Joining HGA as a design researcher in 2012 after graduating with a PhD in interior design from University of Minnesota, Kara Freihoefer today serves as director of research as well as a leader of HGA’s Design Insight Group, an interdisciplinary team of researchers, process improvement engineers, design thinkers, and data analysts who work collaboratively to help facilitate research and discovery and advocate for change based on their findings.
In that role, Freihoefer spearheads firmwide research initiatives across all market sectors including healthcare, working to develop new ways to practice architecture and design through the creation and application of research tools centered around empathy and curiosity. Freihoefer is a believer that the integration of research into each step of the design process will lead to not just innovative but informed solutions that best answer user needs.
The success of her approach was demonstrated in the past year through her work on an emergency department (ED) renovation with Trinity Health of New England, where Freihoefer’s efforts—from literature reviews to shadowing studies to Gemba walks—taught the team how to not only conduct research but use the results to make decisions.
For example, by shadowing staff in the existing space, the team was able to apply data collected to propose onstage/offstage layouts, ultimately validating the schemes that enhance efficiency 20 to 30 percent. Freihoefer also created what’s dubbed a “core team” at HGA, composed of market leaders at the firm who strive to prioritize research topics into project work. This formalized process ensures both a strategic and integrated approach to research at HGA, resulting in internal studies over the past year on topics such as inclusive room and unit design for patients with physical and mental health comorbidities as well as ED preparedness for crisis events.
Additionally, she co-led several exploratory investigations on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on telemedicine in ambulatory care as well as on workplace strategy and design.
The effectiveness of Freihoefer’s contributions, including her work at St. Elizabeth Healthcare in Kentucky and SSM Health in Wisconsin, has been recognized with recent Environmental Design Research Association Certification of Research Excellence certificates, and she continues to share her knowledge industry-wide through published work and speaking appearances.
What do you love most about your job?
I love being in the project work, collaborating with colleagues and users, and finding new approaches to solve complex design problems.
What industry challenge do you hope to solve?
Data management. Our industry has so much data at its fingertips, but it’s often fragmented. By managing datasets better, we have the potential to find relationships across different variables. For example, we could explore research questions like how the size of a patient room (space metrics) relates to patient and staff safety metrics such as falls or work injuries (outcome metrics).
Who inspires you?
I’m inspired by my colleagues and clients—their passion and commitment to create designs that produce positive outcomes make my job as a researcher fun and exciting.
What’s the next major trend you anticipate for healthcare design?
Resiliency design in terms of highly flexible and adaptable designs that can respond seamlessly to emergency events, from highly infectious diseases to natural disasters to traumatic events.
What did you learn over the past year?
Nimbleness. Because of the pandemic, we weren’t able to collect much field data. We had to learn how to adapt and conduct research investigations differently and do more with the data we already had.