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Architectural Smellscape: Designing for the Olfactory Occupant Journey

By Maria Lorena Lehman — Get more articles like this sent to your email HERE.

‍Image Credit: © tai111 | Fotolia

Rediscovering the Environmental Smellscape

Have you ever thought of “smellscapes” for design? And have you ever considered that you could compose smells for the olfactory sense to promote certain responses through memory? Well, the olfactory sense is an important part of the way we experience our surroundings. An article featuring Sissel Tolaas, who is a chemist specializing in olfactory information, teaches very interesting points about how smell impacts us. In fact, Tolaas explains the following:

“…the perfumes, soaps and pumped-out bakery scents that camouflage the aromas of the bodies and streets do humanity a disservice. […] When we eradicate smells […] we strip cities of their sense of place, and people of a valuable tool for communicating and navigating.” (1)

Smell offers a type of wayfinding that not only becomes part of our experience of a space, but also serves to prompt or guide behavior within that space. A smell can act as a boundary which signals what lies ahead, or what has just been experienced. Often, it is smell that can evoke a powerful memory – to emotionally reconnect us with our past experiences. Yet, the vocabulary to describe different smells is not very diverse, thus making olfactory information a bit invisible and intangible. (1)

Designing an Olfactory Journey

When designing an environment, have you considered what the olfactory journey will be like for your occupants? So much attention is given to the visual sense during design, but little is often spent on the sense of smell. Just imagine how your design could improve by making design decisions that factor for the olfactory sense. Your architecture could tap into occupants at deeper levels by using smell to evoke emotion.

Of course, different smells have different meanings to different occupants. Yet, there may be some universal responses to certain smells as well. The key is to uncover your design’s intent. And then, ask yourself: What emotions, behaviors, and memories do you want your occupants to experience? And how can different smells from architectural materials, nature, or other occupants do to strengthen these outcomes?

Personalizing Space through Smell

What if a particular smell brings back a strong memory for you? Thus, smelling this scent could help you re-experience the past through the visualization of that memory. As a designer of environments, you should consider how the smell of your environments will be remembered. Paradoxically, it is this invisible olfactory sense that can leave the longest lasting and most emotional impression upon your occupant.

So, if you could pick a particular smell to act as the trigger that will help occupants to remember their experience in your environment…What would that particular smell be? Would it be a combination of scents working together to create a “smellscape”? Or would there be one particular scent that would immediately make your occupant remember their experience?

As you design, be sure to use olfactory stimuli to make your architectural environments better. By strategically incorporating the sense of smell into your occupants’ experiences, you will make your architecture reach new poetic heights — because you will be pulling from multi-sensory methods to connect with occupants through your design. And this will yield more profound architectural experiences that enhance not only memory formation, but also learning and emotional response.


(1) Lasky, Julie. How smell shapes our perception of the world around us. Ideas.Ted.Com [Accessed from:] October 14, 2015.


what members are saying...
Maria: I came across your website through a reference in today's Architect Weekly ezine and am delighted I did. I'll bookmark your site and check back often. I read the first article and then the second and thirty minutes later realized how much time had passed. I've been practicing for thirty years and have always missed the stimulation of academia. I find each of your brief dissertations sort of like a day in design studio. Thanks for the inspiration.

Ron Ward
AI Group Design
I am excited to see you touch a vein of values in architecture, I have been chasing myself for years. Your depth of involvement in these very deep subjects is really beautiful and passionately dealt with and well written. Sound, color and value, shape, texture, scale, smell.... all definitive measures of the spaces we should be alert to. [...] I will savor the rest of your investigation of sensuality in architecture. I'm Glad I found you.

Dennis McLaughlin
McLaughlin Architect
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Maria Lorena Lehman is a multi award-winning visionary author, designer, and educator from the United States. Maria holds a Bachelor of Architecture with Honors from Virginia Tech and a Master in Design with Distinction from Harvard University Graduate School of Design. CLICK HERE to learn more.

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