Psychosocial Value of Architectural Space


Are there lessons from the zoo that we can apply to building design? The answer is clearly “yes.”

What would a building space be if it were designed to promote psychological and social well-being? How would your affect the senses, emotions, and mind? How would it your affect behavioral patterns and sense of community? For insight, it is useful to look not at buildings, but at zoos. Zoo design has gone through radical transformation in the past several decades: cages have been replaced by natural habitats and geographic clustering of animals. Animals now exist in mixed species exhibits more like natural landscapes. These animals have much greater control over their behavior. They are thus enabled forage, play, rest, mate, and behave just like normal animals.

New zoo design has replaced animals in cages with naturalistic habitats and mixed species displays. What brought about this transformation in philosophy and design? In one famous example, an animal psychologist was hired by the Central Park Zoo to study a polar bear that spent the day swimming in endless figure 8s in its small pool. This was not normal polar bear behavior and the zoo was concerned. After several days, the animal psychologist offered a diagnosis. The bear was bored. To compensate for this unfortunate situation, the zoo added amenities and toys to the bear’s space to encourage exploration and play.

Are there lessons from the zoo that we can apply to building design? The answer is clearly “yes.” Key lessons, applicable to any building design, include the following:
1. Look beyond survival to well-being
2. Design for the senses as well as the body

Looking Beyond Survival to Well-Being
Survival deals with aspects of the environment that directly affect human health, such as clean air and water, lack of pathogens or toxins, and opportunity for rest and sleep.

Well-being needs, on the other hand, are associated with fulfillment, quality of life, and psychological health. Whereas lack of satisfaction of survival needs may lead to serious illness or death, inability to meet well-being needs can lead to psychosocial maladjustment and stress-related illnesses.


Landmarks, variability of space to serve as location cues, windows to orient by outdoor views, use of color and pattern on walls or carpeting to provide location and movement cues.

Links Between Basic Human Needs and Environments
The following are the twelve architectural design attributes generally regarded as essential to well-being:

1. Social engagement: Comfortable meeting places, indoors and outdoors; circulation systems and layouts that support informal interaction; attributes that draw people to space and encourage conversation.
2. Cultural and Collective Meaning: Celebratory spaces; artifacts and symbols of cultural and group identity; sense of uniqueness.
3. Relaxation and psychological restoration: Quiet spaces with low sensory stimulation; connections to nature; distant views; outdoor seating or walking paths in visually appealing landscapes.
4. Visual and aural privacy as needed; movement between interaction and solitude: Enclosure or screening; distance from others; ability to regulate the desired degree of social interaction by moving between spaces or by manipulating personal space. Variety of informal social spaces to encourage relationship development.
5. Learning and information sharing: Good acoustics for training/learning environments; good visibility to support situation awareness; layouts, meeting spaces, and circulation that support conversation and information exchange without unduly disturbing others.
6. Connection to nature and natural processes: Daylight, views of nature outdoors, careful use of indoor sunlight, natural ventilation, interior plantings, nature décor, and nature patterns in spatial layouts, furnishings, and carpeting.
7. Sensory variability: Daylight access; indoor sunspots; variation in color, pattern, and texture; natural ventilation.
8. Sound levels similar to nature: Operable windows to allow connection to positive outdoor sounds; acoustic conditioning to reduce equipment and industrial noise, yet allowing for some human sound (“buzz”) that is energizing. See also WBDG Productive—Provide Comfortable Environments.
9. Interesting visual environment with aesthetic integrity: Adoption of naturalistic, bio-inspired design; patterned complexity; reduced monochromatic environments; more organic layouts and forms.
10. Wayfinding and making sense: Landmarks, variability of space to serve as location cues, windows to orient by outdoor views, use of color and pattern on walls or carpeting to provide location and movement cues.
11. Exercise: Indoor gym, outdoor bike and hiking paths, open stairways to promote interaction and walking, visually interesting landscape to entice exploration.
12. Sense of equity: Design of spaces and allocation of amenities that shows concern for the health and well being of all occupants, visitors and other users of the space.

Design for the Senses
Given our affinity for nature it is reasonable to look for general characteristics of living organisms and life-like processes that could form the basis for the design of whole buildings, spaces, layouts, artifacts, and landscapes.


Organic Shapes: Nature is not rectilinear. The connection between emotions and shapes may be wired into our brains.

Characteristics of living organisms and life-like processes include:
1. Movement: Movement is characteristic of all living organisms as well as life-supporting systems, such as the sun, clouds, fire, and water. Movement may be self generated or aided (for instance, by the wind, water, or by attachment to a moving organism). Movement patterns associated with safety show motion that is “always changing, yet always staying the same.” Examples are aquarium fish or the pattern of light and shade created by cumulus clouds. In contrast, movement patterns indicative of danger show erratic movement and sudden change, such as changes in light and wind associated with storms, or birds fleeing from a hawk.
2. Organized Complexity: Living organisms display complex design or adaptive complexity that may not be apparent at first glance, but which is discovered through exploration. The desire to know more about a space or object with increased exploration is considered by many to be at the heart of learning: the more you know, the more you want to know and the deeper the mystery becomes. In contrast to living forms and spaces, most built objects and spaces are readily knowable at first glance, and thus do not motivate learning and exploration. Although complexity is a desirable feature, spaces and objects that are too complex are difficult to comprehend. The key may be the combination of ordering and complexity that allows comprehension at higher levels first and then at lower levels with successive exploration.
3. Organic Shapes: Nature is not rectilinear. The shapes of natural objects are determined by fractal growth patterns and by the limitations imposed by the conditions of life on earth, especially sunlight and gravity. Although there is not a great deal of research on this topic, there is some indication that people respond positively to organic shapes and curvilinear building spaces.
4. Emotions and Shapes: The connection between emotions and shapes may be wired into our brains.
5. Multi Sensory: Nature is sensory rich and conveys information to all human sensory systems, including sight, sound, touch, taste, and odor. Life-supporting processes such as fire, water, and sun also are experienced in multisensory ways also. Although the vast majority of research in environmental aesthetics focuses on the visual environment, there is growing interest in obtaining understanding how design appeals to multiple senses.

Buildings affect our psyche as well as our bodies. They can be inspiring and supportive of daily activities, or they can deplete the spirits and undermine the best intentions of the designer. It is not by chance that such results occur. Positively experienced, psychologically healthy buildings have a host of features that distinguish them from less enjoyable buildings. Buildings with high psychosocial value are designed around basic human needs, ancient preferences, and connections to the patterns of nature and the mind.


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