As a practice we are currently exploring what no other architect is investigating, we are researching and measuring human emotional responses to buildings and developing best practice for designing happiness into places and spaces.

For many years architects have routinely been applying wellbeing lenses to create architecture that is sustainably designed, built and operated. Metrics for optimal air, water and light quality have been determined; buildings can now include all the physical attributes and facilities to support physical, mental and emotional health. However, there is currently no analysis into what it is about a design that creates the ‘tingle factor’ and elicits an overwhelmingly positive emotional response in the visitors and users of a space – this is what we are working to determine.

Happiness is the word often used when discussing this phenomenon. We all know what our own positive response to a building feels like, but we cannot always identify exactly what it is about a particular space or interior that creates this feeling.

At Chetwoods, we always strive to create spaces that deliver a positive physical, sensory and emotional human experience. We want those who use our buildings to feel ‘happiness’. The case study below is an example of how our architectural professionals use research and their creativity to consider and analyse human emotional reactions to design.

A working example: Including happiness in a school boarding house

We have been working with Ramboll, who are collaborating with the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark, on proposals for a new preparatory school boarding house in the Midlands. The promotion of a healthy and happy environment was central to the school ethos and needed to be fundamental to the design of the building. It was critical the building should be the antithesis of institutional and feel like home to both boarders and staff.

From the outset we focused on designing in happiness for pupils, staff and visitors to “create happy memories of school days with friends for life”. For children taking their first steps towards independence at the school, it was important that they would feel happy, along with feeling safe and secure while boarding, and that they would feel at home away from home.

The Happiness Research Institute identifies that 15% of our happiness comes from our home. Indirectly, our home also contributes to our mental and physical wellbeing. As we spend a large majority of our time in our homes it is important that we get the design right from the outset. Get the design right and the places we call home will contribute towards our happiness.

We considered how our homes and wider environment affect our individual happiness, and concluded that there are four key elements that should be considered when designing homes, and that we should therefore apply to the design of the boarding house:

  • Create a sense of identity and belonging
  • Enable the children to sense nature
  • Balance connectivity with privacy
  • Flexibility and ownership

We created a variety of spaces to enable different types of interaction, play and rest including solitary rest/play and group play. Interiors had unexpected colours, shapes and textures. We also included biophilic design elements such as good natural lighting, bio-based textured materials and biomimetic shapes and forms.

These spatial typologies and patterns were also applied to the adult living and hospitality spaces, with research demonstrating that cognitive skills, mindfulness, stress-management and overall wellbeing can all be enhanced by such design features.

With the school’s location in the countryside, connections between inside and outside were an important design feature. As well as creating views and a sense of transparency, we included new courtyards, gardens and rooftop terraces between and over the buildings. The two walled gardens create two spaces of varying character and function including dedicated play space, a kitchen garden or simply a place to relax.

Analysing the human emotional response to our boarding school design

Once we had concluded the initial concepts of the school boarding house we began to analyse whether the design evoked happiness through a data centric approach which trialled the latest cutting-edge technology.

Dr. Erika Parn, a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge, led our strategy and also guided the technology focused team at Chetwoods. This Works team champions the digital delivery of projects. Laurie Chetwood, our Chairman, oversaw the initiative.

Chetwoods has two other dedicated teams. Studio, a group of our most experimental architectural designers who bring imagination and emotion to our designs, and Thrive who specialise in environmental issues and health and wellbeing. The three teams worked together to deliver the project, each contributing their specific skills and knowledge.

The technology we used creates artificial neural networks which are applied to computer visualisations and in turn are used for affective computing  which recognizes, interprets, processes, and simulates human feelings, emotions and moods. The programme analyses even the smallest facial movements to deliver data on emotional responses.

A key finding in our research was revealed by the Gaze Plot, which analysed where the viewer’s eye was drawn. A large window that projected light into the room was viewed most, more than vibrant colours or biophilic elements. Spaces for children are often filled with colour, but our study showed that substantial natural light is as important.

Our next step in the analysis is to move from static images to use videos, animations and fly throughs created from models. We will explore how more immersive and interactive visuals impact the data and use this information to inform our design approach.

As a practice we are aware that monitoring human emotional responses to design would be transformative for the architecture industry, and potentially the wider construction sector. It would help architects and clients better understand what really ‘works’ in our designs, both for people occupying the spaces and for the environment. It would inform our approach to the early concept design stage as we could instantly take response data into account, without waiting for user feedback after a building is finished.

Our human emotional response to design research has been recognised in a shortlisting for the AJ100 Innovation of the Year Award 2022 and within the Digital Innovation in Design category at the Digital Construction Awards 2022.

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