Have you ever walked into a place and felt an immediate sense of welcoming or belonging? Or perhaps as you entered you were instead hit with bewilderment or a sense of unease. You might not have any idea why you felt the way you did. Or you may have attributed that feeling to something else that was going on in your life right then. But it’s quite possible that it was the building — the materials used to make it, the amount of sunlight filtering in, or the overall design — that either drew you in or repelled you.
Sarah Williams Goldhagen, an architectural critic, has explored the relationship between humans and buildings in her new book Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives. By pulling together studies on cognition and neuroscience, as well as research into specific outcomes based on the design of places, Williams Goldhagen has given credence to something that before now had, for many, been just a hunch. In this book, she gets to the heart of why we connect with some places and not others and, more importantly, why that matters.
Our built environment affects our health, our happiness, our ability to learn, our sense of self-worth and agency, our productivity, and more. If we’re going to be constructing new buildings anyway, why not make them work for us instead of against us?
Williams Goldhagen makes clear that expensive design does not always mean good design, and cheap construction can still result in positive outcomes. The key isn’t how much money is spent but whether the building is scaled to the human body, how easy it is to “read,” how much natural light it allows in, what materials are used, how it affects all of our senses, and so on. The book is full of examples of both the good and the bad (with lots of photos to illustrate the points being made). Here are a couple:
It is important to consider where a building is located. The author explains,
Children who attend schools situated near airports consistently demonstrate impairment on a host of cognitive faculties that critically facilitate learning, such as concentration, persistence, motivation, attention to detail. With diminished capacity for reading comprehension, these children fall behind on achievement tests. Even an occasionally passing train disrupts children’s ability to learn. One study compared the academic performance of two sets of students at an urban school located on a site adjacent to elevated train tracks. Those students whose classrooms faced the train tracks consistently underperformed on a wide range of tasks relative to their peers in quieter classrooms located just across the hall.
Also important is our connection to nature, whether it means having access to a courtyard with greenery or working in a building with lots of natural light. When residents of a similar socioeconomic status and background live in the same neighborhood and in buildings with the same design but some have access to greenery and others don’t, studies show that the residents with a connection to nature, especially children, are healthier physically and psychologically. Williams Goldhagen explains,
Green Courtyarders coped better with stress. They better managed interpersonal conflict. Most astonishing, the children exhibited superior overall cognitive functioning. Dozens of subsequent studies confirm these findings, including work in recent years on communities in Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Youngstown, Ohio, correlating significantly reduced incidences of crime (both property and violent) to increased greenery in public places.
This connection with nature isn’t just important in residential structures. Studies show that retail businesses can increase their sales by being located in spaces with big windows or skylights that let in lots of natural light.
Our connection with nature goes beyond a preference for sunny rooms and plants. The author claims that “We are so biologically wired to embrace the natural world that, in addition to greenery and light, we respond strongly to natural materials, biomorphic forms, and specific topographical features.” We prefer wood to plastic, stone and brick to fiber-cement. Even when a material has been cast to look like a natural product, we interact with the built environment with more than just our eyes. The feel of a material; the way it reflects or absorbs light, sound and heat; even its smell can positively or negatively affect us.
Sarah Williams Goldhagen shares the good and bad in buildings from around the world and pulls out specific elements in their construction that either enhance life or detract from it. Though some of what she says feels like common knowledge (We inhabit bodies that, in turn, inhabit the spaces around us.), it’s her patient, clear, and detailed descriptions of what that actually means that causes a reader to grasp how simple, basic elements should be attended to in our built environment. This book connects the dots between who we are as people and what our buildings should therefore be like.
Good building design doesn’t require a rigid adherence to a strict set of rules. Rather, there’s an incredibly wide degree of latitude for creativity and responsiveness to location, climate, requirements of use, and preferences in style. The book pulls examples from around the world — old and new, plain and ornate, large and small, expensive and economical. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to making our world a better place. Rather it’s a set of principals (with data to support each one) that help to guide good design.
The City of Fort Collins recently took a close look at residents’ thoughts on building design as it obtained feedback from the public for the Downtown Plan that was approved by City Council on March 21, 2017. In one exercise, participants were asked to look at photos of several new buildings that had been added to the downtown landscape in the past 10 – 15 years. As the groups sat around tables, they were encouraged to note the buildings that they liked best and to detail particular features that contributed positively to the design. There was only one building that everyone at my table agreed felt like it belonged in Fort Collins. As I spoke with people who had been at other tables, they had had a similar response. There is something about quite a lot of our new construction that is not working for people.
The building that earned praise from locals at the Downtown Plan meeting is included among the photos in this article, but I won’t tell you which one. Instead, I’d like to hear your thoughts on our newest buildings. What do you like? What don’t you? You may find both positive and negative attributes within the same building. What are they? And why do you think they effect you the way they do?
It matters what residents of Fort Collins think about new buildings that are being added to our community. It is, after all, our community. We live here. We work here. We shop here. These are the buildings that will be affecting us and our families for decades to come. How do they make us feel? Are they helping to improve our health and happiness, or are they detracting from it?
Our local building boom is not showing any signs of abating, and several new developments have been slated for the Midtown area, so it’s not just downtown and Southeast Fort Collins seeing the bulk of change. With City Plan discussions starting up, now is the time for us, as a community, to talk about our built environment. Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s book might provide just the talking points we need to have a city-wide discussion about how we want Fort Collins to look and feel now and in the future.