Psychosocial Value of Space  

by Judith Heerwagen
J.H. Heerwagen & Associates, Inc.



What would a building space look and feel like if it were designed to promote psychological and social well-being? How would it affect the senses, the emotions, and the mind? How would it affect behavioral patterns and sense of community?

For insights, it is useful to look not at buildings, but at zoos. Zoo design has gone through a radical transformation in the past several decades. Cages have been replaced by natural habitats and geographic clustering of animals. In some places, the animals are free-ranging and the visitors are enclosed in buses or trains moving through the habitat. Animals now exist in mixed species exhibits more like their natural landscapes. And, as in nature, the animals have much greater control over their behavior. They can be on view if they want, or out of sight. They forage, play, rest, mate, and act like normal animals.

Giraffes behind a fence in an old-style zoo.
Giraffes in a natural habitat of the new-style zoo.

New zoo design has replaced animals in cages with naturalistic habitats and mixed species displays.

What brought about this transformation in philosophy and design? A key factor was concern over the animals' psychological and social well-being. Zoos could keep animals alive, but they couldn't make them flourish. Caged animals often exhibit neurotic behaviors—pacing, repetitive motions, aggression, and withdrawal. In one famous example, an animal psychologist was hired by the Central Park Zoo to study a polar bear that spent the day swimming in endless figure 8s in its small pool. This was not normal polar bear behavior and the zoo was concerned about it. After several days of observation, the animal psychologist offered a diagnosis. The bear was bored. To compensate for this unfortunate situation, the zoo added amenities and toys to the bear's enclosure to encourage exploration and play.

Are there lessons from the zoo that we can apply to building design? The answer is clearly "yes." Key lessons, applicable to all building types, include the following:

  • Look beyond survival to well-being
  • Build on "primitive preferences" and connections to nature
  • Design for the senses as well as the body.


A. Beyond Survival: Design for Well-Being

Biologist Stephen Boyden (1971) defines the optimum healthy environment as "the conditions which tend to promote or permit an animal optimal physiological, mental, and social performance in its natural or 'evolutionary' environment."

Boyden's discussion of well-being raises two main concerns: (1) there is a mismatch between humans' evolutionary environment and current industrialized settings, and (2) this mismatch is detrimental to human well-being because current environments do not support the full range of evolved survival and well-being needs. Whether it is the increasing presence of environmental toxins or the lack of community and social support in many settings, the places where people live and work now are radically different from those which supported human societies for most of Homo sapiens existence. Boyden argues that environments need to fully satisfy both "survival needs" and "well-being needs."

Survival needs deal with aspects of the environment that directly affect human health, such as clean air and water, lack of pathogens or toxins, and opportunity for rest and sleep. Well-being needs, on the other hand, are associated with fulfillment, quality of life, and psychological health. Whereas failure to satisfy survival needs may lead to serious illness or death, failure to meet the well-being needs can lead to psychosocial maladjustment and stress-related illnesses. Environmental psychologists have also considered other needs such as comfort maintenance and sense of equity, which are important in today's building environments. Taken as a whole, the research by Boyden and others identifies well being needs that should be addressed in building design:

  • Opportunity to engage in spontaneous social encounters.
  • Opportunity for relaxation and psychological restoration.
  • Opportunity for privacy and for movement between interaction and solitude, as desired.
  • Opportunity for learning and information sharing.
  • Opportunity for connection to the natural environment.
  • Opportunity for regular exercise.
  • Sound levels not much above or below that of nature.
  • Meaningful change and sensory variability.
  • An interesting visual environment with aesthetic integrity. See also WBDG Aesthetics
  • Sense of social equity and respect.
  • Ability to maintain and control personal comfort.
  • Making sense of the environment.

Table 1 provides an overall summary of the links between well-being needs and the features and attributes of the environment that support their fulfillment.

Table 1. Links Between Basic Human Needs and Environments
Social engagement Comfortable meeting places, indoors and outdoors; circulation systems and layouts that support informal interaction; attributes that draw people to space and encourage conversation (views, humorous décor).
Cultural and Collective Meaning Celebratory spaces; artifacts and symbols of cultural and group identity; sense of uniqueness.
Relaxation and psychological restoration Quiet spaces with low sensory stimulation; connections to nature; distant views; outdoor seating or walking paths in visually appealing landscapes.
Visual and aural privacy as needed; movement between interaction and solitude Enclosure or screening; distance from others; ability to regulate the desired degree of social interaction by moving between spaces or by manipulating personal space. Variety of informal social spaces to encourage relationship development.
Learning and information sharing Good acoustics for training/learning environments; good visibility to support situation awareness; layouts, meeting spaces, and circulation that support conversation and information exchange without unduly disturbing others.
Connection to nature and natural processes Daylight, views of nature outdoors, careful use of indoor sunlight, natural ventilation, interior plantings, nature décor, and nature patterns in spatial layouts, furnishings, and carpeting.
Sensory variability Daylight access; indoor sunspots; variation in color, pattern, and texture; natural ventilation.
Sound levels similar to nature Operable windows to allow connection to positive outdoor sounds; acoustic conditioning to reduce equipment and industrial noise, yet allowing for some human sound ("buzz") that is energizing. See also WBDG Productive—Provide Comfortable Environments.
Interesting visual environment with aesthetic integrity Adoption of naturalistic, bio-inspired design; patterned complexity; reduced monochromatic environments; more organic layouts and forms.
Wayfinding and making sense Landmarks, variability of space to serve as location cues, windows to orient by outdoor views, use of color and pattern on walls or carpeting to provide location and movement cues. Also appropriate signage and visual displays to develop overall sense of space. See also WBDG Form, Style, and Materials.
Exercise Indoor gym, outdoor bike and hiking paths, open stairways to promote interaction and walking, visually interesting landscape to entice exploration.
Sense of equity Design of spaces and allocation of amenities that shows concern for the health and well being of all occupants, visitors and other users of the space.

B. Environmental Preferences and Well–Being

Environmental psychologists are finding that beauty is not in the eyes of the beholder, but rather built into their minds. There seems to be strong universal, cross-cultural patterns that underlie much of what we find beautiful and enjoyable. These patterns have evolved from primitive habitat preferences that kept our ancestors safe and healthy over the eons of human evolution.

Nature has fortunately provided an intuitive guide to habitat quality—our emotions. Positive emotional states of interest and pleasure, associated with preference, signal that an environment is likely to provide resources and supports that promote survival and well-being, while negative affective states serve as warnings of potential harm or discomforts.

Because humans evolved in a natural landscape, it is reasonable to turn to the natural environment for clues about preference patterns that may be applicable to building design. Drawing on habitat selection theory, ecologist Gordon Orians argues that humans are psychologically adapted to and prefer landscape features that characterized the African savannah, the presumed site of human evolution. Although humans now live in many different habitats, Orians argues that our species long history as mobile hunters and gatherers on the African savannahs should have left its mark on our psyche. If the "savannah hypothesis" is true, we would expect to find that humans intrinsically like and find pleasurable environments that contain key features of the savannah that were most likely to have aided our ancestors' survival and well-being. These features include:

  • A high diversity of plant (especially flowers) and animal life for food and resources.
  • Clustered trees with spreading canopies for refuge and protection.
  • Open grassland that provides easy movement and clear views to the distance.
  • Topographic changes for strategic surveillance to aid long-distance movements and to provide early warning of approaching hazards.
  • Scattered bodies of water for food, drinking, bathing, and pleasure.
  • A "big sky" with a wide, bright field of view to aid visual access in all directions.
  • Multiple view corridors and distances.

Cross-cultural research on landscape preferences shows the strong appeal of landforms and spatial features that are similar to the savannah. The design of built settings also shows manipulation of space and artifacts that are consistent with savannah features, especially in retail and hospitality settings. Light, décor, sounds, food, flowers, smells, visual corridors—all are used to enhance emotional experience, not as an end in itself, but rather to increase purchasing behaviors and retain customer loyalty.

Key components of preference patterns are described in more detail below.

Prospect and Refuge

According to geographer Jay Appleton, people prefer to be in places where they have good visual access to the surrounding environment (high prospect), while also feeling protected and safe (high refuge). Conversely, negative reactions are common when visual access is denied or when the sense of refuge is absent and one feels "on view" to others. The sense of refuge can be created by canopy-like features as well as by vertical enclosure. Prospect includes both internal and external views through windows or view corridors. Interior view corridors are greatly enhanced by interesting elements at the end of the corridor—such as a window, a piece of art, or just light on the wall.

Architectural historian Grant Hildebrand, in Origins of Architectural Pleasure, argues that the manipulation of prospect and refuge and the integration of nature and naturalistic features is a hallmark of many buildings of enduring appeal. Although Hildebrand did not gather any empirical data, others have, including a study by Suzanne Scott of interior environments. She found that built spaces with nature, moderate degrees of complexity, and a sense of refuge coupled with high prospect were more preferred than spaces lacking these characteristics. People especially liked spaces with vertical and horizontal expansiveness that were subdivided into smaller zones. Scott suggests that zoned spaces provide users with the potential to survey the surroundings, but still enjoy partial concealment. Many of the preferred settings also had soft, rounded forms and irregular layouts. Institutional spaces with minimum décor and embellishments were especially disliked, as were vast empty spaces.

Girl reading on a bench in a park setting.
Interior room with plants and views to the outdoors.

The sense of prospect and refuge can be created in many ways, in both outdoor and interior spaces that offer protection at the back and overhead, coupled with views into adjoining spaces.

The Hearth

Although Boyden distinguishes between survival and well-being needs, they often overlap. For example, people clearly need food for survival and health. However, food often serves as the basis for bonding and relationship development. The ritual of sitting around a hearth telling stories of the day's events and planning for tomorrow may be an ancient carryover from Homo sapiens hunting and gathering days. According to anthropologist Melvin Konner, the sense of safety and intimacy associated with the campfire may have been a factor in the evolution of intellectual development as well as social bonds. Today's hearth is the family kitchen at home, and the community places, such as cafes and coffee bars, where people increasingly congregate to eat, talk, read, and work.

Interior of a coffee house.
People sitting at an outdoor cafe.

People increasingly mingle and work in coffee shops and attractive outdoor areas.

Connections to Nature and Natural Patterns

E.O. Wilson coined the term "biophilia" to describe humanity's intrinsic fascination with life and life-like processes. A growing body of research shows that building environments that connect people to nature are more supportive of human emotional well-being and cognitive performance than environments lacking these features. Whether nature's presence comes from daylight, fresh air, indoor plants, or landscape views, there is growing evidence of positive impacts on building occupants in a wide variety of settings, from offices to hospitals and community spaces.

For instance, research by Roger Ulrich consistently shows that passive viewing of nature through windows or even surrogate contact (through posters or videos) promotes positive moods and reduces stress. Similarly, research by Rachel Kaplan found that workers with window views of trees had a more positive outlook on life than those doing similar work but whose window looked out onto a parking lot. Her study also found that workers with the nature view had lower stress scores and were more satisfied with their jobs. In addition to the psychological and emotional benefits, connection to nature also provides mini mental breaks that may aid the ability to concentrate according to research by Stephen Kaplan. Terry Hartig and colleagues report similar results in a field experiment. People in their study who went for a walk in a predominantly natural setting performed better on several tasks requiring concentration than those who walked in a predominantly built setting or who quietly read a magazine indoors. In the absence of windows or other direct contact with nature, workers frequently decorate their walls with nature décor as was found in a study by Judith Heerwagen and Gordon Orians.

Studies of outdoor landscapes are providing evidence that the effects of nature on human health and well-being extend beyond emotional and cognitive functioning to social behavior and crime reduction. For instance, Francis Kuo and colleagues have found that outdoor nature buffers aggression in urban high-rise settings and enhances ability to deal with demanding circumstances. The presence of trees in urban areas also increases community sociability by providing comfortable places for residents to talk with one another and develop friendships that promote mutual support.

A desk set against windows so the user is facing an outdoor view.
A cubicle wall with nature-themed pictures pinned up.

Window views that provide contact with outdoor nature reduce stress and improve psychological functioning. In the absence of windows, workers frequently decorate their workstations with nature décor.

Daylight and Sunlight

Not surprisingly, people prefer to be in buildings with high levels of daylight. For instance, a study by Heerwagen and colleagues of seven office buildings in the Pacific Northwest found that 80% of the occupants near windows were highly satisfied with the environment, compared to 55% occupying more interior spaces. Good visual access to daylight through the use of interior glazing increases satisfaction also, even if workers do not have daylight in their immediate space. Merely seeing daylight somewhere in the environment has positive effects.

Although daylight design generally tries to reduce or eliminate sunlight in buildings, a modest level of sunlight (sun "spots") may be beneficial to health and well-being. Two studies are cited in a report prepared by Johns Hopkins researchers on the connection between the built environment and patient outcomes (Rubin et al, 1998). One study compared the length of stay for 174 patients with depression who were randomly assigned to a "sunny" or "dull" hospital room. Those in the sunny rooms stayed an average of 16.9 days, compared to 19.5 days for patients in the rooms without sun. The results held true regardless of season.

Access to indoor sunlight is also associated with perceived cheerfulness of the environment as well as higher levels of positive affect and job satisfaction for the occupants. There is evidence also that daylight and indoor sun may be beneficial to building occupants who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which leads to lowered energy and moods in winter months (Heerwagen, 1990). The condition is treated by bright light therapy—which may be provided through windows as well as light boxes or dawn simulators currently used in homes.

Office corridor with light streaming in from the windows.
A plaza with an overhead archway system.

Daylight and indoor sun patches create visual stimulation and may also improve psychological functioning of building occupants, as long as sun is not excessive or an impediment to work.

Ephemeral Qualities of Space

Our ancestors also needed to be attentive to ephemeral stimuli associated with time and weather. These stimuli include changes in daylight (e.g., color, shadows, brightness contrasts, sun angle) and thermal/haptic sensations associated with direct sun, wind, and humidity. Even today we use ambient conditions as an intuitive guide to behavior. For instance, the smell of the air, the color of the clouds, and wind speed are good predictors of how imminent a storm is. Although perception of sensory variability evolved for survival purposes, it continues to be a critical part of people's responses to buildings. Workers in the buildings studied by Heerwagen et al said they valued having sunlight and daylight in their workspaces because they liked the variability in light and color over the day or across seasons. In studies of windowless environments, a consistent finding is concern over the loss of information about time and weather.

Photo of 2 windows looking out to the trees in daylight.
Underground space with fiber optic light that changes color over the course of the day.

Window views can take advantage of the changing seasonal colors of vegetation and diurnal variation in light to provide sensory pleasure. In the absence of windows, sensory change can be provided by light. Photo 12 (right) shows an underground space with fiber optic light that changes color over the course of the day.

Natural Comfort

Comfort preferences are apparent in this picture that shows some people bundled up in hats and sweatshirts and others in shorts and tee shirts while waiting at a stop light.

Comfort preferences are apparent in this picture that shows some people bundled up in hats and sweatshirts and others in shorts and tee shirts while waiting at a stop light.

A biological perspective also contributes important insights into comfort maintenance. Because people differ from one another in many ways (genetics, cultures, lifestyles) their ambient preferences vary. Furthermore, a given person varies over time depending upon his or her state of health, activities, clothing levels, and so forth (these are intra-individual differences.) For most of human history, people have actively adjusted the environment as well as their behaviors to achieve comfort. Yet buildings continue to be designed with a "one size fits all" approach. Very few buildings or workstations enable occupants to control lighting, temperature, ventilation rates, or noise conditions. Although the technology is largely available to do this, the personal comfort systems have not sold well in the market place, even though research by Walter Kroner and colleagues at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute shows that personal control leads to significant increases in comfort and work performance. See also WBDG Productive—Promote Health and Well-Being, Productive—Provide Comfortable Environments, Productive—Design for the Changing Workplace, and Sustainable—Enhance Indoor Environmental Quality.

C. Design for the Senses

Given our affinity for nature, are there general properties of living things that might serve as valuable design guides? Although there is less research evidence on this topic, it is reasonable to look for general characteristics of living organisms and life-like processes that could form the basis for the design of whole buildings, spaces, layouts, artifacts, and landscapes.

Characteristics of living organisms and life-like processes include:

  • Movement: Movement is characteristic of all living organisms as well as life-supporting systems, such as the sun, clouds, fire, and water. Movement may be self generated or aided (for instance, by the wind, water, or by attachment to a moving organism). Aaron Katcher hypothesizes that certain kinds of movement patterns may be associated with safety and tranquility, while others indicate danger. Movement patterns associated with safety show motion that is "always changing, yet always staying the same." Examples are aquarium fish or the pattern of light and shade created by cumulus clouds. In contrast, movement patterns indicative of danger show erratic movement and sudden change, such as changes in light and wind associated with storms, or birds fleeing from a hawk.

  • Organized Complexity: All living organisms and life-like processes display complex design or adaptive complexity that may not be apparent at first glance, but which is discovered through exploration. The desire to know more about a space or object with increased exploration is considered by many to be at the heart of learning: the more you know, the more you want to know and the deeper the mystery becomes. In contrast to living forms and spaces, most built objects and spaces are readily knowable at first glance, and thus do not motivate learning and exploration. Although complexity is a desirable feature, spaces and objects that are too complex are difficult to comprehend. The key may be the combination of ordering and complexity that allows comprehension at higher levels first and then at lower levels with successive exploration. In Origins of Architectural Pleasure, architect Grant Hildebrand provides extensive commentary on this topic.

  • Fractal Patterning: Fractal growth processes and probabilistic events determine the forms and patterns of living organisms, systems, and natural processes. This gives rise to patterns that have a basic similarity at different levels of scale, but are not exact replicates. Some refer to this as "rhyming"—similarity coupled with difference. In contrast, many human designed patterns are exact repeats of the same form, perhaps in different colors or sizes. Peter Stevens, in Patterns in Nature, provides a masterful overview of the archetypal patterns and themes that underlie the immense variety of natural forms. Architect Carl Bovill discusses the application of fractal geometry to design composition in his book Fractal Geometry in Architecture and Design. Similar ideas are suggested by a group of biologists and mathematicians who are discovering connections between the brain and environmental experience based on fractal patterns (Mikiten et al, 2000).

  • Organic Shapes: Nature is not rectilinear. The shapes of natural objects are determined by fractal growth patterns, as noted above, and by the limitations imposed by the conditions of life on earth, especially sunlight and gravity. Although there is not a great deal of research on this topic, there is some indication that people respond positively to organic shapes and curvilinear spaces in buildings, landscapes, and artifacts.

  • Emotions and Shapes: The connection between emotions and shapes may be wired into our brains. Research by Betty Edwards, an art professor, has found a high level of structural similarity in drawings by people who are asked to visually represent emotions, such as anger, joy, peacefulness, and depression. As described in an article by Brian Davey (1993), anger was represented by dark, sharp edged forms. Joy was characterized by light, curving, circular forms. Peacefulness was conveyed by horizontal lines and depression by dark formless drawings.

  • Multi Sensory: Nature is sensory rich and conveys information to all human sensory systems, including sight, sound, touch, taste, and odor. Life-supporting processes such as fire, water, and sun also are experienced in multisensory ways also. Although the vast majority of research in environmental aesthetics focuses on the visual environment, there is growing interest in understanding how design appeals to multiple senses. Both Kansei engineering and emotion centered design are grounded in links between sensory perception and emotional responses to artifacts and to specific features of products.

See also WBDG Form, Materials, and Style.

D. Conclusion

Buildings affect our psyche as well as our bodies. They can be inspiring and supportive of daily activities, or they can deplete the spirits and undermine the best intentions of the designer. It is not by chance that such results occur. Positively experienced, psychologically healthy buildings have a host of features that distinguish them from less enjoyable buildings. Buildings with high psychosocial value are designed around basic human needs, ancient preferences, and connections to the patterns of nature and the mind.

Additional Resources


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  • Biophilia by E.O. Wilson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.
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