The Architecture of Life: September 2007

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Many Sides of Studying the Experience of Home

The study of the impact of the environment - and particularly the built environment - on human behavior is a very old area of scientific and philosophical inquiry.

But in the last fifty years, several new areas of study have emerged from existing disciplines such as anthropology, geography, ekistics, sociology, psychology, history, political science, planning, architecture, urban design and systems sciences of various types that has opened the door to a more practical application of this research and theory.

Those new hybrid disciplines are most commonly known as “environmental psychology,” but in fact a variety of research data has sprung up from diverse perspectives known variously as environmental social science, architectural psychology, socio-architecture, behavioral geography, environment-behavior studies, person-environment studies, environmental sociology, social ecology and environmental design research.

Enormous advancements in neuroscience have provided a much clearer understanding of the brain’s structure and function as it manages the needs of the body.

We are beginning to understand the mechanisms in the brain that are used to manage the acquiring of resources from the external environment, including shelter, and to what degree that functioning is conscious.

Advances have been made in understanding the neuroscience of subjective experience and in reconciling the historical divide between neuroscientists and psychoanalysts. Mark Solms is a leader in this area, and it matters because the "experience of home" is a subjective experience within the brain.

Additional hybrid disciplines have evolved from this study. One example is neuroergonomics, a field led by researchers like Matthew Rizzo and Raja Parasuraman.

In what might seem like unrelated disciplines - systems theory, bioenergetics, and non-equilibrium thermodynamics - research results have added to this growing body of information in the last few years that expose pervasive, and often emergent “systemic properties” in living systems.

New approaches to mapping those complex processes might allow better prediction of their behavior as it relates to their environment.

John Holland, Steven Strogatz, Eric D. Schneider and others have written in this field.

Some incredible things are happening in epigenetics that are rocking the foundations of the neo-darwinism. Through various machanisms - including DNA methylation and chromatin remodelling - epigenetic systems turn genes "on and off" and studies of identical twins and mice are making it clear that heritable traits can be passed down that do not involve changes to DNA!

And the epigenome is impacted by the environment in a single life. What that means is that how we live may impact the health and wellbeing of our children and grandchildren, a possibility which up until recent years was considered a complete heresy in molecular biology.

Check out the work of Moshe Szyf and Michael Meaney for more on that.

In the fields of biology and physiology, some folks study non-human organisms who - like humans - build external environments to enhance their survival rates in harsh and competitive ecosystems. Also like humans, they have identified a host of profoundly interdependent relationships between organisms and their "built environments" as adaptive strategies.

J. Scott Turner, Deborah Gordon and the eminent E. O. Wilson are favorites of mine in this area though they do not share a single perspective.

My views are particularly impacted by the idea that human habitations - like those of a variety of other organisms - perform in certain ways as external organs of physiology in their functionality...and perhaps even in our neuro-biology!

For more on this, see Scott Turner's book, The Extended Organism.

A much more extensive list of sources for these types of ideas is listed at

Whole House Design for Human Beings

The Holistic Approach - Projects designed and built with a holistic approach - that is “from the whole” - are more organized and generally of greater quality than those done without considering the emotional, psychological and circumstantial needs of the inhabitants.

There is less error and a greater percentage of the work is right the first time when designers and clients "think holistic".

That’s one of the secrets to quality construction. Try to get as much of it right the first time as you can. So don't just think about "how to" do your project. Think about how your project can be tailored to your life!

Mistakes can be corrected and often without any great loss in quality, but the loss in time and money can’t be recovered.

Home as Experience

I believe a “home” is not really a building, but rather an emotional experience. A house is made of bricks and sticks, but a home is of the heart.

That experience does not live in a particular building, but inside each of us, and is built over a lifetime. Modern science suggests that it arises over many generations within each family and exists as complex web of emotional/environmental associations in our brains.

Some aspects of our environment stimulate us and help us feel good, and some cause us to respond negatively.

We do not generally think about these critical internal assessments because they are so basic to our everyday experience.

Most of those associations are subconscious. They are part of every decision we make about our living space, but we seldom think about them. They are merely threads in the fabric of our lives.

Each person has different experience of home, different tastes, different needs and lifestyle. For every individual and every family, we believe there is a true home, a home that fits who they are, that nurtures them and expresses their true selves.

When we consider buying, designing, building, redecorating or remodeling a home, a lot of thought goes into our decisions - and sometimes - a lot of anxiety.

But if the experience we seek with that purchase is a suite of feelings, how can we discover it by thinking?

How can you spend your money wisely, make good design or purchase decisions, or effectively redecorate your home if you do not truly know which specific conditions will give you the emotional experience you desire?

How can you reliably purchase or design a home that helps you feel comfortable and safe, happy and at peace, satisfied and proud?