03 July 2024

Environmental psychology is an evolving field that looks at how the built environment affects our physical and mental well-being. With society spending most days in and around buildings, from school learners to office workers and factory technicians, the architecture and interior design of these environments have an enormous effect on our mood, productivity and overall quality of life.

Ian Cox, project architect at BPAS Architects says the psychological contributors that will work in a particular space are linked to the function of a building. “The Constitutional Court of South Africa is an excellent example of a building that reflects its purpose and meets the functional needs associated with it, while also leaning into positive environmental principles. The court differs from typical courts in that it is open and transparent. It has a welcoming, airy foyer with playful, slanted columns and colourful mosaic tiling. The court building and structures encompass layered metaphoric meanings and are thoughtfully decorated, creating a lively and interactive place.”

“Another example is the use of space in the education sector, where BPAS does a great deal of work. Principles such as colour, wayfinding, light and acoustic quality are key aspects that impact the well-being of its users, which are learners in this instance,” he adds.

Ventilation and light

Cox says that some of the most important elements to consider when creating spaces that have a positive effect on our health are ventilation, natural light, colour and flexibility. “Studies have shown that exposure to natural light significantly improves mood, reduces the risk of depression, and increases overall happiness.”

Research conducted by the UK Biobank, involving over 500 000 participants, found that each additional hour spent in natural light decreased the likelihood of major depressive disorders and reduced the use of antidepressants.

Proper ventilation is vital for maintaining good indoor air quality, which directly impacts our health. Adequate ventilation reduces indoor pollutants and allergens, which helps to prevent respiratory issues and promote cognitive function. Studies have shown that well-ventilated environments can reduce stress and improve mental clarity and productivity.

Balancing practical and psychological elements

“Creating shared spaces that also cater to individual needs can be challenging, yet, it is crucial to design flexible spaces that can be easily adapted. Movable partitions, adjustable lighting and reconfigurable furniture allow individuals to personalise their environment. This adaptability enhances comfort and addresses various psychological needs, as control over our environment is linked to increased satisfaction and well-being,” says Cox.

He adds that some other key psychological principles to be considered in architectural design are:

  • Incorporating natural elements into buildings (which is also called biophilia) and large openings to enhance the connection with nature. Greenery and natural views have been shown to reduce stress and improve mood.
  • The strategic use of colour has a significant impact on how we experience a space. For example, in healthcare facilities, using soft, warm tones, such as blues and greens, conveys calmness, reducing anxiety and stress. This creates a more conducive environment for recovery, which in turn contributes to patient satisfaction.
  • Wayfinding in buildings is based on layout planning, material use and signature, and good wayfinding makes it easier to navigate larger buildings, which in turn reduces stress.

Creating environments that support mental and physical well-being is crucial. Elements like natural lighting, ventilation and well-considered colour choices not only enhance the aesthetic and functional aspects of spaces but also contribute significantly to the health and productivity of the occupants.

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