How does interior architecture affect our psychology and behaviour?

The relationship between interior architecture and human behaviour is very strong. Spaces can have a direct biological, psychological and sociological impact on how we feel. Imagine spending 8 hours a day in a room – then imagine it painted completely white, or black, or how about red? How do you think this would make you feel and act?

In some examples this is clear and intertwined with the use of the space. When we enter a grand church, we may feel calm and quiet, in a powerful classically proportioned bank we may feel more serious and trusting and, in a stadium, we may feel more relaxed, social and open.

Purposefully impacting human behaviour through design is not something new or surprising, with The Gruen transfer being an example of this from the retail design sector – Through the internal design of the space, with large glass fronts and unclear navigation, ‘consumers’ who enter a shop end up losing track of their original intentions and are more susceptible to make impulse buys. This example could be said to have a negative connotation for human behaviour (although not for the shop owner!), but what if we took an alternative, positive approach, and through design prioritised and optimised people’s wellbeing?

Personal Design

When designing a client’s home, we have the opportunity to communicate with them directly, to try to fully understand their personal needs and then accommodate them in the best way. However, what if personal requirements and needs aren’t very specific? – In larger or less private projects such as offices, multi-unit residential schemes, or universities where the client is not the end user, the direct end-user interface and priorities are often less clear.

We know well the importance of balancing time, cost and quality within a project. Often with cost seeming to be the overriding factor. This is then layered with considerations of aesthetics and complying with regulations, which push and pull throughout the designs development. But what about our wellbeing? Do we give enough consideration during the design stages as to how a project will contribute to physical and mental health?

Purpose

What is the original purpose of a space or building? It can be interesting to take a step back, and prior to getting into the financial and aesthetic details, to focus more on the core reasons as to why a project is being undertaken.

A simple definition of a building could be that they exist to serve societal needs – primarily as shelter from weather, security, living space, privacy, to store belongings, and to comfortably live and work. After all, a building is just empty space until it’s filled with people – then it becomes a space with purpose and a function.

Let’s take an example of an office space – In a typical example the main purpose of a company is to make profit. The office in turn is a means to ensuring employees work as productively as possible to enable this. This may sound dystopian but if you break that down further this has a more direct human impact. A productive space should help make employees comfortable, able to concentrate, efficient, relaxed (but not too relaxed!) and communicative with other colleagues. In order to make this possible there are many factors that need to be considered which are sometimes overlooked, such as fresh air with low CO2 levels to enhance concentration, a constant comfortable temperature, adequate natural light to help with circadian rhythms, efficient storage space to maximise productivity and different scales and types of space to delineate between more social, and more insular activities.

Some elements are touched on in the Building Regulations, such as daylighting or minimum U-values, but many of these more human scale parameters are not so easily quantifiable. The WELL Building Standard is one very useful tool to help establish and integrate well-being-based parameters. It uses research-backed strategies and explores how design, operations and behaviours within the places where we live, work, learn and play can be optimized to advance human health and well-being. The core concepts are Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Movement, Thermal Comfort, Sound, Materials, Mind, Community and Innovation.

“Mind” and “Innovation” in particular, are aspects of these core concepts that need careful consideration. It is important to see these points not simply as ‘add-ons’ to a standard design (as solar power is not necessarily the solution to making a building ‘green’). They need to help to inform the brief and aid discussion – whether during the early concept, or within the detailed specification. An interesting example is open plan office design – Although the intention of open plan offices is to promote interaction between colleagues, the reality is that due to the surrounding noise and distraction, people often plug-in their earphones, and can start to feel more distant from the colleague next to them. It is critical therefore, to find the right balance between openness and privacy.

Colour

Colour has a huge impact on our psychology and wellbeing, with some colours causing anxiety or discomfort, and others promoting productivity, calmness or warmth. According to colour psychology, vibrant and warmer colours like yellow and orange can encourage communication, social interaction and creativity whereas darker colours can reflect a feeling of calmness and trust. Interestingly green is in the middle of our visual spectrum, and therefore it is the colour that our eyes have to do the least work to process, which enables us to see more shades of green than any other colour. There are many studies showing the numerous benefits of green spaces and nature to our mental health, and exposure to nature can improve our mood, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve our focus. Our access to nature doesn’t even have to be real for us to benefit from it, as just by looking at images of nature or having fake potted plants is enough to lower our stress levels. This makes complete sense when we consider that we have developed in and around the natural environment for millions of years, whilst the office environment is barely 100 years old.

A very interesting study showed that being in a darker room can also lower our morals and encourage cheating – apparently even wearing sunglasses can have the same effect!

We spend 90% of our time indoors, and the percentage has probably been higher for many in 2020. So although it is always good to have one eye on the latest design trends, and how to maximise profitable space, we all need to take the time to step back and consider what and more importantly who is this building for? And how can we meet the health and mental wellbeing goals we want to achieve for the people that use it.