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Environmental Psychology: Building with Feeling

Scientific research is revealing all the ways our environments affect the mind.

By Nalina Moses

If it's the mission of Oprah and Dr. Phil to show us how other people make us feel and behave, then it's the mission of environmental psychology to show us how everything else around us—our spaces, our buildings, our cities, and our landscape—make us feel and behave. Dave Alan Kopec, a specialist in the field and professor at the New School of Architecture and Design in San Diego, defines it as “the study of human relations and behaviors within the context of the built and natural environments.” He and his colleagues conduct research to find out how the physical environment affects emotions and behavior, and their findings carry some potentially astounding implications for architecture.

Environmental psychology overlaps with many other established design disciplines, including space planning, ergonomics, lighting, acoustics, way-finding, branding, and interior design. And while its scope is enormous, its methods and conclusions are astonishingly precise. For example, research has proven that locating a sink within the visible stretch of a hospital corridor can increase the rate of hand washing, and that installing operable windows in a school classroom can reduce sleepiness. It investigates the effects of a certain color of paint on a living room wall and also of the ideal ratio of planted to paved space in a city park.

Environmental psychology is akin to evidence-based design, which architects tend to be more familiar. Evidence-based design draws upon knowledge from all fields, culling any type of information that has been scientifically proven and can be reproduced. Sustainable design is largely evidence-based, as its practices and regulations are based on scientific research. But environmental psychology takes the same premise and focuses it more broadly on people, looking exclusively at research-based information about the complex interactions between environmental factors and people's feelings and actions.

Not all the subjects that environmental psychologists tackle are obvious and easily observable. “Some environmental influences we can see or touch, such as seeing the aesthetics of a space or touching an upholstered ergonomic chair,” says Irving Weiner, AIA, an environmental psychology professor at Massasoit Community College in Middleborough, Mass. “Some of these environmental influences we cannot see or touch, yet they have a direct influence on our behavior or mood.”

For example, there are psychologists who study molecular and neurobiological responses, such as an individual's uptake of melatonin in response to natural light. And, at the other end of the spectrum, there are psychologists who study more broad-based social and cultural responses. As an example, Kopec cites the deep sense of loss felt by people in former Soviet republics after monuments from the former political regime were removed, “without regard to the meaning and history embodied within the design.”

Applied social psychology

Needless to say, the implications for architecture are enormous. As Weiner explains, “Environmental psychology explores the parameters and variables that might alter one's mood, behavior, productivity, effectiveness, and attitude.” Knowledge from the field enables architects to shape solutions for clients and users with foreseeable, measurable results. For commercial projects, this can lead to improvements in employee productivity. For retail projects, environmental psychology might mean higher sales. In a healthcare environment, this could mean accelerating patient recovery times.

Right now, environmental psychologists are most likely to be called in to advise architects on very specific project types, typically in healthcare. “In fields where there are special needs—children, hospitals, the aging, particular kinds of mental and physical illness, and forms of disability—environmental psychologists have been able to provide data-based evidence for design and planning decisions,” says Setha Low, a professor of environmental psychology at City University of New York. Environmental psychologists might be retained on staff at a large design firm, or serve as consultants on a per-project basis at smaller ones.

But it's still uncertain how directly knowledge from environmental psychology can be translated into architecture. “Part of the problem is that much of the work in the field is very psychological [or] behavioral, and it doesn’t easily translate into specific design recommendations,” says Alan Hedge, a professor at Cornell University’s Department of Design and Environmental Analysis. “I don’t think it will become more typical to hire an environmental psychologist until the discipline becomes much more applied, and undertakes research that produces specific design recommendations.” Hedge notes that environmental psychology is, to a large extent, concerned with forces that lie outside the province of design. “Yes, environmental psychology mainly looks at spatial layouts, crowding, nature, etc.—it's applied social psychology. [But] very little work deals with actual environmental conditions.”

What environmental psychologists can certainly do, at early stages of the design process, is introduce ideas from relevant research. Kopec says that he and his colleagues don't proscribe design, but are accustomed to “coming in and providing a specific set of knowledge to the designer so that he or she is better prepared when developing the design.” While architects accumulate deep knowledge about the effects of light, space, acoustics, proportions, and color over the decades as they complete individual projects, environmental psychologists, through focused research, can arrive at implementable results in a shorter amount of time. So, hypothetically, they're able to advise an architect about how an increased ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide in a classroom can increase student attentiveness, or how one-way circulation in an apartment unit can help an autistic person move through the day more comfortably, without repetitive rounds of trial and error.

Environmental psychologist and interior designer Migette Kaup, who consulted on a nursing home renovation of Meadowlark Hills, a retirement community in Manhattan, Kan., explains, “Architectural cues can provide reinforcement to the desired behaviors that we would like to see enacted in specific place types. When we are attempting to shift social meanings and create new experiences, such as making a nursing home actually feel residential, this reinforcement can be central to achieving the stated programmatic goals.”

Kaup and the design team at The Ebert Mayo Design Group oversaw the installation of warm, residential-feeling details in hallways, including rocking chairs and broad arched openings at one junction of private and public zones. For a New York City preschool, Kopec worked with designer Zvia Dover to incorporate mezzanine play areas, low ceilings, and vision panels to break a large loft space into smaller, more protected, interconnected ones, which can provide a greater sense of security for anxious children.

Data, design, or both?

As environmental psychologists bring more data-driven decisions to the design process, it’s not unexpected for architects to be concerned about a drift towards a grimly fact-based and results-oriented design methodology devoid of the spark of creativity and artistry. Both Weiner and Kopec disagree, however, and believe that intelligence from environmental psychology can only enrich the designer's palette. It remains the architect's responsibility to integrate input from environmental psychologists, along with input from other consultants, into a compelling holistic structure. In Kopec’s description, “The designers must take the narrow bit of expertise of the sustainability person along with the narrow bit of information from the environmental psychologist, and from the structural engineer, and distill all of that information into a meaningful design.”

Weiner understands that the field calls for architects to look through another lens, and examine more strategically the inner lives of the people who use their buildings. “The goals are to integrate environmental factors such as HVAC, illumination, color, art, and ergonomics into the unconscious mind, so that one's perception is positive; which in turn shall motivate one to be more effective in academia, in the community, and in the workforce.”

So, in addition to the bluster and boldness of Frank Lloyd Wright, every practicing architect is being summoned to cultivate some of the subtlety and acuity of Sigmund Freud.


Meadowlark Hills, a retirement community in Manhattan, Kan., designed by The Ebert Mayo Design Group. Individual doors designate individual entries into separate households, each door providing a physical manifestation of the act of entry into the home. Image courtesy of Migette Kaup.

Tribeca Community School in New York City, designed by Zvia Dover. Image courtesy of Tanya Braganti.


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