Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Buildings and behaviour

We all know that supermarkets and casinos are often laid out so that we are encouraged to consume more, whilst new hospitals are designed to encourage faster recovery from illness. However, architects, planners and developers do not directly consider why and how people behave in reaction to a building design in relation to sustainability. In fact, many consider this to be common sense and therefore not worth studying.

This is a relatively fragmented and embryonic subject, but is worthy of research because, as the rise of environmental psychology demonstrates, in the built environment the sustainability of a building depends a lot on the building’s users. You can install all the eco-techno-gadgets you like, but if people are not motivated to use them or do not understand how (or are put off by their novelty), efforts will be futile. Many aspects of positive energy efficiency within a building can happen passively, i.e. people do not have to consciously act and make an effort in order to gain benefits from already existing insulation or a solar panel that does not require monitoring. The interior design of a building can subconsciously encourage more sustainable behaviour, for example by placing the stairs in the centre of an entrance hall and making them look much grander and more inviting than the energy-consuming lift or escalator that is hidden round a corner, through a door and down a corridor. I think a lot of it is about making it easier and incentivised for people to participate in pro-environmental behaviour within a building. But can the interior architectural design of a building also consciously influence positive sustainable behaviour? For example through the layout, high levels of natural light or eco-looking building materials; people will adopt an eco-identity if they feel that they are acting within an eco-building?

Obviously this is an elusive phenomenon and as I mentioned previously, best practice models in relation to sustainable behaviour should not be ‘one-size-fits-all’. It is important to remember that of course, other than the building environment, there are myriad factors influencing pro-environmental behaviour, for example internal cultural attitudes and social norms, knowledge and understanding on environmental impacts of energy use, or indeed one’s mood on the day! The built environment is just one influence on people’s choices in relation to sustainability, but it may be more important than we originally thought.

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