The Science of Buildings

Science is a tool, which has been used to help commercial industries become more effective and productive. Its influence is everywhere from engineering, manufacturing, technology to athletics. Catapulting each industry to a higher realm of thinking as well as innovation. Imagine, an athlete like Michael Phelps without science shedding light on the physiology and dynamics of movement? Or engineers trying to launch a rocket without understanding gravity or physics?  

Science is having a strong emergence in industry at the moment. From artificial intelligence to materiality, science is breaking barriers to innovation. Even art, which is usually seen as divorced from science, is seeing a scientific renaissance. However, an industry that is still missing scientific rigour is the built environment, specifically, the design of buildings and cities. 

For the last fifteen years neuroscientists have been studying how the physical world shapes our cognition and wellbeing. The information and research is outstanding; from understanding how artificial light impacts circadian rhythms, to how the brain navigates streets, to correlating urban stressors like pollution and noise to mental illness. 

For at least three decades industry has known that buildings and cities have a fundamental affect on people. From the neighbourhood studies of the 1970’s to the identification of Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) in the ‘80s. SBS is a series of symptoms caused by poorly constructed buildings. The symptomatology  includes nausea, fatigue, headaches, lack of concentration, stress and even low staff morale. This symptomatology goes beyond someone not “liking” a building, it is proving that buildings can have a profound effect on our physical and mental health. If this information has been known for over three decades, why has there not been improvements? We believe it’s due to the lack of science, there are no human based metrics to help guide the design and construction of buildings. This is where cognitive neuroscience can be introduced, it can help ask better questions about the relationship between human and the physical world. It can also create a methodology of approaching “building to human problems”, such as creating schools that are sensorially orchestrated for learning and teaching. 

The only tools we currently have are the intuition of architects and the efficiency models of engineers, both devoid of  human data and knowledge. Well respected architect and theorist Juhani Pallasmaa has been referencing neuroscience in his work for many years. He thinks “the current promise of neuroscience is to valorise the qualities in our environments, which have so far been neglected or left to the individual designers sensitivity and creative intuition”. 

There is nothing wrong with intuition, however intuition is built through the acquisition of new knowledge and experiences. Good architects and engineers through practice, study, and observation have a distinguishable instinct about how to create a good building. However, buildings are not only about housing people in a well designed and efficient building. As Pallasmaa says buildings “house our minds, memories, desires and dreams”. So it makes sense that architects and others in the built environment turn to science to help them understand how people interact, communicate, feel, learn, and heal. 

For example, why do certain buildings inspire some people whilst intimidate others? Why can we concentrate in one space but not in others? What is the relationship between artificial light exposure and long term stress? Are plants inside buildings just an aesthetic or do they have calming elements? What amount of light is better for sustained attention required to get through a long task? 

If we look at buildings as places where people experience life, have conversations, solve complex problems, heal, learn, or discover new innovations, we can start to have a conversation about adequacy. In other words is a space adequate for working, collaborating, resting or innovating? This would not only give us buildings that are truly supportive of human life but give us the economic reason to push science into the built environment. Imagine being able to tell a building owner that their building is not supportive of productivity, how would that affect their bottom line?

Using neuroscience in the built environment does come with a caveat. The science is still at an infancy and we need better tools to study people in real-time to provide probability models of affect. In other words charting how physical elements affect people through the course of day, weeks, years in real life environments. It also should never be used in a reductive manner, i.e. the amygdala area of the brain lit up when presented with a red wall versus a yellow one, therefore yellow walls are better for people. 

However, neuroscience already has vast historical data we can mine which can provided us with the opportunity to make design and construction decisions using human data rather than just intuition. 

Araceli Camargo, Lab Director for the Centric Lab.

Josh ArtusBlog