of our ideas built out next to the Olympic Park has been a major success,” he says.

Today, Anderson splits his time between research at the University of Manchester and a permanent, three day a week, contract with BuroHappold, which is building a sizeable portfolio of wellbeing projects. From a team of three when Anderson started, BuroHappold’s wellbeing focus group is now 15-strong and spans its offices in the UK, US, Germany, Poland, Dubai and China. “It’s become a mini-movement within the company, which is great.”

As well as advancing his career and a new field, Anderson says the Knowledge Transfer Fellowship has enabled him to meld the two worlds of practice and academic research: “The most rewarding part was having the opportunity to put my PhD and my urban design background into practice. I’m very grateful to have almost free-reign to continue to think like an urban designer but a more scientifically-enlightened designer thinking about wellbeing.”

And for the University? Steemers believes the benefits are three-fold. In its recent strategic review health and wellbeing  were identified as one of the Department of Architecture’s key themes. A new staff member, whose research spans the intersection between health and building science, has joined the Department, and a new module on health and wellbeing in architecture is being introduced to its Masters in Architecture and Urban Studies.

“The Knowledge Transfer Fellowship has been a real stimulus to push forward in a new direction,” says Steemers. “Through our connection with BuroHappold it’s a way for us to dip our toe in the real world, and it’s meant that we can branch into this new direction with some confidence.”

Within the wider University, it’s also catalysed new conversations and new collaborations. Several Architecture researchers are now involved with the Cambridge Institute of Public Health with Steemers’ PhD students is looking at questions from urban mobility and health to psychological responses to architectural design.

“These kind of things only emerge when you start putting your research into practice,” he concludes. “When you step outside academic boundaries, these questions emerge about how you synthesise knowledge and make it of practical benefit in a wider, real-world context.”