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Brain LandscapeThe Coexistence of Neuroscience and Architecture$

John P. Eberhard

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780195331721

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195331721.001.0001

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(p.168) APPENDIX ONE Environment–Behavior Studies: A Precursor for Neuroscience in Design

(p.168) APPENDIX ONE Environment–Behavior Studies: A Precursor for Neuroscience in Design

Brain Landscape


Oxford University Press

Between 1972 and 1981 in a Pennsylvania hospital, 23 pairs of patients, all undergoing cholecystectomy [gallbladder removal] operations, were selected by matching sex, age (within five years), being a smoker or a non-smoker, obese or within normal weight limits, general nature of previous hospitalization, year of surgery (within six years), and floor level. One of each pair was assigned to a room with a view of a brick wall (like the view on the right), whilst the other had a view of a “natural scene” with deciduous trees (like the view on the left). Patients with a natural view spent a shorter time in the hospital than those with the brick wall view (7.96 days compared with 8.70 days per patient) and had fewer negative notes made about them (1.13 per patient compared with 3.96 per patient). The “natural view” group requested significantly fewer doses of analgesics in the period between two and five days after surgery, when patients are most in control of their own pain relief. These results indicate that patients with a “natural view” make a recovery, with less pain relief needed.

—ULRICH (1984)

APPENDIX ONE Environment–Behavior Studies: A Precursor for Neuroscience in Design

Figure A1–1. Double windows.

(p.169) How the physical environment created by designers, especially architects, affects the people who use them has been of concern to architects as far back as Vitruvius, who defined the purposes of architecture as firmitas, utilitas, and venustas (structural stability, appropriate spatial accommodation, and attractive appearance), translated popularly as “commodity, firmness, and delight.” Utility, or “appropriate spatial accommodation,” clearly means a building’s use and usability; purpose and delight also relate to human responses to environmental design. Le Corbusier, the great French architect of the early 20th century, referred to housing design as the work of creating a “machine for living.” Although the word machine might be too mechanical a response for many social scientists, these words clearly indicate that Corbusier thought that how inhabitants used housing was, in his design approach, an important outcome. Finally, the modern movement in architecture beginning with the work of architects such as Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus school in Germany in the 1930s coined the slogan “form follows function.” Once again, these architects clearly saw one element of function to be a building’s use.

These architects and architectural movements all believed in the power of architecture to support social ideals, human needs, physical health, spiritual aspirations, and many other very human dimensions. What they did not do was include in their design process explicit description of the social and human dimensions they aimed to meet. They also did not build into their design process and theory a way to systematically assess the degree to which a specific physical design and environment actually achieved its social and human goals. They did not include research into human and user needs before designing, nor did they measure the effects of buildings in use.

One reason for this omission was that architecture was seen by most practitioners, clients, and the public in general as a vehicle for the architect’s self-expression, as a way for clients—often organizations—to meet corporate needs, and as artistic expression.

An equally important reason was that when architecture was developing as a field and profession, there were no well-established social sciences to be incorporated into the design process. Psychology, sociology, and to (p.170) some degree modern anthropology—with theories, methodologies, methods, and social and psychological facts—all emerged in the mid-20th century. During this flowering of the social and psychological sciences—drawing to a large degree on European theoreticians and researchers, such as Émile Durkheim, Vilfredo Pareto, and Georg Simmel—some social scientists in fact studied social phenomena related to the built environment. They didn’t call themselves environmental psychologists (Ittelson, Proshansky, and Winkler, 1970) or environment-behavior experts (Zeisel, 1980), but these forefathers of this field definitely developed the building blocks that eventually supported this field and helped architects see value in using them.


Who were these innovators, and what did they study? Robert Sommer, a social psychologist, studied how people changed their environments to meet their needs and how, in turn, these environments affected behav-ior. In Personal Space, Sommer (1969) studied and identified the way lower lights in bars enabled greater intimacy among patrons, and how in mental hospitals the arrangement of chairs influenced whether patients felt isolated or socially connected. Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist, identified in The Hidden Dimension (1966), how different cultures interpreted space in social relations—with some feeling insulted if their conversation partner didn’t stand close enough to smell them, and others feeling insulted if they did. Sociologist Herbert Gans studied social life in the predominantly Italian American West End neighborhood of Boston in his book Urban Villagers (1962). He identified (among other things) how families used the separation of kitchens from living rooms in their apartments to maintain culturally based gender identification and separation.

With all this intellectual fervor boiling up and linking environment and behavioral phenomena, it was not long before the field of environment–behavior (E–B) studies formally emerged. First to appropriate this (p.171) field were psychologists. A group of psychologists at the City University of New York published a textbook of readings they called Environmental Psychology (Proshansky, Ittleson, & Rivlin, 1970). The chapters, not surprisingly, were written by and about psychologists, architects, sociologists, anthropologists, and others. The theories and methods included were drawn from all these sciences of the human condition.


Eventually more textbooks appeared, and courses covering these subjects appeared in universities worldwide—some housed in schools of architecture or interior design departments, others in departments of psychology linked to departments of design.

What was taught in these courses? The field included theory, methods, concepts, and environments drawn from the various disciplines that made it up. Quickly, as can be seen in the following discussion, these elements took on an identity of their own and were seen as constituting this new field.

Among the concepts included and studied in E–B studies are privacy, crowding, wayfinding, environmental perception, territoriality, and personalization. Among the methods employed are focus interviews, questionnaires, observation of behavior, observation of physical traces and cues, analysis of group data, and analysis of plans.

Among the environments systematically studied employing these concepts and methods are streets, housing, offices, museums, schools, hospitals, Alzheimer’s residences, and children’s play environments.


Two major research methodologies and one design process have been developed in this field particularly to relate to architecture and other (p.172) design professions and processes: User needs programming studies, postoccupancy evaluation (POE) studies, and evidence-based design.

The knowledge developed in this field has greatly enriched architecture. Many buildings have been better designed because their architects have taken a course or read an E–B textbook. Many buildings designed with an E–B perspective and methods work better for their users. The research carried out on buildings in use—in user needs and POE studies—has enriched the design of other building types.

The question that seems to have been answered by these developments is how to design better buildings—how to better accommodate and meet user needs. The answer to the question of why these environments work better is still missing, and the linkages presently being made between neuroscience and architecture are likely to shed a bright light on this question in the decades to come.

What makes up this field of E–B studies, also known as environmental psychology?


  • Privacy: “Controlling the degree and type of access others have to you and your territory,” is the way Irwin Altman (1975) defines privacy. A closed door is necessary in some cultures to prevent others from engaging in conversation, whereas in others, just turning one’s back is enough.

  • Crowding: Roger Barker developed a key concept that underlies crowding studies, namely, the concept of behavior settings. He uses this approach to demonstrate that crowding is a relative concept; all rooms and other physical spaces have inherent social properties, among them comfort level users have in groups of different size. A small after-school social club meeting in a large gymnasium is likely to feel uncomfortable because the space feels “undermanned,” to use a Barker term, whereas the same group in a small classroom might feel crowded.

  • Wayfinding: A fundamental human need is to find one’s way in the physical environments in which we live, work, and play. In the E–B literature, research on wayfinding plays a central role. Kevin Lynch’s classic study of how (p.173) Boston taxi drivers find their way around the city identified five physical elements critical to wayfinding: pathways, districts, landmarks, nodes, and boundaries.

  • Environmental perception: E–B researchers have also studied people’s reactions to buildings and spaces. Architects like to ask how the users of their buildings “read” their environment; therefore, E–B researchers have spent a great deal of energy studying this aspect of the person–environment interaction.

  • Territoriality: Everyone who uses space—whether in a bedroom, an office, a parking lot, or a restaurant—expropriates part of that space as his or hers. Each person stakes out her or his turf, setting up indicators of ownership, much like wolves and dogs leave a marker scent at the edges of the territory that they are prepared to defend. Graffiti on walls in urban areas has traditionally been considered one way gang members establish the boundaries of the territory they control.

  • Personalization: In those places we spend a lot of time, such as homes and workplaces, we have a tendency to want to make it homey and personal. We might put pictures of family members on the wall or put trophies and awards on shelves. Personalization is linked to territoriality, but it is different. Personalization reminds the person and others who encounter the space exactly who lives and works there, not merely that the territory is staked out. Decorated front yards in housing areas, pictures of employees’ children on desks in workspaces, and students who wear their school colors on their jackets are all examples of personalization.


Because the field of E–B studies in architecture developed primarily among social scientists, data-gathering methods employed in this field tend to be drawn from sociology, anthropology, and psychology. Used in natural and experimental situations, as well as before and after buildings are occupied, the methods generally fall into three areas: asking questions, observing people and the physical environment, and analyzing data archives, including plans and other forms of architectural information. (p.174)

  • Focus interviews: Used to understand the way building users think about an E–B situation or concept, focus interviews with individuals as well as groups enable researchers to understand the “definition of the situation” in which they find themselves.

  • Questionnaires: These structured instruments are employed to collect large amounts of data from a large number of people that can be quantified and analyzed statistically.

  • Observation of behavior: Much of what E–B researchers want to learn about is the interaction people have with their physical environment—how they use it, navigate it, and change it to meet their needs.

  • Observation of physical traces and cues: People have left physical traces of their behavior for millennia, and anthropologists mine these traces to develop theories about past civilizations. Similar methods are used in E–B studies to determine what people have done to their environments to interpret what this might mean for analysis of social relations in environments, antisocial behaviors that have left traces, and meeting user needs.

  • Analysis of group data: In the course of managing businesses, schools, and other complex environments, an administration often collects data on those who use the buildings. For example, hospitals collect data on such things as illnesses, length of stay, and blood pressure. Schools collect data on attendance, grades, and incidences of vandalism or other property damage. Businesses collect data on absenteeism, productivity, and copy machine usage. All of these, when correlated with characteristics of the built environment of those enterprises, give insights into E–B interactions that might inform future design. For example, at the Minneapolis Star Tribune newsroom (Zeisel, 2006), the rate of carpal tunnel syndrome, found in medical records, indicated the need for more ergonomic furniture.

  • Analysis of plans: Unique to buildings and other design settings are schematic and construction plans. Just as data collected on users sheds light on the behavior side of the E–B equation, plans contain data that can be useful in understanding the environment side. For example, if users of an office building complain about heat or cold, plans of the ventilation design can yield explanations.

One way to organize the E–B studies carried out over the past three decades is in terms of the types of settings studied. For architects who (p.175) design buildings and often compare buildings of a certain type to each other, this can be helpful. Among the popular environments studied systematically in use are settings for living, work, education, transportation, and health care.

  • Housing: Housing—mass housing rather than individual houses—has intrigued E–B researchers since the field was founded. Different cultures live in different types of housing. Poor housing is crowded and often full of social life. Higher cost housing presents researchers with the opportunity to study environmental perception, among other topics. What in the environment, for example, do buyers perceive as reflecting higher value to a property?

  • Offices: Because many people spend half their lives working in offices and workplaces of some sort, these settings have also been the focus of E–B researchers. In particular, researchers have been interested in how the physical environment can improve of reduce productivity, how employees develop their own personal work space, and how teams who work together establish territories that belong to them. For example, the work of Jacqueline Vischer (Vischer, 2005) has shown that the space employees occupy is a key element in the employer–employee “socio-spatial contract” and thus plays a critical role in organizational productivity.

  • Streets: Public streets have been a focus of E–B studies since the beginning of the field because they are a social setting for many neighborhoods and because street social life and the way people feel about cars represent the glue for most housing schemes. Issues of developing pedestrian zones, creating social magnets, and dealing with teenagers on streets are favorite subjects.

  • Schools: The role of environment in education in schools has always been of interest to E–B researchers and architects with whom they work. From studies of the open plan schools of the 1970s to issues of vandalism and property damage, school design issues have been on the forefront of the E–B radar screen. Among school designers, questions arise about the importance of daylight to children’s ability to learn, as well as the benefits and challenges posed to children by open plan schools versus schools with primarily bounded space around classrooms.

  • Hospitals: Hospitals and health care settings generally have been a central to the work of designers who employ E–B approaches and data, as well as to (p.176) E–B researchers and consultants. For example, Janet Carpman’s important work on wayfinding in hospitals demonstrated that legible signs with limited information located at crossroads and other decision points along a pathway are most effective. Such clear signage and logical planning saves staff time and eases the life of hospital users and visitors.

  • Alzheimer’s residences: People living with Alzheimer’s disease are among those who most need well-designed environments. The areas of the brain that create and hold cognitive maps of their surroundings are damaged, but they can easily read and negotiate “naturally mapped” settings. Zeisel’s work has shown that eight characteristics—including safe and camouflaged exits, walking paths with destinations, and therapeutic gardens—all contribute to reduced symptomatic behaviors.

  • Children’s play environments: Children use public playgrounds, school playgrounds, and paths in housing estates to exercise and play. Their behavior and how play behavior is affected by environmental design has been a corner of E–B studies since the 1960s.

E–B studies have also influenced the design process that many architects employ. Three research and design linking processes are either employed by many architects or known by them.

  • User needs studies: During the design programming phase, in which the performance characteristics of a building are determined and data are gather data on the building-related needs of various users of a building without a specific building in mind, E–B practitioners carry out user needs studies. Architects draw on such E–B data and information in books, articles, and research reports to inform themselves of basic and sometimes special needs associated with particular user groups, such as children in playgrounds; employees in office buildings; patients, visitors, and staff in hospitals; and people living with Alzheimer’s disease in assisted living residences.

  • POEs: Buildings and other settings have goals and objectives to meet, including such things as meeting user needs for functionality and comfort, user satisfaction, image development for an organization, economic viability, support for efficient operation, and so on. Systematically studying how a building in use performs along predetermined parameters like this is called a POE. In the design, construction, and use sequence, POEs enable the (p.177)

    APPENDIX ONE Environment–Behavior Studies: A Precursor for Neuroscience in Design

    Figure A1–2. E-B Knowledge.

    profession of architecture to continually upgrade the E–B information available from actual buildings by which to make high-quality design decisions.

  • Evidence-based design: This approach to research and design interaction differs from the other two processes, in that the designers and their decisions drive what data are used and what studies are carried out (Vischer & Zeisel, 2008). Drawn as a parallel to evidenced-based medicine, in which health care professionals are more and more basing their diagnoses and prescriptions on available data, evidence-based design decision making is taking hold of many designers’ imaginations because it puts the use of research data—among these E–B data—in the hands of the design professionals making decisions, unlike POE studies.


E–B studies—user needs studies and POEs—can help us understand what the relationship might be between designed environments and behavioral outcomes. They will never be able to tell us, from a physio-logical and neuroscience point of view, why these relationships occur. This requires that neuroscience knowledge be inserted into the mix. (p.178) The following figures (Fig. A1–3 and A1–4), drawn from Inquiry by Design (Zeisel, 2006), illustrates how design hypotheses might link E–B data and neuroscience data into a single model to finally be able to ask both the what and why questions in the same design research project.

APPENDIX ONE Environment–Behavior Studies: A Precursor for Neuroscience in Design

Figure A1–3. Model for E/B chart.

APPENDIX ONE Environment–Behavior Studies: A Precursor for Neuroscience in Design

Figure A1–4. E/B/N Design chart.

(p.179) Were we to turn this model into an environment/behavior/neuroscience design research hypothesis for lighting in neonatal intensive care units, it might look like Figure A1–4 and would generate a much richer set of data.

In sum, great strides forward are made on the shoulders of giants, as Robert Merton points out in his studies in the history of science. Architects have been interested in the users of their buildings since the start of the profession. As the social sciences have increasingly been able to provide useful research approaches and information about these users, architects and architecture have embraced these allied fields. One of the earliest steps in this direction was to embrace what could be learned from psychology, sociology, and anthropology—the field known as environment–behavior studies and environmental psychology. The next step in the quest to establish a firm link between built environment and people is to engage the neurosciences in the same way—carrying out basic research, embedding hypotheses from the neurosciences in design, and testing these to determine their effects. Neuroarchitecture, however, will be more successful the more it incorporates and builds on the information and approaches the social sciences and E–B studies have to offer.