The Architecture of Life: November 2008

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Monday, November 24, 2008

Disrupting Architecture at Texas A & M

The latest issue of the newsletter of Texas A & M Architecture school includes an article about my lecture on October 30th.

I was pleased my lecture made the "news" at A & M, but seeing my picture on their website motivated me to make two decisions.

I doubt I will wear a Hawaiian shirt next time I lecture, and this morning, I stuck the American Heart Association food charts back on my fridge and went on a diet. In situations like this, I am often disturbed to find I am not a good looking in real life as I am in my head.

The article in full is here. It was a great experience and I offer my thanks once again to Lou Tassinary and Xuemei Zhu for giving me the chance to try to "disrupt the thinking" of their students.

Here is part of my lecture that was reported in the article.

“The conversation with human factors and behavioral factors in design is actually the central requirement of having a successful design practice,” he told the students.

“How you relate to people, how you understand people, how much you’re able to get inside their heads and predict what portion of the things people tell you about themselves is accurate relative to the space you’re designing is crucial.”

Travis wonders why architects don’t have a similar role in designing residences that designers have on, for example, the iPhone. “The iPhone is about design not based on something cool, but about how people use something in a way that is effective. That’s what ergonomics is too. When you get into your Toyota and everything’s in the right place and makes sense that’s because somebody did a whole lot of user experience work.

“Where is that in architecture?” he asked. “Right now, less than five percent of houses built in this nation involve an architect.”

There’s never been more of a need for home design, he said. “People are smart, well educated, they have become used to well-designed offices and things in their lives,” he said. "It’s very intuitive to expect that from your home. The reason that we don’t is because we don’t see the possibility of something different.”

Travis sees architecture teetering on the precipice of irrelevance. “Architecture has become something that is a luxury item for the wealthy,” he said. “I say there’s a new wave coming, and it has to do with how you tailor a living space to human beings. This is an entirely different point of view, a development that should occur over the next 20 years,” he continued, “because if it doesn’t, our future is going to become irrelevant.

Frankly, more irrelevant than it is now, because it already is for most of us who can’t afford it.”

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Lou Tassinary and Roger Ulrich also collaborated on a new study just published in the latest edition of the journal Environment and Behavior.

In the study, 210 psychology students were purposely given frustrating tasks to do on the computer, to get them angry. The testing was alternately done with, and without, photographic and abstract scenes of nature on the walls of the room in which the irritating tests were given.

For men, there was a marked reduction in anger when the nature scenes were on the walls as compared to when they were not.

For women, the posters seemed to have no impact. If you want to learn more about this study you can find an article about it here on

New evidence like this that positive environments have a big impact on health and well-being are coming from all directions these days. Mind/body research in many universities have been publishing proof that how we feel in the buildings we build impacts not only our mood, but our health, for many years now.

It is time for mainstream architecture and architecture schools to take these findings seriously and do like we are doing at Truehome, developing methods of programming that allow practitioners t0 understand the "emotional architecture" of the inhabitants of the buildings they are designing.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Talk @ Texas A & M Architecture School

Pity the poor architecture students at Texas A & M University! About 80 of them were forced by their professor to listen to me for almost an hour a couple of weeks back.

The talk was great fun and the students seemed to really enjoy it. The course is called "Social and Behavioral Factors in Design," and was taught by Xuemei Zhu Ph.D. , a delightful young woman who works at A & M's Center for Health Systems & Design who was recently quoted in Time Magazine.

The lecture was set up by Lou Tassinary Ph.D. Lou is the Associate Dean for Research at A & M's architecture school, and the Director of its Environmental Psychophysiological Laboratory.

He is an expert on perception and other subjects on which I speculate. He sat in the back of the room during my lecture and I half expected him to jump up at any moment and contradict me since I wandered into areas in which he has much more expertise than me, but apparently I did not err in ways that were too onerous.

Afterwards he took Dr. Zhu and I out for an enjoyable lunch and they both asked me if I would consider lecturing again this coming semester.

Of course I said "yes." There is nothing I like more than preaching to design professionals about the importance of human factors to design. It was great fun terrifying those undergraduates not only with the realities of architectural practice, but also with the challenges involved in collecting criteria for design from clients who are often less than rational in their choices when involved in a project.

A & M's Center for Health Systems and Design is the child of one of the "deans" of therapeutic, human-centered design, Dr. Roger Ulrich, who conducted the first rigorous scientific study of evidence-based design which was published in Science way back in 1984.

Dr. Ulrich's research has since been highly influential in the design of hospitals. According to Dr. Ulrich, the American Medical Association (AMA) made it headline news of the week. “This highlighted, along with other evidence in the emerging field of mind-body medicine, the need to consider a broader picture, including physical environment, of factors that affect patient outcomes and the health of patients,” Ulrich says.

The Lucile Packard’s Children’s Hospital at Stanford, a celebrated design, was expressly influenced by Ulrich’s Science article. According to Ulrich, “That research evidence was used to justify the design to provide views of gardens and nature and access to the outdoors for patients, families, and staff. You could tie dollar benefits to aesthetic amenities that previously had been considered nice-to-have luxuries, and we began to sketch out the basic elements of evidence-based design.” (Source: Healthcare Financial Management Association)

So being asked to lecture in such an august setting was an honor. My thanks to all for the experience.

Anthropology and Truehome

I finally finished my presentation for the panel I am joining at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco.

Our panel does is led by Dori Tunstall, Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Dori works in design antropology. While cramming the last few days for the event, I discovered that some of the things I do with my clients are techniques used by anthropologists. So that is a relief.

I have not had a course in anthropology since I was a freshman in college, so I was bit intimidated being the only non-anthropologist on the panel.

But I expect it will be just fine...except for one thing. Our panel's presentation is entitled somewhat formidably "Engaging in Transdisciplinary Praxis: Comparative Questions, Assumptions, Methods and Evidence of Anthropology's Disciplinary Interlocutors."

Ever notice how academics sometimes go out of their way to make it hard to understand what they are talking about?

Dori's panel is going to talk about how different disciplines approach similar problems in terms of theory, by using a method created by Alan Barnard in his book, History and Theory in Anthropology. Barnard's framework says theories can be broken down into four pieces: questions, assumption, methods, and evidence (QAME).

So I had to squeeze the theory that informs my Truehome process, which basically deals with questions like "what is a home" and "what is a human being" and "how do you design a home to fit a human being" into 25 slides.

Anyone who knows me will consider that a miracle. I am not known as "a man of few words."

Given there are a lot of other people out there that don't know what the heck I am talking about due to my innate verbosity, I will share it with you. You can find the link on here.

Our panel starts at 8AM on Saturday the 22nd. I hope those anthropologists don't stay up too late partying. It's a lot more fun to play to a full house. In any case, see you guys in San Francisco!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

NARI Publishes SA Express Truehome Article

The National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) just published Creighton Welch's story on my take on remodeling construction on its website. You can see it here.

Since I started out my career as a remodeling contractor and restoration builder, I am happy to get a little press from my home boys at the NARI.

These associations do a lot of good work, and can be very helpful to both contractors and designers, especially in these hard times for the industry. Early in my career, my company was recognized by another such organization, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).

In the Greater Houston area where I started, my company was named Remodeler of the Year way back in 1981. That honor helped us establish the credibility of that company. It was a big hand up. I would recommend anyone in the construction industry consider becoming a member of these associations.

Just as our architecture firm is now a member of the American Institute of Architects, back when I was building, I counted on the counsel of my local association.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Truehome Down Under!

Well, tie me kangeroo down, sport!

The Sydney Morning Herald published an article today called "Home is Where the Psyche Is" in its Lifestyle section.

Written by Ella Mudie, Truehome and I are cited along with more eminent luminaries of the design and psychology community.

I have a couple of old friends down there. I hope they see it. If so, "Hi Brigit! Hi Libby!"

All the Aussies I know are "Awessome," So I am very proud to have my work make it into the Sidney newspaper.

Monday, November 3, 2008

San Antonio and Sam's Successes

The Emotional Architecture media train just keeps on chugging along as a result of Penelope Green's article in the New York Times about Truehome.

The San Antonio Express News included our firm's approach to architecture in a story about remodeling recently.

We are also pleased to see that Sam Gosling, Ph.D., an important member of our Advisory Board has recently been featured in articles in Smithsonian Magazine and Slate Magazine.

Sam's brilliant work continue to get a lot of attention in the media. Congratulations Sam!

Go Magazine Goes Truehome

Go Magazine, the in-flight magazine for Airtran Airways just released its November issue, which includes an article on our firm's "emotional architecture" approach to design and

Here's an excerpt from the article:

"Emotional design sounds like a meaningless buzz word. Are architects and designers really supposed to care about their clients’ mental health and well-being when building or decorating their homes?

The answer: a resounding 'yes.'"

When Christopher K. Travis, managing partner of Texas-based Sentient Architecture, begins to design a client’s home, the first thing he considers is their “emotional architecture”—the internal system of feelings built by past experiences that make them react to their surroundings in a certain way.

'How you feel in [childhood homes] during formative events—good and bad—returns in later homes when features within them remind us of those early experiences,” Travis says.

The notion that the human brain is made up associated memories—what Travis calls “building blocks”—has only recently been put to use in the fields of architecture and design. The goal of Travis’ website,, is to help people create homes that take their sense of well-being into consideration.

'A home is a suite of emotional experiences,” he says. “Most people think of the sticks and bricks of a space without thinking of how we react to our space.”

The article was written by Francesca Di Meglio and can also be viewed on the Internet here. Viggo Mortensen, the actor who played Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy graces the cover of this issue.

Hey, me and Viggo...on the Go!