June 01, By Dave Barista, Assistant Managing Editor Imagine how much more effective the design process would be if you knew what your clients were really thinking. What colors inspire them? How do they interact with their physical environments? How does sunlight make them feel?
Messenger There was a time when architects and construction companies were keen to engage psychologists. This was the Psychology architecture thesis, an era defined by the landmark book Psychology for Architects. It spawned the whole field of environmental psychology, dedicated to understanding how people interact with the buildings and spaces around them.
After a few years, however, designers lost interest — not just in the UK but across the world. They might still be engaged on aspects of a project, such as ergonomics, mobility or health and safety, but building designs are rarely fully psychology-proofed.
By the time people finally qualify as architects, they have studied so much about understanding end users that psychologists might seem more like a threat than a benefit. This means that the needs of end users are not properly taken into account — or in the case of public buildings, only in a post-occupancy evaluation, where the team responsible explains how the building fulfilled the brief.
By this stage, major changes are impossible.
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To see the results in practice, look no further than the announcement earlier this year that London is planning another towers in its skyline with little consultation. It is strange to read about this ambition in spite of all the clear evidence from psychological studies about the behavioural consequences of cramming people together.
All have either been demolished or are on the way down. But deciding what environment is OK or preferable is a difficult task. There are multiple reasons why one person will like one place while someone else will dislike it with a passion.
Urban environments are particularly challenging to design because they arouse different behaviour to other places. People are less likely to make eye contact, shake hands or even help each other, for instance. It was established long ago that housing designed to encourage casual encounters with neighbours makes people interact better with one another.
This was the lesson from the likes of the notorious Pruitt-Igoe public housing project built in St Louis, Missouri in Yet it soon attracted substantial crime and vandalism. Residents missed the opportunity for interaction, social order and perceived safety through knowing one another, and the whole acre estate was demolished only 18 years later.
Wikimedia Critical elements The condition of a site is important to how people respond to it. One of the recurrent findings is that people tend to prefer environments that are clean, have a degree of ornamentation, are uncluttered, have an open view, good illumination and so forth.
Good designs do not demand too much attention, and are easy to move through and understand — imagine the different experiences between a busy underground station at rush hour and a park in the full summer sun, for instance. Such environments tend to promote well being in a general overarching way.
Another critical success factor is participation, where the end users are involved in the design process. An example of good practice is a recent cooperative housing project in Berlin, where the community was involved as part of the mission to create a building that was socially just, economically suitable and environmentally responsible.
All users were given the opportunity to customise their flat to their specification and character. Housing coop under construction at Spreefeld, Berlin.
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