Psychology of Spaces

Psychology is not a subject that comes up in green building much, but its generally what is most important to occupants.  When you're sitting in a building you don't generally think about how much energy or materials it consumes over its lifetime--you think about how it looks and feels.  Americans tend to be adverse to anything having to do with psychology, but in this context psychology is just mostly about likes and dislikes.

Trying find common truth about humans is notoriously difficult, yet there are things we tend to share, even if they're not quite universal.  The following section is summary of the psychology behind the design patterns: they serve both to explain the "why" behind the patterns, but also as a summary of them.

There are really two categories of psychological impact a building has: its style, and for lack of a better word, its comfort.   To use an analogy from clothing, style is about how you feel when you dress up (or not) and go out, while comfort is more like pajamas.  Its the later topic that is covered here; a discussion on style is here.

The Concepts1

  1. People are drawn to the sun.  Its why people flock to warm climates in winter.  Except in the hottest weather, people then gravitate to the shade.  Even when they don't want to be in the sun they want to be near it or at least have access to it (again, except when it so hot you feel like you need to hide).
  2. People are drawn to light, but not too much light.   Dark corners and hallways aren't generally appealing, but neither are rooms that are so bright people have to squint.  Light tends to be associated with activity and dark with quiet or sleep because our bodies are designed that way.  People, when entering a new space will naturally move to the light and avoid the dark, hence a dark space can act as a psychological barrier.
  3. People prefer natural light to electric light, but at night they by far prefer the warm color associated with incandescent light over any bulb that produces "daylight" color.  How much of this is innate, and how much is cultural is unclear.  What is clear is that warm light is the color of fire, and people like to look a fire.  Additionally the light from bulbs radiates from a point, while sunlight washes the room more uniformly, but even if bulb reproduced sunlight exactly, its not clear that it would be appealing: its still dark out, and in our minds we know that.3
  4.  People like to look at nature.  Most people find nature peaceful, and appear to be just as happy looking at a manicured backyard as they do into the woods.  The key is green and serene.
  5. People will gravitate to any location where they can observe others moving about the area, but are not themselves in a place they feel on stage.  The edge of a field is more comfortable than the middle, but not just any edge, but one where the field is generally visible.  Most people will prefer a location where their back does not feel vulnerable exposed.  By placing a sizeable object in the middle of an area (a large room, an outdoor space etc) the middle can become more like an edge, and people will then gravitate toward it.
  6. Ceiling height affects the sense of psychological space as well as the sense of feeling protected; room size also matters. People sense ceiling height in terms of their own height. A low ceiling, particularly one that is low enough a person can touch it evokes a sense of protection, although lower than that can be claustrophobic.  A very tall ceiling increases the feeling of psychological distance: this is why a person sitting three feet away in a tall ceiling train station feels further than one sitting 3 feet away in an airport2.
  7. People do not like to linger in a place where others will pass by in very close proximity, but rather prefer to hang back at least a few feet.
  8. People need quiet time, but don't like feeling isolated.  While this sounds contradictory, it really isn't.  Its why consultants, freelance writers etc spend much of their day in coffee shops.  When people choose to be alone, they don't necessary want to feel alone.  Extroverts, by nature need far less quiet time than introverts.
  9. Stairs, doorways, and hallways act as psychological barriers, especially when they are darker than the surrounding space. Occupied rooms can also be barriers, as in the odd awkward case where you have to walk thru one bedroom to get to another.
  10. People do not want to be seen coming in and out of bathrooms, most particularly guests.  Bathroom activities are intensely private for most people, and so the only people they are comfortable making aware of them are close family members.
  11. People gravitate toward kitchens, particularly if there is activity in the kitchen.  This is especially relevant for guests: if you want them out of the kitchen you need to design for that.
  12. People like it to be obvious what is expected of them, in terms of what spaces they can go in to.


1: Most of these ideas can be found in Alexander, et al, "A Pattern Language", with a few adopted from other sources.  The presentation here is much simplified and organized somewhat differently.  Those interested should read the original--its a few hundred pages.

2: even the airport ceiling is likely ten feet high or more, as are virtually all commercial buildings, which is high enough.  The effect appears non-linear: the change from 8 feet to 12 feet seems as significant as the change from 12 to 20.

3: There is a lot of speculation in these statements, but I suspect the sales stats on light bulbs for residential applications is that warm out sells cool many times although was unable to find sales stats.  Note that in commercial settings, particularly retail, cooler colors are much more common.