I recently agreed to co-author a paper with a client, on sustainable design and architecture’s role in meeting some of our human needs. What follows is an excerpt and though this is not my normal fare, I admittedly have been intrigued for years by the mystery of these desires for; (comfort, safety, beauty) and their relationship to design- and have come to believe over the last 25 plus years that design does have a significant effect on us, and our experience of life as we know it. More to the point, I would say not that the design of the built environment “can have” an effect but DOES, whether it be for ill or gain, for our benefit or to our demise, and regardless of the skill or the intent of the designer, produces a RESULT. That result is measurable and comparable and is intuitively obvious; even after the first moments of viewing or being in a place or a space. The ramifications of that design will, over time- have the effect of happiness or sadness, frustration or confidence, confusion or clarity in the “users” who experience that workplace, that highway, that apartment. In its best and highest form, design produces, or at the very least ENCOURAGES- the higher elements of exhilaration, inspiration- and joy.
I would further the discussion of Maslow’s pyramid of needs beyond the first level through the second level and would make the simple statement that great design- of a level rarely seen in everyday life; is attainable which even enables us to more easily have the rare feelings of self esteem, confidence and respect- even creativity and problem solving… all because of this environment and its ability to embue inspirational and educational properties. In terms of this conversation, regarding the “human factors” and how they are used in design to our benefit, I would break them down into my own hierarchy of need. First let me say I understand the word “design” to be the following; a specific response to a certain set of criteria- also can be described as the “problem“. I dont use the word problem in this case as a deragatory or a negative situation, but rather more like an algebra test- where you are presented with problems to solve. Using the correct theorems or expressions and equations and then working the math and executing fundamentals will yeild the “correct” answer. Any mistake in selection of the equations OR even if the right strategy is chosen, but the execution of it is not perfect, will create an incorrect solution or answer. Do we get partial credit? Sometimes, but that is small encouragement to the gentle designer- or as Coldplay said “you didn’t get to heaven, but you made it close“. So luck is not on our side in design, actually as the old country song said “if it werent for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all“. In design, I have found this to totally and thoroughly be the case. So it is a fickle thing, and why would it not be- attempting as a mere individual to create meaningful sustainable places for the highest and most complex organisms on the planet. Even our needs are not at all static but ever changing, even as the seasons change- so do our desires and environmental reactions evolve and change on a yearly basis, so the equation becomes more complex, even though a simple answer is usually the best.
I have been fortunate to design in places as diverse as Nova Scotia and Utah, Guatemala and Philadelphia- and as the cultures and climates change so do the needs and desires; sometimes significantly. For example, the basic human desire or need for sunlight. In places as close together as even North Carolina and northern Florida, separated by only one US state- have significantly differing factors which cause the designs to respond quite differently as well. In the mountains of North Carolina light is much more difficult to come by on the interior spaces, therefore glass is used liberally and on almost any exposure, be it north south east or west. Also the climate is quite termperate and cooler therefore the warmth from the sun is more desirable over a large part of the year. All in an effort to promote natural lighting, warmth -and the feeling of well being that comes as a result of it. Whereas in areas like Seaside, Florida because of the OTHER effect of sunlight, eg excessive HEAT- every effort is made to minimize the sunlight from proceeding too far into the structure. By use of effective overhangs, calculated by the solar orientation and the solar angles at different times of the year, (higher in summer and lower in winter) also by creative and effective and skillful use of that great invention, THE PORCH- the thoughtful designer can keep the sun at bay. At least enough to give the tanned and glistening inhabitants some modicum of relief from its rays.
Let me review what I think are the main factors inherent if a sustainable and enduring design is to be created. First I start with the earth, its hard to ignore terra firma, or better to say only ignored at our own risk. The site is so important because if you listen closely, the site will tell you exactly what to do in order to have a structure which appears to have either grown out of the ground, or been there since the beginning of time- either one is desirable. In addition to the topographic conditions to be designed to, the site also creates an orientation towards the best view and just as importantly, the poor view. There are usually views to be eschewed just as much as there are views desirable to be captured. Lastly, the solar orientation touched on earlier very rarely is in a copacetic relationship with these views and topographic constraints. Therefore these DIVERGENT needs must have thier way with the design and exert their influence upon the very first notions and considerations of the intelligent designers mind. Finding the place in the world to make the most of all these important considerations leads towards the success of any sustainable design.
Second but no less important is the arrangement of spaces. From Christopher Alexander’s thoughts on privacy and public spaces; even those within a home- it is apparent that a happy “family of rooms” and spaces is imperative to creating a place where people can feel comfortable and also more easily live their lives. From the site diagrams of orientation to the earths movements and suns pattern come a general direction and a SHAPE that fits these lines like a hand in glove. During that analysis the designer must also simultaneously be considering how a human would move through this building and how groceries get in and garbage gets out, how guests could easily find thier way to the powder room at a cocktail party, and what would be the most impressive way to see the sunset from the rear pergola terrace.
In these considerations the form of the house or building begin to have much greater detail than the site diagram, becoming much like arteries and veins form a system that feeds nutrients and oxygen to the rest of the body- these circulatory components need to have a simple and thorough path that serves the needs of the building. In a magnificent example Carlo Scarpa designed in an existing 1000 year old castle one of the finest museums, which so intuitively the patron may explore its chambers of artwork there is no need for a map or guide. Through what would have been a laberynthine experience, is gleaned the delight of discovering this piece and that sculpture, over 4 stories of history, with ease the viewer discovers his way as effortlessly as hansel and gretel following the bread crumbs. That is what my clients call “flow” in layman’s terms. I don’t believe I recall any one of them in an initial meeting not requesting their desire for flow and for their house to have a sense of ease of movement and simplicity of space.
I think from here things get more interesting, and complex and rich. It would be hard to imagine any intelligent person arguing against sustainability of designing to the earth, the sun, light, and human needs. I feel I am stating the obvious, hopefully persuasively- yet “preaching to the choir”, what is inarguable, yet not always fully obvious. The interesting things in life to me, are those truths which are counter-intuitive. These mysteries are the best parts of life. I would love to additionally discuss at a later time, more of beauty and its role and subjective nature in our lives and in design as one example of mystery and the power of it. The great variable of my experience in design is and are the fundamental differences in human beings in their personas and personalities and egos- and the influence these psychological factors have on their desires and the resultant designs to serve them. When these factors are cross-referenced and interlaced with the previous and aforementioned factors the resulting design paramaters are as myriad as what Sir Herbert Read called “the infinate permutations of heredity“. And it is that which makes each design as totally individual as a snowflake, and brings my life’s work the most fulfillment and variety. In more detailed words, persons who are more formal, or more relaxed will want VERY different environments. Maslows hierarchy of needs is a elementary roadmap that is a cartoon in light of these types of psycholgical considerations. Not that it is without usefulness and notwithstanding its declaration of the obvious baseline of human desires and needs. It is my hope that these are the very beginning of an intelligent conversation, about how we live best and what we really need and want- but it is like a first date and not as intimate as we need to be; if we are to create places of the higher order- full of mystery and intrigue, and deep fulfillment.