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Green By Design Episode 207: Environmental Psychologist Dak Kopec

Dak Kopec is an environmental psychologist and Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Graduate program in Healthcare Interior Design at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Learn about some of the principles of environmental psychology and how he has applied them to different projects he's designed for war veterans, psychiatric facility patients, and more.




Dak Kopec, Environmental Psychologist and Associate Professor at University of Nevada-Las Vegas

Erica Reiner (00:06):

Hello, and welcome to green by design. On today's episode, we have Dak Kopec with us and I am Erica Reiner of eco method interiors. And I am going to introduce you to Dak he is very, very interesting. He has an, is an architectural psychologist and associate professor in the school of architecture at the university of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has authored several books by interior design used by interior design educators, including three additions of environmental psychology for design. He is a prize winner, a Fulbright reviewer. He has accolades and awards and certifications, and has lots of really interesting stuff going on. But I'm really interested in talking to him because he has started a program, a graduate program focused on designs for human health at Boston architectural college, and is really focused on person centered design and combines his knowledge of architecture with human health. And that is what we are all about over here. So thank you so much for joining us.

Dak Kopec (01:23):

Thank you. Thank you for having me. So just kind of a little bit of a clarification there. Start the program at the Boston architectural college and it is still in operation, but I am currently coordinating a master of design in health and wellbeing at the university of Nevada, Las Vegas. UNLV so that's currently

Erica Reiner (01:42):

Wonderful. That's great. And glad to hear that schools are having people like you develop programs like this because it's been a long time coming. I think

Dak Kopec (01:55):

I agree with you completely.

Erica Reiner (01:58):

Okay. So yeah, I would love just to hear about your story. Either we know whatever came first, whether it was your interest in architecture or your interest in human health and how those combined to do, you know, healthful designs and human centered design and all that kind of stuff. I'd love to hear how those two things merged and your interest in them.

Dak Kopec (02:22):

Sure. I'll give you a kind of the, the middle version, not the abridged, not the long, but the middle one. So I was born with severe asthma. So if you had a scale of one to 10, it was probably a scale nine. And I was born in the early seventies, late sixties, and we didn't have the medications that we have today. And my, one of my most profound experiences was when I had to watch some friends of mine flying a kite on a nice spring day. And I couldn't go outside because I was allergic to everything going out there. And that's when I realized that that the environment itself had a strong impact. And I was starting to define myself according to the things that I could not do within the built environment within the built and natural environment, because of, of my allergies.

Dak Kopec (03:14):

I had that, that, that understanding and my parents were very proactive, so I'm super happy that I had good parents that way and looked at what I could do not look at what I couldn't do. And so they got me involved in singular sports because team sports were, were not working for me because if I had an asthma attack, so I was playing, playing baseball, then I would internalize that negatively. So they, they encourage the singular sports of, of things like gymnastics and wrestling and those things that, that I could control. So thankfully they get that, but I realized that those sports were, were engagement in those sports were actually helping me be, and I didn't know it at the time. I was working on my associate's degree and I concentrated in exercise physiology. And I learned that what I was doing through the sports was increasing my lung capacity, which was meaning that the effects of the asthma that weren't affecting me as, as severely as they were before.

Dak Kopec (04:12):

So that's where I thought I was going to go. And ultimately I pursued my, my graduate degree, my undergraduate degree in, in health sciences. Because again, I was looking at that relationship between the built environment and how people were, were using that environment to, to define themselves and to define their, their opportunities and their limitations. Unfortunately when I got out into the field of public health, they weren't really looking at those types of environmental issues at that particular time. And that prompted me to get my first master's in community psychology, because then I started to see, well, okay, well, certain communities are behaving in certain ways and we can start to figure out like what communities are going to have higher issues with, with alcoholism, what communities are higher issues with with spousal abuse. And so that's where I thought I was going to go.

Dak Kopec (05:02):

And I ended up arguing with a lot of my professors because they would talk about social issues all the time. And I would be like, yeah, social issues are important, but what about, what would you to the infrastructure? What is it that the city is saying about me when I live in this part of the city, is this telling me what I can be or what I can't be as just supporting me in what way? And one of my professors, you know, we'd get into debates with all the time. Finally gave me an article that was written by an environmental psychologist. And it was taking a look at the relationship between a super Walmart in a placed into another community and how this environmental psychologist was saying that that would be really bad for the community. And it would lead to two more blight and other issues.

Dak Kopec (05:45):

And after reading that article, I'm like, oh my God, that's it. So I am not an academic by any means whatsoever, despite everything that you see, it was just that I was on a and I was trying to figure out, well, who am I? And I know what is important to me, but I'm not finding it in, in a degree and I'm not finding it into a profession. And then I found it and that's what caused me to pursue my PhD in environmental psychology. I was lucky because I was doing some consulting work and an interior design school had saw that I had a degree in environmental psychology asked me to come in to the interior design school and to, to teach what I had learned. Well, environmental psychology was great, but it still has to have strong social content. It wasn't really looking at the specifics that we can do through environmental modification as a means to bring about better reflections.

Dak Kopec (06:42):

And it was in that class. I was really lucky. I had a really supportive group of students who we had this great symbiotic relationship because I taught them the knowledge about what I knew about the research and the theories and stuff, but they taught me how to apply that to interior design. And that's actually what led to my first publication is, was that whole process of how to distill all of this information into something that was practical. And so I did that and then I also got picked up by a school of architecture and I just kinda felt like I didn't really have all that I needed to know with regard to the design foundation. And that's what caused me to go back to get my, my second degree and my second master's degree in architecture. And I stayed in architecture and interior design ever since then. And that's why I'm here.

Erica Reiner (07:35):

Wow. What a story? Will you tell us a little bit more about the principles of environmental psychology and what you've turned it into? The principles of environmental psychology for design and interiors and architecture?

Dak Kopec (07:53):

Well, a lot of the principles in psychology still have a strong social context and there's a relationship to how people internalize what it is that they're seeing and how they process it. And how does that then distill into, into the behaviors and such? I take a look at the same principles and I start saying to myself, okay, well, if this, if these are some of the elements that go into a successful learning, say for, for a child, with ADHD, ADHD, we want to increase their learning outcomes. I say, I look at some of the research and what it's relational to and say, okay, well, that's great, you know access to the natural environment and walk you through a, through a city park, you know, and taking 10 minutes is fantastic, but not all kids can do that. So can we do something to the classroom itself or what is the environment?

Dak Kopec (08:48):

So, you know, many of the studies that have been done have been done in Illinois or places where there's a lot of greenery I teach in, in Vegas, we got a lot of rocks. So is it the same benefit when need to happen for, for my children who are, you know, surrounded by rocks and cacti and you know, those things that are going to be the same. So for me, it's translating all of that stuff to say, okay, well, what are the components to the natural environment? What are the different elements that we can then bring into, into the built environment and will it have the same and satisfying effects?

Erica Reiner (09:25):

And what have you found? Like, what are some really fun, little like fun facts or stats that we could use to say, you know, when we manipulate this this comes out of it. Like, what are some of the really like great juicy bits that are gonna, you know, convince people a of that design is important to them and can have a bigger impact on their life than they might've otherwise thought. Cause that's like the drum I'm always beating.

Dak Kopec (09:55):

Sure, sure. I think that we have to take a look at, at the individual and this is where the, the persons centered design comes into play. And I respect the fact that sometimes we as designers, we have to design a school that has to support everybody, but you know what, it doesn't, it has to support everybody in that community. It doesn't have to support everybody in the nation. It doesn't have to support everybody in the world. So once we find out who it needs to support within that community, and what are the preferences in, what are the worldviews for them, then we're able to take a look at that to say, okay, how do we make that work? You know, one of the, one of the projects that I worked on, which was the school for emotionally disturbed youth people who had been incarcerated and they have to go to, to these special kind of schools, you know, we wanted to bring the natural environment in whoa.

Dak Kopec (10:45):

When we started talking, I realized that a lot of the kids viewed the natural environment as being only for the rich. They didn't see that as, as their option. And so we then thought to ourselves, okay, well, what is their option? So we did a drive through the entire, their community of where they grew up and we saw some really interesting graffiti art. Well, if you look at nature, you see that everything is organic and it's rounded and you see the blending of colors. Well, if you start looking at some of the graffiti art, you see the blending of the spray paints between them, which is the same thing that you see in nature. And you still see the roundness and the curves, and you see some of the undulations that you might see with a rock. And so then we started to say, well, what about, what about if we were to do some graffiti up on, on the wall?

Dak Kopec (11:30):

Would that be, would that be something that you would be interested in? And so then this, the students then created a whole bunch of drawings and we did a voting on it. And then whoever was, we put that up at the top top frame. So it wasn't in the primary visual field, but it was in the upper peripheral visual field so that the students could take ownership. And it was something reflective of something that they were proud of. And so I think that, you know, that's an example of including the students into the overall design projects so that they don't look at it as an us versus them, but rather it, this is mine. I own it. We created this, we have this thing, but it was my friend that won that competition, that one, that one, that particular banner or area up there.

Dak Kopec (12:17):

So I think that that's one thing. If you take a look just at the community and try to understand what it is that the community wants, but then it, what about if you've got somebody who like a returning war veteran and they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, you know, what are the triggers, what what's happening that is going to cause them to move into a fight or flight motion, you know, if you've ever been in a full fight or flight motion, you know, that you're not really responsible for your actions because you're in an adrenaline surge. So we start to take a look at that to say, okay, well, how do we then design for them? And so oftentimes it's like sudden boons or shut-in bangs, you know? And so that's, when you, you might incorporate something like a tapestry in, in a front wall or something, or you try to control the sound permeation through, through the particular building.

Dak Kopec (13:07):

The other one that I'll give you. Cause I love to speak, not examples of three is you know, for, for older people or people who are having a hard time finding purpose. We know that when people don't feel like they have a purpose in life that can bring about depression and depression and anxiety are strongly associated with one another. And so, you know, applying the old, the old notion of tending is mending creating some gardenings and bringing the, the plants in. So you've got plants behind you. Those all require nurturing, and it requires you to stop, assess what you're doing and then water the plants and to take care of them. So this is a case where, where a gardening and being able to nurture something and see it move forward, or whether it's a fish tank. So maybe some people aren't into plants, but you get a fish tank again, you have to, you have to keep tending to it. And then of course there's a complicated ones that dogs and cats that you have to, to tend, but that whole notion of attending is mending really does help with, with those particular populations.

Erica Reiner (14:17):

Wonderful. Thank you for those examples. What do you wish that the interior design community as a whole new, a little bit more about, like, if you could disseminate a few nuggets of knowledge like what do you see in general is lacking as we work with our residential and commercial clients that were, could be leaving on the table?

Dak Kopec (14:41):

Let me see it, I see for lacking, I don't think that we have a very strong psycho biological background. I don't know that that people always know you know, just something really, really silly, like what's the difference between an ischemic stroke and hemorrhagic stroke. And what does that then mean for design? I mean, if you have an ischemic stroke, that's more of a blockage and design's purpose, there is predominantly to be rehabilitation, but a hemorrhagic those, those cells are dead in the brain. So you're looking at habilitation. And so you have to design for the new normal by not knowing the subtleties of, of that or the elements of human, rheumatoid arthritis versus osteoarthritis. When we don't know that, then we tend to overcompensate and we, and when you overcompensate, then people can lose abilities that they already have, because if you don't use them, you'll lose them.

Dak Kopec (15:38):

And so we can con we can design to, to push some of the limits and we can work in tandem, particularly with the ischemic stroke case. We can work in tandem with the physical or the occupational therapist to come up with an environment that supports the rehabilitation process so that we can try to get the person as close to where they were as possible. So I think that I would really like to see more of that in an interior design program and curriculum, so that we're able to, to have those conversations a little bit more in depth.

Erica Reiner (16:14):

So it sounds like for some of the I, it's not commercial, but like the you know, hospital and medical center design what you're saying is it's not, you know, one size fits all and learning about some of the more granular medical issues that lineup pretty specifically with design issues is what you're is what you're going after here, like having a more of a crosswalk or a crossover between the two fields of study.

Dak Kopec (16:49):

I think that need just as much as, as you have psychology courses in public health or, or in, in nursing, I think we in design have to acknowledge that we are part of the overall trifecta of the biology, psychology sociology, and we're the environmental component of it. We've been left out of the equation for way too long. And we have, we have people who think that they know what, what good design is either at the biological level or at the sociological level, but really the interior designer or, you know, the architect is the one with the design foundations. And so we can work within that to just about anything. It could be anything from helping children to learn who have learning disabilities to helping, dealing with stress and stress management, to working even with two parents that are having a newborn child and they're bringing in another person into their, I mean, there's a lot of different factors where interior design and architecture spill into psychology, spill into sociology and spill into the medical fields. And we really need to, to have a baseline knowledge of what those are to be able to communicate effectively with those professions so that we can be included into the holistic health care process.

Erica Reiner (18:14):

So I think a lot of people are familiar with the idea or a little bit of, you know, design psychology, especially as it relates to color. We see that one being, you know, disseminated throughout, you know, popular culture a little bit more frequently. Like I even remember being a kid and someone telling me like, you know, yellow is a good color, but if it's too intense, it's going to make you feel really like crazy and anxiety. And then red, you know, always indicates passion or anger and blue is calming and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So besides color, I think, you know, whether or not all of those are hard and fast Drew's associations, what other criteria or elements are designers thinking about? Like things like space from proximity and pattern and shape, and like, what are some of the other criteria and how those, like maybe a couple like a little tidbits on how those relate back to mood or behavior

Dak Kopec (19:19):

Well, where you're, where you're touching on is based off of stimulation theories. And so color patterns, you know, they can either be high stimulation or low stimulation. The, the more curvies and the more rounds are, tend to be lower stimulation, as opposed to these, you know, undulating rectilinear aspects, which tend to be higher and stimulation, but that then gets direct juxtaposition with the color itself. And so you tend to see minimalist design using white because that's a lower stimulus stimulating color. So it's this constant balancing between all of these different elements and that's just within the visual field. So then you've got the auditory fields and you're looking at sound reverberation, and then you've got the, the olfactory fields, which is all of the different smells that you're smelling and all the different sensations that you're getting from touch. So whether it's heat or wind or anything, all of this comes together into, into a complicated web of, of sensory detection.

Dak Kopec (20:23):

And so, as designers are designing spaces, we need to identify what is the optimal level of, of sensory input for, for the people that they're working with. And that differs from culture to culture. I mean, some cultures require and want more stimulation because that's their piece and other cultures, or maybe even different folks that live in more rural areas have a much lower level of that sensory. So, you know, that's why we have to work within our specific communities to not use these broad strokes, to paint and say, everybody in the United States is like this, or all women are like this, or all vertically challenged people are like this. And, you know, we shouldn't be using those broad strokes and really be looking a little bit more local and more regionalized. Right.

Erica Reiner (21:17):

When I used to teach environmental science, I, I, that kind of overlaps with some you know, theories that I would run into like place-based or student centered. It sounds very similar. And the premise was, I guess, a little bit similar in that, like, it, it's harder to get people to care about some difficult theories or even abstract theories, like climate change when they aren't place-based or, you know, human centered. And so it sounds like a little bit of overlap there, which is really interesting.

Dak Kopec (21:54):

Yeah. I, I would agree with you. And I wonder sometimes just about the relationships that one of the recently I had a group of students create collages of their perspective, and it was interesting to see how a couple of them showed them, showed themselves because they have to start with an image of themselves, and then they use Photoshop with different images, but they show themselves like in a cloud with the roots coming down, which clearly shows that there's no attachment. So, you know, they're not incorporating place into their sense of identity because of all the moving around that that person had to do in their life for school or, or whatever, right. Whatever the anchor set are that are, that are establishing that sense of place, which then relates to sense of identity. So it's that, that initial relationship that I talked about in the very beginning of how my environment gets internalized into who I am and my, my abilities, my supports you constraints. I don't have that. Then what does that mean? I don't know.

Erica Reiner (23:00):

Okay. So I'm going to adapt this question a little bit for you. Normally I ask if it's a designer or green designer, I would say like, what are your favorite ways to go green in a project or whatever. But for you, what are your top three ways or your top three, like things you do or things that you want to look at and consider when you're starting a new project.

Dak Kopec (23:26):

When I start a new project, the first thing I do is a community analysis, which is very similar to a site analysis, but from the community analysis, I'm looking to see what the local culture is and what the, what the lo local flavor is. So I might be visiting some of the coffee shops. Are you looking, are there a lot of more astir coffee shops in the area, or are there more of the living room, eclectic type of coffee shops? Because that helps me to understand what is the relationship between the work, the home and the recreational environment. So I do do that community analysis to try to understand who's living in this community and that are going to be the occupant end user. From that particular point, I take a look at who the occupant end users are. I mean, are you literally trying to, to capture people in the 30 to 50 range, your, your primary work setting, trying to catch that, that 18 to 30 year old you know, college type of person, or are you trying to catch the, that more retirement? And so then I would develop a, again, some type of a generalized understanding of who that is. And then I would try to mix the two together to say, okay, there's a probability, there's a high probability that this population is going to come from this community. And if I merge the two, then I can get my probability of being successful with my design is going to go up. So,

Erica Reiner (25:01):

Right. Wonderful. what other, what's your, what would be your next step at that point?

Dak Kopec (25:07):

Well, the next step would have to be a discussion and to see what types of, of latitude do I have, would I be able to do a community focus group to run some ideas by the, by the people? Sometimes that's not, not an option sometimes that's not in the budget. And so sometimes I will create the presentation based off of my logical framework that I've created. And so I will create my, my steps to show how I came up with this particular design element and what that design element was to run it, past them, to see what, what their generalized thoughts are if they disagree with it completely. Well, then obviously I have to, I have to revamp because at the end of the day, the client is, is right if they're paying for it, because,

Erica Reiner (25:59):

You know, so do you, have you had any really like rewarding experiences or data gathered or even anecdotal you know, evidence coming your way from one of the places that you've helped to create and the outcomes that it has for its residents, whether it was the school that you're talking about, or you know, an nursing facility or healthcare facility, recovering facility, when you look at them compared to similar or not similar, but like, you know, say the regular facilities who didn't consult you, like maybe if, you know, a ever said like, wow, people who recover so much better here, or even any, you know, scholarly stats or anything like that.

Dak Kopec (26:51):

I've worked on several projects. You know, I can say that value engineering tends to take out some of, some of the really good bits, but I can tell you that that first school that I worked on, which was part of a not-for-profit organization, and they had three levels they were very open and receptive to, to all of the unique or the avant-garde, like I said, the graffiti, the graffiti art. And I got a lot of positive feedback on those things that those ideas that we initiated and, you know, it I've often kicked myself because I've never gone back to do, to do a full-blown postdoc, occupancy evaluation, so that I could then have it. I have it submitted to a journal for publication because I naively assumed that, you know, as part of an academic institution, we get asked to do some of these community service projects and these projects can, can become expensive.

Dak Kopec (27:56):

And I think that this was one project that they actually moved forward. And so I got lots of results. Like I would have never thought that elevating the teacher. So one of the things that we did is that we created a little stage in front of the classroom and we put the teacher up. So the students looked up that that would actually have a beneficial effect. And it did now, is that a one-off, you know, it's obviously anecdotal evidence. Is it a one-off that, that, that class did it, and, or did they just do it because it's something that they've never seen before, you know, is it one of those, like novelty things like the Hawthorne effect or, or is it true that, you know, if you're focusing up, you're going to be paying attention more? I don't know.

Dak Kopec (28:47):

But I also know that, that they talked about less vandalism to the school when we started putting the artwork, according to the, to the graffiti art. So you know, that, that's probably my best and I, you know, I believe that other places have also had beneficial outcomes that, oh, actually there's a really good one that I was thinking about that we did in Boston, which was a group home where they worked w where we were working with adults that were had cognitive delays. So one of the residents in, in the, in the home, in the group home had probably like maybe a two year, three year old IQ. And there was another one that wasn't much higher. And so this was from my students. So I'm going to give my students a hundred percent full credit for this, but this was at the Boston architectural college.

Dak Kopec (29:37):

And they were inside the home and they realized that. So let me say, the reason we were brought in was because some of the residents were screaming and yelling the residents in the neighborhood thought that they were being abused. So, right. So the corporation brought us in the company, brought us in to say, Hey, can you help us? We know with some of the sound dampening and sound attenuation, because, you know, once they knew that it was really, it was really just more about, about the cognitive level of the resident. Well, a couple of times the students were just, just sitting there and they were just, you know, just observing just in general and, and doing some drawings and stuff. And what they realized was that the screaming always happened roughly 20 minutes before the food was being served. And they thought to them, this one girl said, you know, my dog does that when I'm cooking, I can hear it whining and whining and whining for the next 20 minutes and the next. And she's like, I wonder if they're smelling it and they're, they, they are internalizing that they forgotten to be fed. And that's why they're screaming.

Dak Kopec (30:47):

One was above the stove. And one was right behind the stove to pull up a scent and lo and behold, they solved their problems. So it worked differently.

Erica Reiner (30:55):

Yeah. I love examples like that. And I think we need, you know, I would love to see in this field, so my whole business eco methodology areas is about interior design. That is more of a holistic approach. So in terms of mental well-being and physical well-being with the, you know, healthy air and water and all that kind of stuff. So as far as like the, the mental wellbeing and the physical wellbeing, I'm always looking for like the stats. I'm always like, you know, accompanied by like a nice little emotional story that can hit home, but I always want to have the data being you know, educated in science and science person before this. I really want to have that to rely on, and I wish we could get a little bit more in this field where we can say, you know, it's a little bit formulaic where it's like this kind of design is significantly more likely to result in this kind of behavior or mood or whatever, and the same thing with the health outcomes. So I'm always looking for that. So I appreciate those stories and everything that you have shared with us today, I want to be mindful of your time. So my last question is just where can we find you? If people want to learn more,

Dak Kopec (32:17):

I'm actually pretty easy to find. You just have to type in my name, Dak Kopec and I pretty much pop up in Google everywhere, but I do have a website, da K K O P E C .com. So you can find me there. I'm also at, at, at UNL V school of architecture. So you can, you can find me there as well. So I appreciate the work that you're doing, and I hope more people when people embrace what you're doing and where you're going.

Erica Reiner (32:46):

Thank you so much. And thank you again so much for your time and sharing all of that incredible knowledge with us, and we so appreciate it. And we will talk soon. Thank you.


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