Providing Christian Service Through a Research Perspective

Researcher Debra Harris, PhD, Associate Professor of Interior Design at Baylor University’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences, provides research support to projects focused on improving the lives and safety for all ages.

September 25, 2023
Lily's Pad Brainstorming

For Debra Harris, PhD, Associate Professor of Interior Design at Baylor University’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences, service is how she lives out her Christian faith. Through her work in Robbins College's Department of Human Sciences and Design, she can approach service through a research perspective, and use applied research to improve accessibility, quality of health care, and fire safety.

A Hyper Clean Play Space

One of Harris's recent projects included collaboration on the design and creation of Lily’s Pad, which seeks to provide a safe play space for immunocompromised children in Tempe, Arizona. Lily’s Pad was inspired by a young cancer survivor named Lily and the challenges her family faced while she was receiving chemotherapy.

“They were losing their daughter, her personality, and her will,” Harris said. “Lily lost so much while she had cancer. Lily’s Pad was born to provide access to play for children with immunocompromised systems.”

The nonprofit facility serves children who have been affected by chemotherapy, burns, or other immune conditions that keep them from safely going to normal playgrounds. Harris, who is a big proponent of evidence-based design, applied her research to identify the correct finish materials and develop disinfection protocols for the hyper clean play space. From HVAC system to flooring, the entire space requires materials that will not degrade when exposed to regular disinfection processes.

During the Lily’s Pad design process, Harris was able to include her Baylor Interior Design students in two different ways. During the project’s first engagement opportunity, students completed an independent study while they helped to develop the materials palette and evaluate disinfection protocols.

During interior design studio, students took on a challenge to design what they imagined Lily’s Pad could become in the future, as they focused on the experiential aspect and how to create stories for the play zones. For example, one group of students envisioned a playscape centered around a plane, and it would include murals around the perimeter to represent different countries. This could allow each space to be centered around a different aspect of play.

“Those ideas can be deployed at any time if Lily’s Pad wants to add layers of complexity into their space,” Harris said.

With its grand opening on June 15, 2023, Lily’s Pad is the only play space of its kind in the United States. Due to its unique concept, health care systems have shown interest in replicating it nationwide, and Harris’ team is applying for funding to help support research. The space is designed as a “living laboratory.”

So far, researchers have collected environmental data from a monitoring system. They hope to further study favorable health outcomes of children who can access Lily’s Pad in conjunction with counseling services, physical therapy, and other health interventions.

Harris believes play spaces provide immense impact to childhood development. For example, Lily’s Pad may help limit unscheduled doctor visits—a measurable indication of health—and it can also have a positive effect on a child’s social and physical development. Muscular and skeletal systems need contraction to grow during childhood, so play is essential to healthy growth patterns.

“Both developmentally and physically,” Harris said. “It’s a really tough time to have a disease that would prevent you from being able to play.”

Ensuring Local Access to Health Care

With 14 area clinics, Waco Family Medicine (WFM) is a well-established health center that provides comprehensive primary care and overall wellness support to underserved residents of McLennan and Bell counties. WFM also partners with local nonprofits that provide residents legal, tax, or educational support.

To further expand its capacity, WFM broke ground on a new $61 million facility, and project completion is estimated for the summer of 2024. Harris contributed research support to aid design of the new facility. She involved her Interior Design students through several service-learning projects, which she believes are vital to her students' education.

“It teaches different lessons for them,” Harris said. “Understanding your role as a designer, your gifts, and how you can contribute back to your community through your own Christian faith—that’s the perpetual motion that creates new opportunities.”

After the project’s architecture firm was selected, students had the opportunity to work alongside the lead designer and WFM staff, where they provided information on under-defined areas of the project like a teaching kitchen area, a staff break room, and utilization of the main lobby. Students were challenged to design the lobby layout, portable kiosks, and spaces with acoustic privacy, which will be in the facility’s lobby.

“It was a great combination,” Harris said. “The students got a lot out of it, and they felt like they gave back to their community. On the clients’ end, they received ideas that would have never presented themselves except through these students with no design inhibitions.”

The collaboration with the architecture firm’s researchers led to the development of an interdisciplinary Baylor research team made up of faculty researchers from the Department of Religion and the Department of Human Sciences and Design. They are currently brainstorming how to identify research goals and refine the data that WFM already collects.

These, and other interdisciplinary collaborations are integral to Harris’s health-focused interior design research. For example, Lily’s Pad utilized technology research in the design process, and it now downloads and stores environmental data. Additionally, because interior design’s body of research is not yet as extensive as that of medicine or the sciences, Harris incorporates evidence from scientific disciplines for her design interventions.

“If I’m looking at how I can improve the health of a child in an environment, I’ve got to go to the sciences, whether it’s building sciences, environmental sciences, or children’s studies. All those disciplines could impact how an environment is built to support health.”

Making Fire Resistance Safer

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), fires that ignite on upholstered furniture are the leading cause of home fire fatalities in the United States. Previously, product manufacturers relied on chemical flame retardants to mitigate the fuel load of a fire associated with upholstered furniture, and there have been several fire barriers developed to help prevent flashover and fast-growing fires. Unfortunately, certain chemicals used to create the fire barriers currently on the market can have adverse effects on human health and on the environment.

Currently, Harris is working with a research group, Chemical Insights Research Institute at Underwriter Laboratories (UL), to develop a fire barrier without harmful chemicals. The conception of the project came from consumers calling the research director with questions about how to provide a safe home environment.

“They’re young people, they’re educated, and they’re starting to have families. They have concerns about what products are safe for a child or baby’s room,” Harris said. “These young families align well with the impetus for the project, which was to find a middle point between chemical safe and fire safe, providing an evidence-based solution for a healthier built environment.”

After examining studies conducted by various agencies, the team found all the barriers had “chemicals of concern,” so they decided to develop a new product. Beyond safety features, Harris took other quality-of-life factors into consideration for the product.

“You want it to save lives and limit fires, but it also has to be comfortable on the cushion that it covers so that people will want it,” Harris said. “It needs to be affordable, so that cost does not become a barrier. There are all these other factors from a design perspective that must be considered.”

So far, the team has created mockups for a new barrier. Once the mockups are approved, they will produce cushions to be tested at UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute. The final step will be to test whole furniture assemblies using standard tests for open flame.

Firefighters’ Gear Safety

Another research interest of Harris concerns the personal protective equipment (PPE) essential to the health and safety of firefighters. The uniforms firefighters wear during fires, also known as turnout gear, undergo compositional changes when exposed to smoke, heat, and chemicals.

To determine effective decontamination and disinfection of the PPE, Harris examines turnout gear’s material as a three-dimensional object, instead of two-dimensional. Her research approach is “imperative” because many particulates and chemicals are embedded into the depth of the fabric. Harris explains that cleaning or testing the surface area will not decontaminate the gear or provide adequate analysis for understanding contaminants that can impact a firefighter’s health. 

“Most people think of a piece of paper or fabric as two-dimensional, but it’s not,” Harris said. “When using microscopy, you see that there is a vast world inside of a piece of fabric.”

Harris is focused on discovering the best way to decontaminate the PPE to ensure it is safe to wear when the next alarm sounds. Clean turnout gear is essential to a firefighter’s health because their body temperature rises during a fire. This temperature rise increases absorption which creates an easier pathway for chemicals to enter their body.

“When they come out of the fire, their bodies go through a cooling process inside a cooling box,” Harris said. “What do you do with the gear? What can be done to lessen the risk of cross contamination? They must have their own, safe, personal environment, their PPE, while they fight fires and provide safety to other people.”

In the future, Harris will continue to approach service through various research perspectives. Baylor students have noticed the impact of this approach, and it has created a wider reach for Harris. For example, she has three undergraduates who work in her lab, none of whom are studying within the Department of Human Sciences and Design. They chose to do undergraduate research with Harris because of her work’s close relationship with the people it directly impacts.

“That’s the secret sauce in environmental design research,” Harris said. “We’re so close to the user. We get to not only see how our research impacts them, but we also get to utilize their knowledge and experience to inform the kind of research we need to elevate their experience in the built environment.”