When architects began designing the new Morrow High School in Atlanta, Georgia, they didn’t only consult teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders. They also referred to public health data, which showed that the surrounding community had a high rate of obesity. To address this issue, they created an S-shaped building with prominent stairways that encourage students to take more steps throughout the day. The school, which opened in the fall 2022, embodies an active design.

Not every designer has the resources to mine and analyze public health data. But now, a team of researchers and public health experts has brought the power of big data—from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and other organizations—to designers throughout the country. They created PRECEDE, which stands for Public Repository to Engage Community & Enhance Design Equity, with the help of $30,000 in seed funding from the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) Foundation. Free and easy for designers to use, the PRECEDE dashboard and website identify the top public health concerns for a given project site, along with educational public health materials and design strategies for improving those outcomes.

“Our charge as designers is to improve people’s health, safety, and welfare,” says Dr. Dawn Haynie, an Atlanta-based educator and research fellow with ASID. “PRECEDE is a really good synthesis of research across disciplines—health, medicine, and design— blending a broad range of findings into a single tool. It will make it extremely easy for a designer who may not have the resources of a large firm to apply that information in their practice.”

While there are existing tools, such as New York University Langone Health’s City Health Dashboard and CDC Places, they are not geared at design professionals, and they seldom provide actionable information for designers. “There are a lot of tools that assess community health, but the data they provide isn’t granular enough to give design responses to,” says Washington, D.C.-based interior designer David Cordell, who helped create PRECEDE. “For instance, you might be able to compare mortality rates in one city versus another, but mortality can be linked to many factors. We wanted to identify what the actual health risks are so we can tailor the responses.”

PRECEDE closes the gap—and not just for interiors, but for all architectural projects. Thoroughly versed in the difficulties of finding and compiling data from multiple sources, Cordell and others, led by public health expert Dr. Erika Eitland, began by identifying more than 40 health indicators that could be impacted by design decisions. They categorized them as demographics, climate adaptation, risk mitigation, and health promotion. Then they developed a user-friendly dashboard that taps into five major sources of public health data.

“We bring our unique personal health status with us when we enter a building, so our healthy design solutions cannot be one-size-fits-all,” Eitland says. “To achieve a tailored healthy building, PRECEDE demystifies public health indicators, provides health priorities per project site, and identifies physical and community engagement strategies.”

Even during the pilot phase, PRECEDE began informing building design. For example, the Durham School of the Arts in North Carolina is in an area that struggles with violent crime, segregation, child poverty, and breast cancer. Each of those issues can be affected by design: For example, violent crime can be addressed by prioritizing physical safety on campus and cancer risk can be reduced by ensuring that no toxic materials are used in construction.

“Most people see what we do as aesthetics, without knowing all the rigor that lies behind the design,” says Haynie at ASID. “Tools like PRECEDE help us talk about the importance of design and its impact on our health. It helps us highlight why we make certain decisions. And it may help us advocate for something that might be otherwise value engineered out when budget comes into play.”