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How to Use Environmental Psychology for Better Design Solutions

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

Abstract of a color processor inside the human brain. Makes me wonder about how well we express color. Image Credit: Frank © Bonilla Abstracts.tv | Flickr

How do you, as an architect, get to the bottom of what your occupants really need and want? Do you do this mostly be talking with them? Presenting different architectural design schemes to see which one they like best? Or do you study their behavior to understand what moves them with regard to the things that cannot be expressed by mere words?

I recently came across this quote that I thought might be an interesting place to begin a discussion about environmental psychology for architects:

“Research shows that only 5% of what the average person thinks can be expressed verbally. […] The other 95% is hidden deep within the subconscious.”
— Click here to read the article.

If the above statistic is true, then how do you as a designer wrap your head around the other 95% underlying what your occupants really want? Also, how can you increase the chances of creating a design that will, in fact, work — adding behavioral, emotional and intellectual response to what goes into making an architecture work functionally successful?

Five Techniques to Leverage Your Architectural Design Efforts

The following are five tips to help you, as an architect, incorporate key architectural psychology design principles while you design. These can be great starting points to shift your mindset — and can especially be coupled with your programming efforts:

  1. Observe Occupant Behaviors: You can get design insight by observing your occupant’s behaviors, emotions, thought process and so on, by understanding how they react in certain environments similar to the one you are designing. However, don’t be afraid to look at their behavior in other architecture types, as these can give you great insight and some good takeaway ideas.
  2. Review Their Photos and Memorabilia: Ask your occupants to bring in photos or other memorabilia to see and experience what they deem important about their past experiences involving a project similar to your new one.
  3. Create a Survey and/or Conduct an Interview: Ask your occupants questions that you would otherwise not ask them in a typical architectural design programming session. Be creative here. If you have many occupants that will inhabit your building design, then a survey and interview will help you find out not only individual client and occupant behaviors, but it will help you understand collective behaviors as well. This can be quite important. I challenge you to go beyond the typical line of questioning which usually involves occupant load, circulation, wayfinding preferences and so on. Really delve into what makes your client and occupants “tick”.
  4. Learn About Their Struggles: Delve into what troubles your occupants most — medical conditions, daily or lifelong stressors, life changes that they have experienced or will experience and so on. By understanding their personal history, future aspirations and current “state”, you will have a richer understanding as to how to design a building that not only functions for them, but also uplifts them.
  5. Have a Brainstorming Session with Them: Break the typical “mold” and brainstorm with your occupant. Make them a part of the process (to whatever extent you feel comfortable). Even if their ideas do not literally translate into elements for your architectural design — you might be surprised that this session could give you some much needed insight about how your design will be received.

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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 an award-winning visionary author, designer, and educator from the United States. Maria holds a Bachelor of Architecture with Honors from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and a Master in Design with Distinction from Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

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