Show me your environment and I'll show you your future.
In his famous quote regarding restoring the commons chamber to the way it was before the bombing of 1943, Winston Churchill said: "We shape our buildings, thereafter our buildings shape us." Several studies in psychology show that our surroundings profoundly influence our decisions and our eventual outcomes. In his book Willpower Doesn't Work, Dr Benjamin Hardy expresses the importance of being mindful of our environment with a stark warning.
If we do not create and control our environment, our environment creates and controls us.
(Dr. Benjamin Hardy)
Considering that we spend 90% of our time in or surrounded by architecture, it plays a significant role in shaping our environments. Our relationship to the built environment differs from that of any other art as it affects us all the time, not only when we actively pay attention to it. The built environment shapes our lives, our emotions and the choices we make and profoundly shapes the narrative we tell ourselves and construct out of our daily lives.
Architecture is commonly known as a fusion of art and science; however, it encompasses much more than that, drawing on and intertwined with psychology, sociology, economics, politics and more. The architecture of a building can have a profound impact not just on society on a systemic level but also on individual occupants. The layout of the space, the material finishes and how much natural light permeates the space can all impact occupant health, mood, and productivity. Most people are oblivious to the fact that many social, cognitive and emotional problems come from under their feet and above their heads. The context within which we are situated most often determines who we are at any given moment. Shaping and choosing our environment is really at the heart of what free will is, as the environment exerts influence over our choices, which will directly impact who we become. Like body and mind, you and your environment have a two-way relationship. It is crucial, therefore, that creators of such environments consider what constitutes a positive environment and how environments can be curated for positive experiences, behaviours and outcomes.
According to Charles Darwin, evolution occurs in one of two ways: naturally or domestically. Natural evolution occurs as a species adapts to the environment — those who adapt best win. Domestic evolution is when environmental factors are pre-planned to yield specific traits. For example, domesticated animals and plants cultivated for food are larger than their wild counterparts. Most people evolve naturally, in a random, unplanned and unconscious manner. They react to whatever environment finds them. A little bit more mindfulness, however, will allow them to live in an environment that doesn't just meet their needs, but encourages them to reach their highest potential.
Consider natural light as an approach for enriching an environment. Nature literally heals. Twenty seconds of exposure eases a person’s heart rate, 3-5 mins can lower blood pressure levels. In a study, patients recovering from gallbladder surgery who were placed in rooms with natural light and visible access to trees perceived less pain and were released a full day earlier than others without views to the outdoors and natural light. Natural light also improves academic performance. Schools with increased natural light record higher attendance, exhibit fewer behavioural problems in students and show better grades overall.
Studies show that people who work in well-designed spaces take less sick leave, are more focused, and generally contribute more to their organization. Conversely, unimaginative buildings and sterile landscapes cause high levels of stress and anxiety. A person trying to solve a problem inside a small box will have fewer creative solutions than someone outside of the box. The term think outside the box is quite literal here. Switching on task lights rather than overhead lights help with solving mathematical, spatial and verbal problems. People find cool and less saturated colours soothing and warm and more saturated colours energising.
Students taking tests in rooms that prominently feature bright red elements score less well. When people took IQ tests in a room with a sky-blue ceiling, they scored higher. A certain hue of pink is so calming that some football teams paint it in the opposition’s locker rooms. An acoustically uncontrolled space too tightly packed with people with little privacy correlates with disorder, explaining why crowded homes are associated with higher rates of child psychiatric and psychological illness. In one study, children in classrooms facing train tracks consistently underperformed on a range of tasks compared to those just across the hall. Another study showed students participate and learn less in classrooms with overhead lighting, plastic/metal (hard) seating compared to soft classrooms, curtains, task lighting and cushioned furniture which convey a quasi-domestic feel. Even our memories include the built environment in which they were created, that’s why students perform better in a final exam when it’s conducted in the same room where the material was learned.
Although it's difficult to quantify the impact well-designed architecture has on individuals, we all know the feeling of entering a space that just feels right. You feel its resonance subconsciously along with its function. Creating an emotional connection between the user and the space is as critical as designing the product or function, as they both speak to a sense of experiencing architecture. Look around you, consider the shape of the room, its height, width and colour of the ceiling. Consider the texture of the walls. Feel the hardness or softness of the ground under your feet. The air quality, the sounds you hear, the lighting, the temperature and the views. Note the selection and arrangement of the furniture. All of this influences your health and well-being in ways you may recognise and ways you may not even imagine. It influences the way you relate to and perceive others in the space. It can even affect your very sense of self. Why does this matter? Because it can be changed. Every aspect of the spaces we find ourselves in both large and small reflects choices people made. The built environment is composed, which means that it could have been composed differently.
Developers and builders excrete significant influence over the built environment. With profit being a key driver, there is a lot of temptation to use ready-made designs, standard materials and conventional construction methods. While designers of the built environment typically work for a client and are therefore subject to market demands as well, with their considerable influence, they can use it to harmonize physical environments with human embodiment to create better environments for all.