The human need for shelter has evolved extensively over many centuries and eons from a survival requirement to something much more, with building structures that have become an expression of beliefs, or of monument, a representation of power, concept or philosophy, meaning, purpose, cultural representation or built simply with a focus on current trends, technology and/or functionality. However, through simple observation it is apparent that the many different types of structures also have varying influences on human behavior. The extent to which an architectural design includes open spaces that can be considered “public,” closed spaces that offer privacy to the occupants, the number and size of the windows, lighting, and access to natural scenery either within the structure or within view of occupants inside the structure, all play a critical role in shaping human behavior within and feelings about the environment within a structure. Although architectural factors are not the only environmental determinants that influence human behavior, there is strong evidence supporting the idea that certain aspects and components of a structure can play a major role in increasing or reducing occupants’ stress levels especially as pertaining to issues such as human perceptions of crowding, personal space, private space and territory. In addition, the extent to which a structure provides natural views such as windows, balconies or terraces, and even areas for indoor plants, all play a role in making the structure an environment that encourages positive feelings and experience or negative feelings, stress and aggressive behavior.
Credit: Yair Haklai
Structural Impact on Behavior
Structural design and architecture, even if designed purely to meet functional requirements, still elicits meaning (knowingly or unknowingly) to those that occupy and use the structure. Human culture and beliefs, in addition to the available technology and building materials, influence and determine the architectural design of structures. There is a very strong connection between human behavior and architectural structure in general, where human behavior influences architectural design and vice versa. For example, studies have shown a significant, positive difference between hospital patients that are exposed to windows and natural settings verses those patients located in rooms that have neither windows nor any form of natural settings. Patients with rooms that include windows and access to natural environment settings have been found to require shorter hospital stays, less medications, have a significantly more positive outlook, and also reported by doctors and nurses to be much more pleasant overall when interacting with those patients as compared to patients that had neither windows nor natural environment settings. In contrast, structures that have unfavorable temperatures, facilitate or increase noise levels, and that feature build forms which increase density and crowding, that also tends to lead to higher levels of human stress, aggression, mental fatigue, and even the frequency of violent incidents. Hence while human behavior influences architectural design to reflect culture and other uniquely human characteristics and needs, the actual structure form can and does influence human behavior in both positive (such as a decrease in stress) and negative ways (such as mental fatigue).
Design Changes That Improve Performance
Since architectural design and the physical structure can play a major role in influencing human behavior, it stands to reason that the build form of a structure can be leveraged to elicit the desired behavior. By using specific techniques discovered by environmental psychologists, the negative behavioral effects of structural limitations (such as those imposed by the design of an old building or the land upon which the structure is built) can be addressed by introducing structural changes that decrease the impact of stressors and provide positive behavioral influences. For instance, working in an urban environment, in an old building during the summer can lead to a decrease in work performance and higher instances of aggressive behavior simply because of the rise in temperature. However, other than the obvious introduction of fans and/or air conditioning, increased natural settings (vegetation) within the building will decrease the threshold at which the frequency of lower performance and higher aggression takes place. Similarly, if the internal spaces of the building appear small, there is an increased likelihood of mental fatigue, stress, aggressive behavior, higher anxiety and more. However, by rearranging the internal building space so that the space appears to be larger (even though it is not), the threshold for negative behavior impact due to perceived over crowding and density is greatly reduced.Even the human need for basic environmental (territorial) control can be influenced through architectural design and/or a change to or within a structure itself, decreasing potential stressors such as perceived over crowding, density issues or violations of territory by establishing increased areas of privacy because private spaces tend to decrease stress.
The Psychology Behind Structural Design
Many studies have reported significant differences in human behavior (both positive and negative) contingent upon the form of architectural design and structure, so it logically follows that the architectural design of structures should take into account the environmental behavioral influences on human occupants. Density, a factor based upon the number of individuals within a given space, is perceived relative to factors such as culture as well as individual differences. So given the relative nature of perceived density factors, architectural designers should include structural spaces that have been shown to alleviate perceived over crowding, such as greater recesses between buildings and smaller buildings or less façade area within residential environments.
The perceived control inhabitants have over their environment must also be considered by building into structural design flexibility which enables those within the structure to change their environment as required to satisfy their needs. In one study, for example, it was found that increases in perceived control (allowing students to choose the type of lighting they could use at their desks) within a flexible environment lead to a more upbeat, positive mood than when individuals (within a control group) were constrained to unfavorable or no choice at all. The same study, however, also found that those who perceived a higher level of control also had lower and slower performance than individuals in the control group (which may be due to selecting a poor lighting source as compared to those that had to use the lighting they were provided).
Privacy is another major factor that both commercial and residential designers must layout and build into their structures to provide a positive environment for inhabitants within the structures. Privacy is the ability to control access to one’s self or one’s environment. From a commercial perspective, lack of privacy leads to constant interruptions that ultimately decrease employee’s performance levels. By designing commercial structures with privacy in mind, such as through the use of sound dampening materials to reduce noise levels, and barriers on at least three sides of each employee that are not transparent (or a room with a door) so that other employees are not visible within 10 feet of each other, productivity can be maximized through perceived privacy.
Structurally Related Sustainability Factors
These same architectural design factors also play a role in ensuring the sustainability of urban living environments. Currently large cities grow outward as they consume resources including land as well as water, clean air and more, which is not a sustainable model because as these urban areas grow, the ability to deliver needed resources decays. Strategic objectives such as increasing the density in urban environments will help to achieve sustainability however, will also have undesirable, detrimental effects on the urban population. By applying environmental psychology principles to structures in such a way that perceived privacy, control and density remain within the inhabitants’ level of comfort, (for example, by increasing the number of windows in each structure and including noise reducing, non-transparent materials to divide the space within every living environment), environmental psychology can help the world attain sustainability without the adverse side effects that accompany increased density and perceived overcrowding.