Sunday, August 7, 2011

Architecture and the Environment

Physical structure has a significant effect on human behavior. As humans find themselves spending more time enclosed within the walls of structure, it becomes valuable to design structures integrating features of the natural environment and structural landscape features into the human-made environment (Joye, 2007). Research suggests the design of residential and commercial space has pervasive effects on its inhabitants and is an important consideration in architectural design.

Physical Structure as it Affects Human Behavior

Architecture, a symbolic and intentional endeavour seems to reflect the psychology of its designers regardless of time, culture and perhaps even species. Space, form, and light are elements that are often incorporated either purposefully of unconsciously for aesthetic or practical reasons but more pointedly give creatures meaning, purpose and stability amidst an ever changing physical universe of seeming chaos (Popow, 2000).

Architecture can be perceived as purely functional, although some, but certainly not all can be the esthetically pleasing, similar to the affect of any art form. It can also be an expression of cultural pride, societal passion, or national esteem (Ayers, 2007). Research supports the idea that architectural design and the structure of space, the number and spacing of windows, and lighting affect people. Furthermore, "architectural design has strong but modifiable effects on social behavior and users' mood and productivity and, to some extent, design features also affect health and wellbeing" (Ayers, 2007, para. 1). According to Joye (2007), "our surroundings influence not only the way we think but our intellectual development" (p. 305). Gestalt psychology suggests humans experience the influence of architecture as their brains have a proclivity to infer rhythm and patterns of space and structure, which influences behavior (Joye, 2007).

Architecture as a Means of Controlling Human Behavior

“The structural design or arrangement of space imposes restrictions on behavior. Doorways determine our access to a room and room dimensions restrict the kinds of behaviors that can take place inside a room” (Ayers, 2007, para. 2). With these considerations in mind, a building’s function as well as its users, must match its design. Because uses and inhabitants change both functionality and design needs, the design of the interior must accommodate flexibility. A building's interior must create the appearance of space, regardless of its actual size because space makes inhabitants believe they have the choice between interaction and isolation. Individuals report a more positive sense of control when their environment allows them to choose interaction or isolation rather than experiencing both randomly thrust upon them. The psychological effects of crowding have been associated with arousal and stress.

Evidence suggests when individuals perceive ample space, they report feeling a stronger sense of control over their environment and are less prone to anxiety over minor annoyances, stress, and aggression. Furthermore, ample space has a pervasive effect on subjective well-being and health (Straub, 2007). In a study of dormitories by Baum and Valins (1977), overwhelming evidence determined the design and layout of internal space affects the stress of psychological crowding and demonstrates architectural design has a mediating effect on social behavior. Whereas crowding has been linked to aggression, social withdrawal, increased criminal acts, and inappropriate interaction (Stokols, 1972), privacy is strongly correlated to less social withdrawal, a sense of control, positive mental health and task performance, and a decreased tendency to react negatively to minor annoyances (Straub, 2007). Küller, Ballal, Laike, Mikellides, and Tonello (2006) found the effects of light and color in the workplace had a significant influence on the mood of individuals working in the space. When individuals perceived the lighting as inadequate or too bright, their moods declined, but when the lighting was adjusted and perceived as right, their moods reached the highest levels.

Implications of Commercial and Residential Design

Because of the direct and indirect consequences of architectural design on health and wellbeing, Ayers (2007) refers to three interrelated variables as important considerations in the design of space. These variables are the perception of density, privacy, and control. Density is the relationship between the area of the space inhabited and the number of individuals inhabiting the space (Stokols, 1972). Density affects people, as it contributes to the psychological effects of crowding whereby people feel confined and limited within the allotted space (Stokols, 1972). As density increases, it is more difficult for individuals to maintain privacy and personal space (Altman, 1981). Furthermore, densely populated environments threaten the sense of control individuals have over privacy and how they choose to regulate social interactions.

According to Ouroussoff (1999), architecture can heal and function as a parameter "for an enlightened community, one that can even uplift the soul" (para. 9). As a testament to his belief in the friendliness of architecture, Pei built a hospital whose user-friendliness included the likes of smaller, private spaces, more open public space for interaction, terraces that served as "green spaces" for patients, plenty of fresh air and natural light. Pei's design and his desire was to create a more open, therapeutic environment. His fundamental belief demonstrates skillfully manipulated architecture fosters a humane environment even when extreme constraints exist (Ouroussoff, 1999). Architecture like Pei's have implications for the functional yet healthy designs for industrial spaces in which many people must share limited space. Providing "the structure for increasing control over local spaces increases productivity and prevents distress associated with crowding" (Grierson, 2003, para. 12).

In a profound example of interior design as it affects human health and wellbeing, Ulrich (1983) found "natural views are associated with positive emotional states which may play a role in the reduction of stressful thoughts and recovery from surgery" (Para. 10). In his study, patients who had windows with natural views fared better than patients who had window views of a brick wall. Compared to the patients with the wall-view, the patients with the natural view had fewer complications, took less pain medication, appeared more positive to nurses, and spent less time after surgery in the hospital. Other studies similar to Ulrich's (1983) suggest a positive overall effect of designing according to the fundamental services that will be provided by the building. In the example of hospital design, attractiveness, natural views, privacy, safety, and comfort provide an environment more conducive for healing.

Importance of Sustainable Architectural Development

“Around the world, as cities reach unprecedented sizes, their increasing social and environmental problems need to be addressed if we are to avoid catastrophe” (Grierson, 2003, para. 1). In developed countries, urban environments consume excessive resources that continue to dramatically reduce the limited supply of global resources on which the human species survives. The ecological footprints of major cities far extend the boundaries of their immediate area. According to Brown (1999), urban communities account for almost 80% of the carbon emissions from human activities and 60% of water use by people. If this model was used for developing nations, as is currently occurring, it is not environmentally sustainable. According to the United Nations Development Program, (1997), in 20 years the earth will sustain 33 cities with populations exceeding eight million (only one of which will be in the United States.) Without significantly altering urban design, it is likely the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which humans depend for their wellbeing will exhaust their ability to survive (Grierson, 2003). The massive population and development needs continue to place tremendous pressure on limited natural resources and the idea of sustainability increases in significance as "forests are shrinking and water is continuously depleting. The divide between haves and have-nots is increasingly, posing a serious challenge for economic policy makers" (Grierson, 2003, p. 756). Still, the daunting task of embracing a sustainable paradigm requires a lucid understanding of the methods and tools to take sustainability theories and make them practice.


Physical structure has profound effects on human behavior. Designing humane and appropriate structures has become a critical component of not only inducing positive mental states, but also as a means of conserving and preserving our limited natural resources. Grierson (2003) remembers the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children" (para 27).


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