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Environmental psychology meets (interior) architecture

Think about the last time you were in an environment that caused stress to you. Maybe it was a busy shopping street where you could not find your way? Or that one room where you could not open the door because you actually had to pull instead of push?

And now, think about a moment you were in an environment that gave you a peaceful feeling. Maybe during a walk in the forest? Or a pleasant conversation you had with a friend in a coffee bar?

This is environmental psychology. All these elements present in our environment: crowding, legibility, contradictory information, nature, smell, comfortable seats facing each other, etc. have an influence on how we feel and behave. We are confronted with it every day, but we are just not always aware of it.


From interior architect to environmental psychologist

When I was 18 years old and had to reflect my choice of study, I was hesitating between studying architecture or interior architecture. Eventually I chose interior architecture, since this allows me to be closer to people.

Later during my education at Sint Lucas (KU Leuven) in Ghent, I noticed that I always had a hunger for knowing the effect of my design on its users and if it actually has an impact. That is why I consciously decided to take part in an Erasmus program in a Scandinavian country, since they are known for thinking in terms of the user and experimenting with materials to contribute to the experience. During my education at Oslo National Academy of the Arts (Norway), I also got the opportunity to visit the architectural firm Snøhetta. This visit made me aware that it is important to surround you with a multidisciplinary team in order to create together successful projects. You need insights and expertise from everywhere.

The moment that really opened my eyes was when I did volunteer work and research in Nepal (in collaboration with KU Leuven). Here, we built a playground and sitting platform in Hariharpur Secundary School. Some weeks after our departure, we received the message that the school drop-out was stopped thanks to our spatial interventions. When I heard this, I thought ‘You see! The environment really has an impact on us and our future!’. So as architects, interior architects, landscape architects, etc. we can influence how people feel, behave, etc. and consequently contribute to their future.

After my graduation as an interior architect, I wanted to specialize myself in this area and decided to attend a master course in Environmental Psychology at the University of Surrey (England). There are only a few places in the world that offer this course, but the one in England has the advantage of studying both sides of environmental psychology, namely: the architectural and the sustainable side.

‘Hariharpur Secundary School’ in Nepal
‘Hariharpur Secundary School’ au Nepal

Architecture meets environmental psychology

Environmental psychology studies the objective majority of certain effects of the built and natural environment on people. Just like other areas in psychology, the answer is never black or white, but grey. As psychologists we look at how the majority of the people experience something, but of course, there are always exceptions which can refute the theories.

Additionally, environmental psychology is a quite new discipline (from the 60’s), especially in Belgium. This gives us the opportunity to experiment with how we can integrate this new discipline into the architectural process. At the moment, we do this on the basis of ‘tailor-made Evidence-Based Design’. So on the one hand, we base our designs on existing theories of environmental psychology (e.g. environmental restoration, wayfinding, etc.). And on the other hand, we specifically collect information from and about the users and their environment. We do this by organising  sessions in the studied organisation/institution whereby we apply research methods (e.g. interviews, mapping, etc.) and analyse systematically the obtained information. So in other words, on the basis of the information obtained from a literature study and fieldwork, we design a (built) environment that responds to the unique concerns of the project and contributes to its users’ wellbeing.

Centered on the patient, connected to nature

Case study - CIO UNILAB

Centered on the patient, connected to nature

‘Healing (residential) care environments’

To make the design methodology of ‘tailor-made Evidence-Based Design’ as accessible and applicable as possible in our office, I wrote a bundle of books about ‘Healing (residential) care environments’. The first book includes guidelines with basic principles of environmental psychology in order to create a healing and supportive environment for the users. The second book consists of a casestudy of the project Revapolis in Zandhoven: here, Pulderbos, a rehabilitation centre for children and adolescents, and Hooidonk, a holiday and recovery centre for elderly, come together. To illustrate the application of the design methodology and guidelines, an extensive description is written about the conducted observations and interviews in both organisations. Subsequently, the collected information was processed in an analysis, whereby the results are tested against theories of environmental psychology, and written up as guidelines specific for this project.

Besides this methodology, we also apply the design methodology of ‘Scenario-Based Design’ in order to ensure that there is a focus on the end-user during the entire design process and with every design change.

Centered on the patient, connected to nature

Case study - CIO UNILAB

Centered on the patient, connected to nature

Healing environment

There is not only one ‘perfect’ answer

A project that inspires me both as an environmental psychologist and interior architect, are the Maggie’s Centres in the United Kingdom. During my education of environmental psychology, I had the chance to write my thesis on Maggie’s Centre, and thus, spend some time in the centre of Oxford.

Maybe in short: Maggie’s Centres are environments where people who are affected by cancer can find social, psychological and financial support. At the moment, 20 centres are spread over the UK which are all designed by different architects. So they are very different from each other, but they all have the same effect: they foster hope. So there is not only one ‘perfect’ answer which responds to the needs of the people, but you have several possible answers.

During my research I had the aim to study the designed balance between social interaction and privacy in the environment of Maggie’s that contributes to the therapeutic effect. After observations and interviews with different users, it appeared that mainly the people foster this healing experience and the designed environment stimulates and supports this process. Or as said by one of the employees: ‘This building adds something, the cherry on the top!’. So it is a great example of how the environment and the people – or the people and its environment – are in a continuous interaction with each other.

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