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Dan Swift, President and CEO of BSB Design, has spent the last few decades designing houses that make home life easier and more fulfilling for the families who live in them. We talked with him about how people use the spaces they’re in, and how home design needs to change to accommodate those behaviors.
Understanding How Humans (Actually) Live in Their Homes
From a young age, Dan Swift worked with his father on commercial building sites, mixing mortar and laying foundations. Dan knew very early on that he wanted to design buildings. “I was fascinated with the blueprints that were laying all over our house because my dad was a commercial contractor,” explains Dan.
He worked his way into the design industry and started at BSB Design, an architecture firm he’d learned about and respected for years. After working his way up at the company, he eventually became owner and is now CEO of the firm.
Today, BSB Design has 170 employees.
The approach to architecture at BSB Design is intentional and holistic. “I like to say that we're experts in how people live,” he explains. “We use design and design principles about scale, rhythm, proportion, order and the process that design takes you through.”
This approach has yielded a great deal of success for the firm. “We worked with, and still do, the top 25 public home builders, the largest real estate investment trusts that do apartments, and the top eight private student housing organizations,” he says.
Perhaps one of the ways that his firm is most successful is its innovation around how homes are designed. “In housing, the kit of parts has not changed in decades,” he says.
Many homes are being built the same way they’ve been designed for decades, so there’s no reason for homebuyers to have a new home built. “I can buy this foreclosure thing that's last year's model and it's beautiful,” says Dan. In fact, “way more people move to established neighborhoods than they do to new ones by a five-to-one ratio.”
But Dan and the team at BSB Design are driven to give people homes that are different — homes that help humans become better people.
“Since 2008 that has been my mission, my passion, and I speak about it all over the country, that the assignment shouldn't be, ‘Design me a building with some predescribed sell-able square footage model,’” he says.
“What human beings really want is, ‘Design me a building where I could actually increase my human peak performance — I could become a better person, and I would live longer,’” Dan explains.
How To Build a More Thoughtful Living Space
Dan emphasizes that we’re just not building homes in ways that people need us to. He points out that many couples living together don’t even sleep in the same bedroom, “but we design the building as if they do,” he says.
BSB Design has established a better way for people to sleep in their homes — because that’s the first step towards being a happier, healthier human.
It’s no surprise that most of us aren’t getting enough sleep. “It is the number one health crisis in the United States,” says Dan. And some of that is simply because our bedrooms aren’t designed the right way, and don’t incorporate design strategies that optimize sleep health.
“Ask any architect in the world, why do you design a bedroom the way you do? It's because it fits this furniture in here,” explains Dan. “It fits a bed. It fits a dresser. I know where the TV's going to go, and I know I have to have egress and light near.”
So BSB Designs uses data from neuroscience and sleep studies to help create the perfect environment for a restful night. “Bedrooms themselves need to have three components in them to provide the opportunity for restful sleep,” explains Dan.
- The right temperature. “Perfect temperature, between 58 and 62 degrees,” says Dan.
- The right amount of darkness. “Our eyelids are so thin that any amount of light, (particularly LED light which is horrible for the brain) should be eliminated from the room, and all darkness should be the only thing that's constant in the room,” he explains.
- The right amount of fresh air. Many of us close our doors when we go to bed. “The reason we all wake up in the morning somewhat groggy, somewhat with that scratchy dry throat is our HVAC systems are designed to work as a building as a unit,” says Dan. “I'm not getting fresh air as fast as I should.”
Dan recognizes that we’ve been building homes and interior spaces in ways that don’t serve the humans living in those spaces. “You want to go into this oasis and be transformed and rejuvenated and relax, and you walk into another train wreck. 75% of all domestic altercations and arguments occur within 15 minutes of arriving home,” explains Dan.
It’s why his design firm includes rooms that allow for more transition, from the outside world to their lives inside the home. This includes thoughtful spaces like an owner’s entry, where the homeowner is given a way to relax before joining the rest of their family in the main part of the house.
“That transitional moment, that transformative moment's important, and the brain needs two things,” he explains. “It needs about 10 to 15 seconds to reset. And it needs a bite of food — not a whole meal, a bite of food and a drink of water.”
By giving homeowners a space to move from the bustle of the outside world into a place that feels relaxing and safe, designers can create a more valuable living experience for homeowners. “Make it a transition point that everyone knows I'm home. They get a chance to get ready for me. I get ready to be with them,” explains Dan.
His research has also revealed that families need (and want) a space for their pets to live a happy, healthy life, too. “It's taught me that there are things that have to happen in a house that aren't happening now, because houses do not transform people's lives,” he explains. “If you have a pet, where do you put it? Do you put it in a crate in the middle of the living room? Do you stick it in the second bedroom? Is it in the laundry room that wasn't designed for it? Can they get outside? Can they get light?”
Those kinds of questions have helped BSB Designs create homes that make living easier on humans — homes that actually enhance their families’ (and pets’) lives.
Transforming Home Design for the Future of Living
Dan and his team have seen how most of today’s homes don’t support this new normal of quarantining and home-basing more often.
“Houses are not designed for people to live in them together for 24 hours a day. They are not. We know we're going to sleep there. We know we're going to eat there, and then we're going to be gone for most of the day,” he says. But the pandemic has completely upended that routine, and now we “have to be there all the time and then, oh, by the way, let's make it even worse, let's school at home,” he explains.
But there are ways to design homes so we’re not so miserable. The answer isn’t a bigger house or new appliances or an open floor plan, however. Human beings need a more intentionally designed home, with each room serving a purpose. “They need places to get away. Everything we're doing in housing right now — and what housing in the future will be — is you better design spaces in your houses,” Dan explains.
Dan also predicts that we’ll be in our homes more in the upcoming years, especially because we’re already working from home more. “In 2018, 5% of the world population was working remotely. In 2019, it was 15%,” he says. The numbers were already trending upward.
But our homes need to be designed for that new work- and learn-at-home culture. “The data cut from neuroscientists will tell you that human beings in the workplace are effective for a stunning nine minutes a day,” says Dan. So the homes we build for our brave new world have to create space for focus and productivity.
How To Meet the Demand of New Living Norms
For manufacturers and building materials brands, Dan suggests that they meet demand for a more thoughtful home design by finding ways to make the construction process more precise. “You have to design buildings with precision, which leads to speed. Speed leads to productivity, and leads to assembling homes, not constructing them,” he explains.
“We need to apply materials, not attach them,” he emphasizes.
The building materials industry can provide those solutions and materials by taking a performance-based design approach. “In performance-based design, what we're doing is we're not creating a set of construction documents,” he explains. “We're creating a set of assembly documents, that each piece, every piece of material could be predesigned, premanufactured, precut, prenumbered, and you'd put together buildings on the site.”
Manufacturers can innovate their products to improve the process of construction. “The material science side for me is: How do you make assembling these pieces go faster?” Dan says. “Speed would lead to solving the problem of building twice as many in half the time.”
“Now, we've offset the demand side with the proper supply side, and price goes down. I'm not an economist, but I get supply and demand. The reason we got a price situation is there's just not enough supply,” he explains.
But in some ways, that means a lot of us in the industry need to rethink how we’re constructing homes and buildings. According to Dan, “We have to start over.”
Want Even More Insight?
While starting from scratch might sound daunting to some folks, Dan sees the challenge as an abundance of opportunity for builders and product manufacturers. “This cascade of opportunity, this cascade of transformation is sitting right here. Someone just has to tip the avalanche. The opportunity is so big to crack this code,” he says.
If you’re looking for even more data and fascinating facts around humans in their homes, give the full interview a listen.
Want to reach out to Dan to talk more about human behavior and housing? You can email him at [email protected]. Or take a look at the BSB Design website for some serious inspiration and a glimpse at the Thoughtful Home concept.
You can also reach out to us with questions about housing trends or strategies for meeting today’s construction demands. Our email is [email protected].