033: Brooke Thabit, Interior Designer

An interview with our 2019 intern about her work in healthcare interior design.

033: Brooke Thabit, Interior Designer
Good Fit Poor Fit

 
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Sarah: You’re listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. A podcast that explores the interaction between people, design, and activity. Good Fit Poor Fit is part of The Universal Design Project, a nonprofit organization with a vision for every community across the USA to have a surplus of homes and opportunities for social participation that are universally and financially accessible.

[00:00:27] Learn more at universaldesign.org. 

[00:00:31] Hello Good Fit Poor Fit listeners. As always, we are glad to have you all back for another episode with us. Today Rebecca and I are really excited to have Brooke Thabit with us. She is an interior designer and you may have already heard her name and seen a few of her designs before in some of our previous episodes and blog posts. 

[00:00:52] She was an intern with us in the summer of 2019 and helped work on a home design in collaboration with two other OTs and an industrial design student. We really enjoyed her creativity and dedication to the project when she was with us. And we are glad to have her join us today on the podcast.

[00:01:13] We are going to chat about her experience with our organization and learn about some of the projects she’s worked on as a student and now a design professional. 

[00:01:24] Rebecca: Yes. And since I wasn’t here for the project in 2019, I am particularly excited to be here and able to meet Brooke today. So let’s get started.

[00:01:34] Brooke, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in interior design? 

[00:01:40] Brooke: Yeah. So, when I was 17, I broke my neck and since then have become a quadriplegic. And that was my senior year of high school. So I didn’t know, at that time, what I wanted to do with myself and with my life.

[00:01:56] And even if I hadn’t broken my neck, I didn’t know what I wanted my career to be. And then when I came home from the hospital, we had to make some modifications to our house and add on a room for me so that I could fit. And my parents let me design it and I had a lot of fun doing it. And I thought this is something that I could still do, with some of my limitations, but it’s something I’m so passionate about something that’s a lot of fun, something that’s so creative, and that’s what sparked my interior design journey.

[00:02:29] Rebecca: Oh, wow. That’s pretty cool. So having that firsthand experience of being able to design the space that your parents were letting you design kind of sparked your interest and took you down the path and kind of led you here into the universal design world. 

[00:02:44] Brooke: Yes, definitely. 

[00:02:46] Rebecca: So how did you learn about universal design and why did it stand out to you as something you would be interested in incorporating into your work?

[00:02:55] Brooke: Well, universal design is kind of very relevant to my life being that I’m in a wheelchair now. And, making that transition of getting injured then suddenly your whole entire life becomes about being in a wheelchair very quickly. And I didn’t really like that. I didn’t want to feel like every place I had to go had to be specially made for me, or, you know, if every place I went, it was all about me being in a wheelchair.

[00:03:24] And I didn’t, I didn’t enjoy that. So I thought, you know, if more places were just seamlessly universally designed that were still beautiful and functional, it didn’t have to feel that way. It didn’t have to feel like it was specially done for someone in a wheelchair. And I think that’s important and I think that’s the way our world is moving.

[00:03:44] And I think it’s important to incorporate that not only into homes but all public spaces. And, I think universal design is an important feature. And, as I went into school and started learning more about design, I realized there’s actually a whole field of that. And that’s called universal design.

[00:04:04] Rebecca: Well, we’re glad that you found universal design because we need people like you to share their stories and tell those stories that you didn’t want to go into a place and feel like you were existing there in a wheelchair. You wanted to just feel like you were existing there and able to work or enjoy or do whatever you were doing in that space. So we appreciate you for that. 

[00:04:30] Brooke: Thank you.

[00:04:31] Sarah: Yeah, definitely. And I think that’s one of the biggest things about universal design that people might have a misconception about. Like, it can really be beautiful and functional at the same time. That’s one of the things we’re trying to do with our organization. And I’m glad that there are designers like you and others out there who are excited about incorporating universal design into their work. 

[00:04:54] And for many, I think they just really need to experience that design to understand the value of it and how some of these UD features can be beneficial for a lot of people, disability or not. 

[00:05:08] And I also think that one of the things we really appreciated about working with you as a student, Brooke, was the opportunity to learn more about how you approach projects as a designer and how that has translated into working with a collaborative team.

[00:05:24] One of the things that you brought to our attention was the concept of using bubble diagrams to arrange things in the space. Can you tell our listeners more about bubble diagrams and how that’s helpful in the beginning stages of a design? I actually remember specifically using this with the master bathroom in the project you worked on with us, and it was really helpful for our team to visualize how someone would function in that space.

[00:05:52] Brooke: Yeah, definitely. So when you’re first designing a space, not always, but a lot of times. And in the case with The Universal Design Project, we had a blank slate, which there with a blank slate is a lot of fun — there’s endless possibilities, but it’s also, there’s more possibilities that you have to figure out the best solution.

[00:06:11] So, in school, we learned this technique called bubble diagrams, which is where you just take the existing space that you’re designing — I’m an interior designer so we focus on the interiors — and you just draw bubbles in not exactly to scale, you don’t measure anything, but just in about scale reference of the thing you’re trying to place in the room.

[00:06:34] So we did it for the master bathroom, where we drew a bigger bubble for the shower, a smaller bubble for the toilet, a mid-sized bubble for the vanity, another bubble for the door, and you draw little arrows that kind of just very loosely represent the circulation space. So like the sink is facing this way.

[00:06:54] You would enter the toilet this way. This is where you’d enter the shower. And it’s just a really, really quick way to get a lot of different layouts in a room. And you can very quickly start to see what works well and what doesn’t work well. And then you usually end up with a couple options that do work pretty well.

[00:07:10] And it’s easy to translate that to other people, even who aren’t designers. They can visually see the layout, the space, and it’s really easy to communicate that way. So that’s why I like it. 

[00:07:20] Rebecca: When I first came on at The Universal Design Project and Sarah was showing me a bubble diagram you had made, I was kind of having trouble envisioning spaces like this. And it was really helpful for me to look at that. Like you said, it was kind of a very simple way to look at a space and see how different things might take up that space.

[00:07:41] For someone who didn’t know a lot about it. 

[00:07:44] Sarah: Yeah. And I think it was really helpful for us to, like you said, visualize it and it wasn’t a lot of work on your part. Like you didn’t put in actual vanities and put in toilets into the space yet. I mean, it was really helpful for us as a team to look at it and to determine, okay, if somebody is going to go through the door here, what’s the first thing they see? Or what’s around the toilet?

[00:08:06] Do you think there’s enough space there for someone to get to the toilet? I think you gave us maybe four options and we really quickly all went to one option and so I think that probably helps save some time on your part as a designer, but helps us all see this space really well.

[00:08:21] So yeah, I think that’s a good concept to do within a design process. 

[00:08:26] Is this how you still approach your projects today? 

[00:08:30] Brooke: Yeah, definitely. It’s definitely still a process that’s used, throughout the world professionally. I think everybody does things a little bit differently.

[00:08:38] Especially in the creative field, just like how your mind works. That’s definitely a way we learned in school and a way I really like. I like it because it’s so effortless, almost.  It’s really easy to make changes. It’s really easy to give out a bunch of different options in the beginning. It doesn’t take a whole lot of time, but it gets the point across as you guys were saying.

[00:08:59] So that’s why I really like it. And yeah, we definitely use it in the real world. When you’re space planning a room and just trying to figure out where everything needs to go, it’s a really, really quick way to just translate your ideas to your fellow coworkers. 

[00:09:14] Rebecca: Especially, I imagine, if those co-workers may not be interior designers. Like for example, in our organization, it’s healthcare professionals and architects, and interior designers, and people with all different backgrounds.

[00:09:26] So I think having that simplified method to communicate, especially at the outset, is a really valuable tool. 

[00:09:33] Brooke: Yeah. I think even in the world of working with other interior designers, in the world of like the conceptual creative process, still other designers can’t read your mind. And sometimes you have to remember that.

[00:09:46] Sometimes I have to remember that when I’m communicating an idea to another designer, like even though they’re designers, they still don’t know what I’m thinking in my head and this isn’t drawn anywhere yet it hasn’t been created yet. So I have to figure out a way to visually communicate this so that other people can understand it.

[00:10:01] And so ways of having that visual communication is just key for a successful design.

[00:10:07] Sarah: Yeah, that makes sense. That’s a really good point, especially not being able to read other people’s minds because you can write something down but I think, you know, people take in information different ways, and having that visual piece to it really makes a big difference for sure. So, Brooke, I know that you mentioned your final project for school was designing a universally designed hotel.

[00:10:31] Can you share more about that project with our listeners? 

[00:10:36] Brooke: Yes, definitely. I spent so much time on this capstone project. So for my senior capstone project, we had to solve a social problem with interior design. So there was 50 students and everybody picked a different social problem and everybody had a different solution within a different building space, which was pretty cool to see everybody’s projects come to life at the end. So I chose universal design and I chose hospitality design. So I designed a hotel in New York City, hypothetically located, that was 100% universally accessible to everybody. So that means every space is completely accessible to all people, disability or not. So that would mean every single guestroom, every single guest suite, every single bathroom, every single seat at the bar, every single seat at the tables in the restaurants. Every single bathroom stall, not just some of them. So, it was a big project, but I really, really enjoyed it. And it definitely, I feel like brought to life, that this is possible.

[00:11:46] It can be done. It definitely highlighted for me sometimes I see why it’s not done. It’s a little more difficult and universally designed spaces take up more space. So in a hotel in New York City, you know, the rooms are typically smaller the bathrooms are typically smaller and stuff like that, but it is important and it can be done.

[00:12:07] Rebecca: That’s the attitude I like to hear! What are some features that you added into the hotel that you designed, that you could see being most helpful for people with a wide range of abilities and ages? 

[00:12:21] Brooke: One thing that was important to me was having all of the guestrooms be universally accessible because if you’ve ever tried to stay in a hotel, like the number of ADA rooms are limited, and it’s really hard to find an ADA room with a king bed or an ADA room with a view, if you wanted it. Or if you were going on vacation and needed a suite, it’s almost impossible to find an ADA suite. They always save the best rooms for not ADA rooms, because they’re more aesthetically pleasing that way, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can seamlessly implement these features into a room and still have it be just as beautiful.

[00:12:59] And so I think having a hotel where everybody has an option to stay in any room, and then you’re not excluded from a room, you don’t get left out if all the rooms are booked. If you have a couple of friends in wheelchairs, they don’t have to stay at different hotels because they don’t have rooms available.

[00:13:16] So that was important to me. And then also, the bar, for example, I made it regular table height, but then where the bartender was standing behind the bar, I dropped the floor so that the standing bartender and the seated person in a wheelchair would be at eye-level, but still, the person who was the bartender doesn’t have to be crouching down because that’s why bar heights are the way they are.

[00:13:43] So, that was important to me.

[00:13:47] Rebecca: I’ve never heard that idea about different levels of flooring to allow people to be at eye level, but I love that! That would be such a cool thing to see in more places like cafes or like coffee shops, restaurants.

[00:14:02] Brooke: Yeah, well, basically what I was doing, where I was going is that like, anybody can sit at a shorter height table. It’s not really a problem. It might be a little unusual, but anybody can sit there. But people in wheelchairs cannot sit at high top tables or standing height bars. So it doesn’t really inconvenience everybody to have it be lower the same way it does to have it be higher and there’s ways to make it so that it’s possible and comfortable for everybody.

[00:14:30] Rebecca:  That’s really brilliant. I would love to see that in more places. So I’m wondering how this project was received by your peers and the faculty in your program. 

[00:14:41] Brooke: I got a lot of positive feedback from it. So we present our projects to a panel of jurors, which are just design professionals.

[00:14:51] We presented it four times throughout the project. So throughout the different phases, and of course there are things that could have been tweaked or maybe do this a little different, or I think this would be a good idea to implement, but overall, I got a lot of positive feedback from the project and it was really well-received.

[00:15:09] Rebecca: That’s awesome. Do you think that universal design is common for interior designers to think about? Or do you think this was more of a novel perspective that you were bringing?

[00:15:21] Brooke: I think to the extent that I did it in this project, it was novel.  Typically you don’t see a hotel where every single room is universally accessible and every single seat at the bar and stuff like that.

[00:15:32] But we definitely do learn about it in school. We learned about universal design and we learn about the ADA laws and we’re taught that it’s an ADA law, it’s not a code. And if you break the law, there will be punishment. You have to include ADA into every space, which is great. And the ADA laws are really great.

[00:15:51] They really are really inclusive and we’re lucky to have something like that here in America, but I mean, you can always take it a step further I think, which is nice and important. So we definitely learn about it and it’s definitely taught in use, but I think it could be taken even a step further with a little extra effort.

[00:16:11] Rebecca: That makes sense. And hopefully, you can lead the way and trailblaze the way for that in your profession.

[00:16:18] Sarah: Yeah, definitely, Rebecca. And Brooke, thanks for sharing about what you did with this hotel. I think it’s a great example for people to go beyond the ADA in their projects. And something that we’ve actually talked about in the past in our organization is how important we feel it is for people to experience collaboration between different professions. 

[00:16:40] And experience things like universal design and the different codes, to help create spaces that are beautiful and functional. And I think starting these conversations and learning how to collaborate with others right at the beginning of your schooling is a really great way to set professionals up for continuing these relationships and concepts when they get out into the field kind of like what you’ve been doing.

[00:17:04] So I know that you are now working as a designer in healthcare design. So, can you explain some things that you learned from school and your internship with us, by working with other professionals in different fields and how you’ve taken that into your current job? 

[00:17:24] Brooke: Yeah. So working in the professional world is much different than being in school, as expected. So I’m working on an interior design only firm.

[00:17:34] And so we don’t do any of the interior architecture. And a lot of the projects we get are really big healthcare projects, so huge hospitals, either new towers or completely remodeled spaces. And so there’s usually several different firms working on several different pieces of the project together. So it’s a huge collaborative project with most of the people I’d never even talked to because I’m kind of newer to this, obviously, I’m fresh out of school.

[00:18:08] So there’ll be like 40, 50, 60 people working on a project, all working on the same file, all collaborating on their different scopes. So definitely it’s important to learn how to like, and not all of them are interior designers. They’re all in the design world, but a lot of them are architects or mechanical engineers, or even technological engineers.

[00:18:27] There’s so many different pieces of a big, huge project like that. And like for one of our projects, our scope is just simply furniture, which sounds very simple, but, when you do it for a whole entire hospital, it gets actually pretty complex. So it’s important to learn how to collaborate with other people and know how each different space affects each other.

[00:18:49] Like how the interior architecture affects the furniture, which affects where the TV monitors go on the wall, which affects the electrical engineers, which affects the plumbing. Everything is intertwined. So you have to learn how to collaborate and communicate clearly with people which is something I definitely learned working with occupational therapists and stuff like that. How it all affects each other. And, side note also, we are you doing hospitals. So we’re speaking with healthcare professionals all the time. We interview them to see what their needs are for the space, what they’d like to see, how can the current space they’re in be improved?

[00:19:27] How does the space affect their day-to-day work life? So, you know, we work with healthcare professionals all the time and that affects the interior design of the space because, at the end of the day, they’re the ones really using it. So we need to know how it’s going to benefit them the most.

[00:19:42] Sarah: Well, that’s super exciting to hear what you’re working on. And it also sounds very complex with that many designers working in one space and on one plan. And I’m sure that can get complicated, but it’s also really exciting at the same time to see everything come together and everyone focusing on their specialty. And I’m also, of course, glad to hear you’re working with therapists and other healthcare providers as well because you are designing the space for them and for their clients and patients. So, yeah, I think that’s really great.  

[00:20:14] Are there any unique design elements that you’ve seen implemented in the hospital setting that you think would be neat for our listeners to learn about?

[00:20:22] Brooke: I think, just like the most unique thing about healthcare design that I’m really enjoying is how much it really makes an impact on the people there specifically.

[00:20:35] So like when you go to a hotel, hospitality, design is so much fun and great. I loved it, doing that in school. And when you go to a cool hotel, I mean, that’s so much fun. But when you’re at a hospital, the design of the hospital really has, I think, a bigger impact. Like when you’re a patient in the hospital it’s never fun and you don’t want to be there. And, we specifically design the rooms to be as comforting as possible. We have little lounge areas so that we specifically pay a lot of close attention to, to make sure they’re comfortable. We go that extra mile of making the space feel homey and comforting and relaxing and lots of influences from nature.

[00:21:18] And I think that’s something that I really like about healthcare design is that the interior design really, I feel like it has a bigger impact. And I think that’s important in interior design everywhere, whether it’s in your home, if you like your home and you’re comfortable there, then your life overall is going to be better.

[00:21:36] And so I think that’s something that’s unique about interior design that I really like that it’s definitely applicable in healthcare design, but it’s really applicable to all fields of interior design.

[00:21:47] Rebecca: I really liked the way you spoke about that because it kind of sounds like you’re describing building empathy into the designs, like thinking about what it’s like to be in a hospital, no one chooses to be in a hospital.

[00:21:58] So how can you make that space as comforting and as warm and as safe as a person would want it to be, in a place that’s typically very stressful. And I think the same idea kind of like you alluded to, could be generalized to all different spaces. What do you want to feel like in your home and how can you create a space to create that feeling for you? And things like that.

[00:22:21] And I think that’s part of the beauty of universal design is considering that for different people and how they’re going to use the space and function in the space and feel in the space. 

[00:22:32] Brooke: Yeah, it is important. And learning where we’re at implementing those spaces for the staff as well. There’s a lot of lounge spaces beyond just a typical staff lounge, where if the staff are having a particularly stressful day, they have a place where they can go because it’s hard on them too.

[00:22:49] And they see and experience a lot of things. And at the end of the day, they’re only human as well. So I think that’s important for them too. For you to receive the best care, the staff needs to be taken care of as well. 

[00:22:59] Sarah: That’s a big thing too. And especially with COVID. I think our health care workers are really experiencing a lot of changes like that. So having a space for people to decompress. And to have a relaxing space in a crazy atmosphere is important as well. Another thing that you mentioned that made me actually think of a webinar Rebecca and I were listening to about architecture, but there was a statistic that they talked about where individuals who had rooms in a hospital that we’re facing nature areas or outdoor areas with trees, and maybe some water features and things like that, actually had a faster recovery rate than those who were looking out their window at a brick wall.  

[00:23:42] Rebecca: So Brooke, is there anything else you want to share with us before we wrap up? Anything cool you’re working on or anything that you’ve seen lately that inspires you? 

[00:23:53] Brooke: Right now I’m working on getting my LEED certification, which is leadership in energy and environmental design. Which has been a lot of fun to learn about. It’s kind of like the gold standard for building sustainability. So I’m working on getting my LEED accreditation it’s called. And other than that, like nothing else, that’s taking up a lot of my time and just trying to do the best work that I can.

[00:24:20] But it’s been a lot of fun. I’m definitely lucky to have the opportunity to get to work on projects during COVID because a lot of things are being put on hold right now, a lot of people are out of work, so I’m definitely feeling lucky there. 

[00:24:34] Rebecca: For sure. And the design world is lucky to have you and all the healthcare professionals and the future patients that are going to be in the spaces you’re designing will be fortunate that you are still working as well. And now, especially adding in the LEED certification will be a great addition to your work in universal design. Incorporating that piece of sustainability into your work. And I’ll be excited to see what you do with that.

[00:25:00] Brooke: Thank you. 

[00:25:02] Rebecca: Thank you so much for joining us today and for sharing all your experiences and your thoughts and being a true champion of universal design in the interior design world. 

[00:25:14] Brooke: Oh, thank you. Thank you guys so much for having me and for thinking of me to come on the show. I had so much fun. 

[00:25:19] Sarah: Thanks for listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. I’m your host Sarah Pruett, Program Director and Occupational Therapist at The Universal Design Project. Learn more about our work at universaldesign.org, and find more episodes and links to subscribe at goodfitpoorfit.com. If you have questions or topics you’d like to discuss, email us at [email protected]

[00:25:50] Thanks for fitting us into your day!

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