We live through our senses stimulated by the environment around us whether outdoors or indoors. Our existence is enlivened every waking moment by a symphony of stimuli from people, objects, building spaces, task interest and nature. This rich array of inputs to the mind and body generates the multi-sensory experience which can colour and enrich the environment for people to live and work in. Like in music the notes of melodies, harmonies and rhythms magically combine in a myriad ways to inspire the mind so too in multi-sensory design which weaves a tapestry and diversity of experience for people to flourish in.
Architects, our senses and psychology
The idea of taking into account the senses of a building occupant has extended our thinking into how we smell, touch, hear and see things in the built environment, as well as our psychological interactions with the stimuli it provides. Architecture deals not only with materials and form but also with people, their emotions, the environment, space and relationships between them. This makes a rich tapestry of stimuli which touch the human body and mind.
The senses not only mediate information for the judgement of the intellect, they also are ignite the imagination. This aspect of thought and experience through the senses is stimulated not only by the environment and people around us but by the architecture of the space which sculpts the outline of our reactions.
Buildings must relate to the language and wisdom of the body. If they do not, they become isolated in the cool and distant realm of vision. However, in assessing the value of a building, how much attention is given to the quality of the environment inside the building and its effects on the occupants? The qualities of the environment together with the people within it affect our human physical and mental performance and these qualities should always be given a high priority.
Buildings and the polyphony of the senses
Buildings should be a sanctuary not just as a place of security and protection from the weather but should also provide a multi-sensory experience for people and uplift their spirits. A walk through a forest is invigorating and healing due to the interaction of all the senses but we need to see that the indoor environment is stimulating too. This array of sensory impressions and the interplay between the senses has been referred to as the polyphony of the senses. Architecture is an extension of Nature into the person-made realm and provides the ground for perception, a basis from which people can learn to understand and enjoy the world.
The invisible aesthetic and total sensory aesthetic
The interaction between humans and buildings is more complex than we imagine. In addition to simple reactions that we can measure, there are many sensory and psychological reactions that are difficult to understand and quantify but we must recognise they happen. This is what might be considered an invisible aesthetic and together with the visual impact these make up a total sensory aesthetic. Visual beauty is important but it is only one aspect of what we mean by aesthetics. We respond to beautiful smells, tastes and sounds which are invisible.
Changing attitudes – hygge and ikigai
Our vocabulary in the field of health and wellbeing is changing to embrace a wider span of meaning. Recently the Danish word hygge, meaning cosiness or snug, entered our English language and now the Japanese word ikigai (iki – life and gai – value), expressing a reason for being or a life with purpose, are making their presence in Western languages too. To feel ikigai you need to recognise the value of things that make life worthwhile. Life is worthwhile if you love what you do and are good at doing it and it contributes to the values you cherish. You need time to reflect and think and nowadays the value to one’s wellbeing of mindfulness, yoga, meditation and simply walking in the countryside are being realised to offset this world of increasing fast instant communication which can freeze the mind.
Health and wellbeing are the roots of productivity and also creativity. They reflect our human energy which we need every day to work and take decisions effectively. This approach is advocated for designing the environments of offices so they are stimulating places for occupants to thrive and flourish. Achieving these ideals in practice is described in the BCO Wellness Matters Report which includes various assessment approaches like WELL, Fitwel and Flourish.
This blog is a reprint of an article by Prof Clements-Croome first published in Buildings for People being published by Crowood 2019—20
Professor Derek Clements-Croome worked in the building design and contracting industry before entering university life. He has founded and directed courses including a BSc in building environmental engineering at Loughborough University in 1970 and an interdisciplinary MSc in Intelligent Buildings at Reading University in 1996 covering design and management. He has also worked in architecture and building engineering at the University of Bath (1978-1988).
He now offers strategic advice to clients, designers and facilities managers on attaining and managing healthy and sustainable environments in buildings of all types. He researches, writes and lectures on these issues for companies and wider audiences nationally and internationally in China, Australia, New Zealand, Poland and Finland particularly. Some of his books have been published in Chinese and Russian. He edits and founded the Intelligent Buildings International first journal published by Earthscan in 2008.