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Can buildings cause us to behave in certain ways?

Think about how you feel/act when you enter a majestic cathedral -- Notre Dame, in Paris, for example.  The soaring ceilings, stone walls, beautiful stained glass, muted light are peaceful and inspiring.

No one yells or gets upset in these types of environments.

And what about the exterior? A study by Colin Ellard, a neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo, found that people's stress levels increased when they were walking past a boring building facade versus one that had more going on.

He further concluded that boredom can also generate stress, making the point of what that would do to people who work in "oppressively dull" environments every day.

Details Matter Most

According to architecture critic/instructor/author Sarah Williams Goldhagen, what matters to people most is not the exterior building form, but rather the interior details.  In her new book, "Welcome to Your World:  How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives," Goldhagen explores the reasons why some places make us feel happy and others don't.

It's the notion of embodied cognition, or very simply, the scientific notion that the mind influences the body and the body influences the mind.

I haven't read Goldhagen's book yet but did read a fascinating interview with her that was recently published by CityLab. One of the things she said that struck me was this:

"Architects tend, particularly with parametric design, to emphasize overall aggregate form, and all the other stuff gets filled in later. And then, very often, it's value-engineered out. That's what's creating a lot of the impoverishment in the environment."

What Does This Mean for Healthcare Facility Design?

While the design of healthcare facilities has significantly improved in the past 25 years, there are still plenty of boring hospitals and clinics out there.

This means that a hospital with a plain facade may stress patients even before they enter. And staff members who work long shifts in environments that lack variety may also feel anxious or depressed.

This is all common sense, right?

Well, yes, but those making decisions about healthcare facility design always seem to need proof so they don't value-engineer out all the good stuff.  The research about embodied cognition can and should inform the evidence-based design process.

Just remember, as Winston Churchill said, "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us." Truer words were never spoken for healthcare facility design.

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Leave a comment

Michael Walsh

7 years ago

Good ...and elevating stuff. we need dreamers and doers. This blog issue smacks of a bit Henry V with a challenge to our community to do good things.

"Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say "These wounds I had on Crispin's day."
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;"

We few we happy few - 'trying to make the healthcare environment uplifting and better.'

Leonard Berry

7 years ago

Great post Sara.. patients spend their time inside the facility.

Stephanie Fortino

7 years ago

I love this and would love to know more. I will read the links. I'm so glad you posted this out there.

Sara Marberry_013-Retouched-New copy

What's my story? I'm a healthcare and senior living design knowledge expert who writes and speaks frequently about trends and issues affecting these two industries. I'm also a strategic marketing consultant and content creator, working with companies and organizations who want to improve the quality of healthcare and senior living through the design of the physical environment. You can reach me at .

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