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The Importance of Digging In: Environmental Psychology and Architecture.

By Fiona de Vos, Ph.D.

Architects, designers, and organizations such as airports, hospitals, offices, schools, train stations, and daycare centers often claim to create environments that promote well-being of their users. However, they rarely investigate deeply into the needs of their users in order to fully understand how the environment may impact them.

Environmental Psychology studies the interplay between humans and the built and natural environment and aims to bridge the gaps between designers, clients and the end-users of an environment. This interdisciplinary field analyzes and reveals important design-behavior relationships that we should take into consideration when designing hospitals, schools, daycare settings, airports, stations, offices, parks, cities etc. Understanding how the built environment influences our behavior and our well-being is particularly important when end-users do not have a direct say in the design-process.

From Visioning to Final Design

The design process has become increasingly complex and requires more and more attention to coordinating the consultants and specialists involved. With so many stakeholders in a design process, the attention paid to the true stakeholders, the users of the building, often flags, resulting in environments that do not ‘fit’ well. This fit can be significantly improved by involving Environmental Psychologists in the design process.  Their role is to simply focus on the specific needs and wishes of the various users, to bring this information to the design table during the different stages of the design, and to explain the value of the specific design-behavior relationships to the designers and the client-team.

For instance, how can the environment contribute to the efficiency and productivity of staff? How can a hospital lower stress and increase well-being of patients? How can the learning ability of children in schools be improved? How can we enhance safety in parks and lower crime in cities? Answers to these questions can help clients define strategic objectives and design goals: the vision and guiding principles of a design. These strategic objectives (e.g. lower crime, increase patient safety, increase staff satisfaction) help guide the design process by giving direction when tough decisions need to be made.

Design-Behavior Relationships

In order to bring the right information from the right people into view, environmental psychologists can guide the participation and involvement of different users in the design process. During the programming phase, environmental psychologists will investigate the needs and wishes of the various users, resulting in a behavioral and functional program of requirements as related to environment-behavior relationships based on input from the different users and the latest research. For instance, in any care setting, of all the design-behavior relationships, two aspects seem most prominent: visibility and proximity. A nurses’ station visible from a patient room enhances a sense of safety and security for the patient and increases efficiency for staff. A visible dayroom is much more likely to be inviting to patients, and hence used, than one that is hidden. Amenities for staff (e.g. toilet, supply room) that are not on their unit, may still be near, but are psychologically too far because they have to ‘abandon’ their unit in order to get there.

A Place to Flourish

The psychological impact of the environment cannot be underestimated. A building can enhance or diminish users’ efficiency, well-being and satisfaction. It pays off to really dig in. The attention, time, and devotion spent early in the design process will result in a building that actually ‘fits’; a place where people flourish.  So why not do it right the first time?!