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Exploring ways in which to "hack" our built environment for increased physical and mental wellbeing.

Updated: May 12

Part 2:

Envirohacking, Enviro Hacking Exploring ways to  hack our built environment for increased physical and mental wellbeing.   [Part 2]

Our environment profoundly affects us.

Imagine for a moment waking up every morning in a dark cluttered bedroom with the noise of morning traffic and the smell of stale air versus waking up in an airy, light-filled space perhaps with the smell of the ocean and the sound of waves breaking on the rocks below. How much more energised would you feel in the latter space? Or imagine having a need, for whatever reason, to wake early but having a bedroom facing west where the sun may only get to at 3 pm versus a bedroom facing east, where the sun will wake you naturally at 6 am. Which environment will help you achieve your goals more?

Since the earliest times, humans have needed to be sensitive to their surroundings to survive, which means that our environment has a much bigger impact on our mood, our actions and our wellbeing than most of us realise Colin Ellard, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in Canada researches the psychological impact of spaces and places on people. Measuring subjects’ physiological responses in situ, using wearable wristband devices and on the spot surveys one of his most consistent findings is that people are strongly impacted by building facades. In short, monotonous featureless facades impact people negatively whilst conversely , complex facades impact people positively. For example, when he walked a group of subjects past the long, smoked-glass frontage of a Whole Foods store in Lower Manhattan, people’s mood states took a dive, and they quickened their pace. Conversely when they reach a stretch with restaurants and stores their readings picked up and they reported feeling more energised and engaged.

This is where the debate around good and bad architecture heats up. What is good design and what is bad design? How are we defining this? Sadly and ironically many well-known award winning buildings are poorly designed when measured against the impact they have on the human condition. Some of the biggest culprits it seems were spawned during the modernist movement with many architects – and perhaps their clients - too high-minded, self-regarding and more concerned with its minimalist aesthetics than for the wellbeing of its occupants.

With that said, lets look at 3 real world architectural examples and empirical evidence to illustrate this concept more clearly.

Example 1,

The Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St Louis designed by Minoru Yamasaki, also responsible for the World Trade centre, had a famed fanfare opening in 1954. However less than 3 decades later with its widely televised 1972 implosion it was widely agreed that its design had doomed it. The buildings were notorious for crime, squalor and social dysfunction. Critics claimed that the featureless facades and wide open featureless bland spaces between the buildings discouraged social connection and a sense of community. Architectural historian Charles Jencks cites the much-seen dynamiting as “the moment 'modern architecture died.” Looking at the aerial photograph below it doesn’t take a wild imagination to grasp the reasons for its failures.

The Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex
Pruit-Igoe photo: The Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St Louis, shortly after its completion in 1956. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

Example 2,

The Seattle Central Library, designed by dutch firm, OMA/Rem Koolhaas has won multiple architectural awards for its architecture and looking at its expressive sculptural exterior, beautifully crafted internal spaces and its magnificent top floor reading room is not hard to imagine why. However it has also been criticised as a notoriously disorientating building with one of the library’s users remarking that she had left the building as soon as she could figure out how to get out, hoping she wouldn’t have an anxiety attack first. The biggest apparent cause for this discomfort in its users seems to be its circulation. Whilst one is greeted quit obviously and generously by the beautifully lit escalators offering a way in and up the building, there seems to be nothing obvious about the way down and out. This confusion causes anxiety in people as our evolutionary hardwired expectation dictates that the route for entry and “escape” should be the same or at least very similar. A sense of intuitive direction and orientation is as vital inside buildings as they are outside them.

Front view of the Seattle Central Public Library, seen from the main entrance (bottom left corner). Photo ©Darren Bradley
Front view of the Seattle Central Public Library, seen from the main entrance (bottom left corner). Photo ©Darren Bradley

Example 3,

The Pencoedtre High School in South Wales was the cause of a 2 day teachers strike in January 2024  citing the design of the school amongst the main causes for poor student behaviour. They claimed that the school’s layout which centres on an open plan dining hall, main hall and courtyard encourages large groups to form. In addition they felt that the big central atrium and open staircases encouraged students to jump between them to different floors and also tempted them to throw items at pupils below. In some cases students accidentally rests items on the banister that would then easily and unintentionally fall down on other students. To this end, whilst the school won some architectural awards, Mark Harris executive member of NASUWT(National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers) branded the design “remarkably poor” whilst union official Sharon Daly called the building “not fit for purpose.

Pencoedtre High School teachers on strike
Pencoedtre High School teachers on strike
Internal view of the public space of the Pencoedtre High School.
Internal view of the public space of the Pencoedtre High School.

Conclusion: There is clearly no arguing anymore that our environment and our buildings shapes us in all kinds of interesting ways. They can either help us or harm us. Whilst these 3 examples above were of buildings with a remarkably negative impact on our behaviour and human condition we will dedicate the next article to examples that frames us and encourages us in all kinds of positive and meaningful ways. This will be the segue into some practical real world examples of how we can in fact hack our environment - something we call EnviroHacking - to support, encourage and motivate us towards our personal desires, dreams and goals.



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