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Designing to Feed the Soul

Jean Hansen, sustainable interiors manager at HDR Architecture subscribes to a more holistic approach to design -- and for that matter, life.

By AnnMarie Martin

Jean Hansen, sustainable interiors manager at HDR Architecture subscribes to a more holistic approach to design -- and for that matter, life.


Greenwashing is a dirty word to Jean Hansen. Laziness is also not a part of her vocabulary.

She makes health a priority not just in her designs as sustainable interiors manager for HDR Architecture, but in her day-to-day life as well. Not only does she love gardening and hiking, but she also teaches a postural therapy class at her local YMCA, which focuses on posture as well as stretching and strength building.

Perhaps that's why Hansen's work, which focuses mainly on the healthcare sector, is more like a labor of love. It's an industry she's always been intimately involved in, as she also worked as a medical planner for 15 years. Her designs are forever finding ways to weave healthcare and sustainability together, a topic she is no stranger to—she and her husband used to drive to a nearby city to take care of their recyclables when their own town didn't provide the bins to do so. "It's been a part of who I am for many years," Hansen says of her eco-consciousness.

"For many designers, it's still very confusing as to what a green product truly is," she says. And Hansen has made it her life's mission to simplify it as much as possible, especially when it comes to healthcare design.

Sustainability started to work its way into her profession about 15 years ago, when she was researching how to design a healthcare facility that could be cleaned with less toxic products. She had also started to examine how the industry disposes of its waste and how to do it more cost-effectively.

It was at that point that Hansen began working with the West Coast healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente®; she now serves on its Green Building Committee. Kaiser Permanente offers health plans (which is how many are familiar with the company), but also operates medical centers and outpatient facilities. In 2000 the committee was established to better understand sustainability, the United States Green Building Council's (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system and how it all relates to healthcare. Hansen was a valuable addition to the group, as she understood KP in regards to how it likes to work and how executives like its buildings designed.

The KP Green Building Committee collaborated with the Healthy Building Network to develop new standards for manufacturers. Moving from the resilient flooring category to carpet, wall protection and fabric, they developed questionnaires for manufacturers to make sure their products were the right fit for Kaiser's new sustainable mission. Some products on the market were even changed in order to comply with the questionnaires.

The effect materials have on assisting the healing process is not the only thing that interests Hansen about healthcare design. "They are challenging buildings to design because not only do you have to meet user requirements but there are a lot of code issues and different types of regulations, and you really need to seriously think about accessibility issues even more so than other types of projects," she says. "I also always enjoyed working with the people we are creating these for. There are many different medical specialties you end up working with, so you're constantly learning about different disciplines within the medical field. And there are so many different aspects from a design perspective you need to encompass—design, durability, sustainability and health go hand-in-hand for me."

"But it was very exciting to see some real market transformation," Hansen says of her findings with KP. "There's a carpet manufacturer out there that actually developed a new backing system because of the questions we asked and because of the PVC-free backing product Kaiser was looking for."

Her propensity to initiate change is evident throughout her career. Hansen was a co-creator of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) product fair "Sustaining Edge," a tradeshow for the San Francisco Bay Area design community that ran for approximately five years. "Our goal was to have a really deep, green, sustainable expo," she says. "We came up with a clarification of what we felt was a green product and invited manufacturers to specifically showcase their most sustainable offerings. We also wanted to make sure they could speak to why those products were selected for the exhibition. And no giveaways were allowed in order to avoid waste."

Beyond Sustaining Edge, her involvement with IIDA is a definite point of pride for Hansen, and she hopes younger designers will use it as an resource to enhance their own careers. She works to create opportunities for synergy between the professional organizations in the San Francisco Bay area, such as through joint programs with the American Institute of Architects and the AIA's Committee on the Environment (COTE.)

"Getting involved and getting to know other people in something that interests you is a great way to develop some mentors, some friends, to find out about jobs and just to be connected with a really great community."

Hansen stays connected by truly living and breathing the ideals of health and genuine, transparent sustainability.


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Jean Hansen
Sustainable Interiors Manager, HDR Architecture

Favorite place in the world
The Swiss Alps

Fun Fact
She was instrumental in creating an accreditation exam for the American Academy of Healthcare Interior Designers



HDR Architecture
560 Mission Street, Ste 900
San Francisco, CA 94105-2907
(415) 546-4200