When it comes to putting people at the core of building design, one can no longer rely on “hard” sciences alone. Human and social sciences — including environmental psychology — are key. To understand this fascinating discipline and how it can help create better spaces for their occupants, we called on Femke Beute, owner of LightGreen Health and Postdoctoral Researcher at Jönköping University.
What is environmental psychology about? When was it born and why?
Femke Beute (F.B.): Environmental psychology is about the dual interaction between the person and the environment. It is based on the recognition that the environment influences us but we also influence our environment. It is a relatively recent field within psychology that has received less attention than clinical and social psychology for instance, although it is growing in size and number of researchers working in this field. Indeed, psychology historically started with a focus limited to the individual, and was then broadened to the physical and social environment with the work of Egon Brunswick, Kurt Lewin and Roger Barker about one century ago.
There are two focal points within environmental psychology. The first, which I am involved in, looks at the influence of the environment on the individual as human behavior, cognition, affect, physiology, etc. Examples include restoration (mood improvement, stress reduction), or way-finding (how people find their way in an unknown building or city), or place attachment (what are the physical characteristics that make people get attached to a certain place). The second is conservation psychology and focuses on the relationships between people and the natural world and on how to support more environmentally friendly behaviors to conserve this natural world.
It is today not (yet) established and taught as a discipline like social psychology, and there are in fact only a few environmental psychology sub-departments in the world. Most people working in this field are scattered across many different disciplines, like occupational or clinical psychology, architecture, epidemiology, medical science. This raises some challenges but also gives it its strength.
What are the links between environmental psychology and architecture?
F.B.: I would say that they are two separate disciplines looking at the same thing, interested in the same topic. However, they use a different language and sometimes have different goals. Also, generally speaking if we look at practical implications, research is very slow. As an architect, you have an assignment, and you can’t delay the process too much by doing research. And as researchers, we want to be very careful about the statements we make. And then the challenge is to translate the findings of our studies into an architectural design. For example, the effects of a window on people’s well-being found in a laboratory may be different than when placed in the real world, potentially because of the shape and dimensions of the room, the ceiling height, the color of the walls, etc.
But I believe that they are growing towards each other. When I was a student in architecture, I was really interested in understanding how buildings influence people, and how I could use my designs to help people feel better. However, this type of research was not really understood within the architectural department where I was studying at that time. That’s why I started to look around and came upon the program “Human Technology Interaction” where they did look at those kinds of questions, and eventually switched programs at that point.
Today, when we look at very similar architectural departments, more and more research on humans is going on. Architecture departments are starting to take the tools and research methods developed within environmental psychology. And I expect that this will become more and more. But we could still benefit from a communication in both directions. Researchers are indeed much into the numbers and controlling everything, while architects are more into design orientations, and translating a strong concept into materials. Environmental psychology could really learn from architects’ intuitions and design challenges. As I said, it is a very big step from implementing the micro scale manipulations that researchers do in the laboratory to the complex real world.
What benefits could we get from a closer collaboration between environmental psychology and design?
F.B.: The ultimate goal is to understand how our physical environment influences us, and to eventually implement that understanding so that buildings are good and healthy for the people who live in there, so that buildings are more than a shelter to keep us safe from the rain. This is not an easy task since it is always a combination of factors that makes a space. But this will become more and more important, as people are living more and more in cities and in built environments. And the current Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated how important it is to live in pleasant places and have access to the outdoors. Design needs the research knowledge and the inputs, and research needs to understand the design intuitions. We need both parts, as a common language, to translate the findings into the real world.
Do you have examples of how environmental psychology is applied in practice to create healthier buildings?
F.B.: There are a number of areas where you can see fruitful cross fertilization. Healing environments are a good illustration, where knowledge from restorative environments and what makes people relieve stress has started to be implemented. Having said that, pre/post occupancy studies could be used to support further implementation of environmental psychology in real buildings, through surveys in particular, so that we could learn by doing. We also have some developments within research methodologies that we could use to test things more out in the field, and help bridging the gap between design and research.
For instance, the use of ambulatory sensing — with smartphones and sensors ― provides more details on what people are doing and how they are using their environment. In the old days, the first technologies used within environmental psychology were physical tracers to see where people walked, how they were using the building. Today combined with modern age technology and sensors, that would help us to understand much more how the built environment influences us. We may even combine those with big data sets, combining all the physical characteristics of the environment and the human behavior in that environment ― what people feel, their activity level, their heart rate, etc. So the technology is there, the research method is there, but we need to implement it in a smart way, and people that are willing to do it at a larger scale and to pay for it.
How does your research and teaching impact your insights on daylight and views?
F.B.: Of course when we learn about how important it is to get the right amount of daylight at the right time of day, to have a natural view, or to live in a natural environment, it certainly does impact you. I have moved to a place with more nature where my daughter can grow up in a more natural environment because I know it is very important for her. I also try to get enough daylight, sit close to windows as possible. And when I teach students on this topic, there are always people that come to me saying that this has changed some aspects in their lives. Simple interventions in your life can indeed have a large impact.
But if I talk to people in my environment not working in this area, there are a lot of things they are not aware of. There is still a big gain to get by educating, translating the research outcomes to knowledge. Take the example of hospitals. As the focus is on medical outcomes, and the benefits of nature and daylight are mostly related to mental and physical health, it is logical that this knowledge has been picked up first there, and applied as an intervention. But certain elements could also be applied to other types of environments such as homes and offices. Also, we could work with architects to design the most optimum building, but the actual effects would depend on how the users use it. For example, you can have a nice window opening, but if the occupant decides that there needs to be a very thick curtain in front of it the entire day, you lose the benefits.
What are the main challenges and research gaps — in particular with regards to windows ― that environmental psychology should investigate in the future?
F.B.: While there are still lots of aspects to be looked at, relatively speaking windows have received quite a bit of attention. Now we would also need to look at for instance where windows need to be placed in a room, and what other aspects of the room are also important — choice of materials, dimensions and shape of the room, etc. Views to the outside can be restorative, but the way the building is designed by itself can also be restorative. We need to take a more comprehensive look at nature, by including daylight in our perception of the natural environment, and not separating view types from daylight, because daylight is part of nature. We need to look more substantially at weather changes, weather dynamics in daylight and how that impacts occupants in buildings, and how we can capture that inside architectural design and use it to create restorative experiences. If we could see the shades of the leaves on the wall moving in the wind, or disappearing when there is a cloud in front of the sun, this could potentially make occupants feel better.
Natural environments are restorative: when we go outside, we feel better and we can perform better. How in this increasingly urbanized world can we keep this connection with nature and daylight that is good for us, and how can make sure that even in cities people meet their minimum needs? This is the biggest design challenge.
Femke Beute is an Environmental Psychologist, investigating the beneficial effects of our physical environment on humans. She specifically focuses on the effects of our natural and built environment and exposure to daylight on health and wellbeing. In addition, she is also keen to complement research conducted in the psychological laboratory with field research aimed at gaining a better understanding of the complex interplay between humans and their environment in everyday life by using ambulatory sensing and smartphone technology. She holds a Bachelor in Architecture and a Master in Human Technology Interaction. Her PhD project focused on the beneficial effects of exposure to nature and daylight on mental health. In 2018, she founded her own Research Consultancy Agency ‘LightGreen Health’ with the aim to deepen the scientific understanding of the beneficial effects of our physical environment on health and wellbeing and, importantly, to inform people outside of academia on these scientific outcomes as well as to support the application of potential restorative interventions in design and planning. She combines her consultancy work with an Academic position in lighting research at Jönköping University.
Eloïse Sok is Concept Creator in the SageGlass Europe & Middle-East Team. She holds a Double-Degree in the Engineering field from Ecole Centrale (France) and Tsinghua University (China). Her main interests include sustainable architecture, daylighting and occupant’s comfort. Her motto: “Passion is our best strength!”.