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Human-Centered Architecture: What is It and How It Makes a Difference

Human-Centered Architecture

While buildings fulfill the most basic human needs like shelter and security, architecture impacts the emotional state of any person who interacts with it. Whether it’s intended or not, a building can provoke a range of emotions such as belonging, awe, fear, or hope.

However, it’s not just emotions that architecture can affect. Humans – like most other mammals – are highly sensitive to their environmental conditions. Thus, a growing body of research shows that architecture and urban design create physiological responses in people that can promote long-term health and well-being — and in some cases, illness or mental distress.

For instance, one of the most well-documented findings of such studies is that exposure to greenery and nature dramatically enhances health, helping people live longer and happier lives. On the other hand, cramped spaces and uninspiring surroundings are known to do the opposite.

Human-centered architecture, which puts humans at the center of the design process, seeks to optimize positive interactions as such between humans and buildings.

What is Human-Centered Architecture?

Human-centered architecture isn’t a trend, style, or a methodology, but a solution-based approach to optimize the relationship between people and buildings to attend a community’s needs. Buildings designed with this quest create solutions for problems and opportunities by focusing on the needs, contexts, behaviors, and emotions of the people that the answers will serve.

While human-centered approaches were always an integral part of the work for many designers and architects, the terminology was officially coined in a 1987 publication entitled Human-Centered Systems by the Irish engineer Mike Cooley. Since then, human-centered design and architecture has continued to empower communities around the world as a significant pillar to enabling global equality.

Empathy and innovation lie at the core of human-centered architecture. As Dr. Prabhjot Singh, Director of Systems Design at the Earth Institute, puts it, “We spend a lot of time designing the bridge, but not enough time thinking about the people who are crossing it.”

Human-Centered Architecture: Healing Communities, Fixing Issues

However, architectural innovations to change communities’ lives come not merely good intentions, but of robust research and analysis. Built on concepts of ethnography, sociology, and cognitive psychology, successful human-centered architectural design projects are results of a holistic understanding of their intended users.

“It is about them and for them. The closer the end-users’ needs are analyzed and answered, the more successful the adoption or purchase of a solution. You iterate until you get it right from a customer perspective. This the power of [human-centered design],” says Oliver Delarue of the United Nations High Committee of Refugees.

Through empathy, valuable insight, and critical thinking, human-centered architecture can attend to some of the world’s most significant challenges.

“It’s a golden moment when you see the things that don’t yet exist,” Marvin J. Malecha, President of The New School of Architecture and Design, defines human-centered design.

Case #1: A Tremor-Proof Life via Human-Centered Solutions

The success of human-centered architectural designs isn’t measured by their size or glamor, but by how much value they add to their users’ daily lives. Hence, anything from an ecological toilet in a rural and under-resourced area to a cutting-edge healthcare facility can be excellent examples of human-centered architecture.

Mileha Soneji, a human-centric designer from India, believes simple solutions are often the best. In her TED talk entitled “Simple hacks for life with Parkinson’s”, she describes how she designed a house for her uncle with this disorder characterized by tremors and balance challenges: “[My uncle] lives on the 1st floor of the building and needs to climb stairs. His building did not have an elevator, nor a stairlift so I wondered, how did he climb the staircase? I asked my uncle this question and he said, ‘That’s easy, let me show you.'”

When Soneji followed and studied his behavior, she realized her uncle had a much easier time walking on the stairs than on flat land. The ease of climbing stairs vs. the challenge of gait on flat land is a common experience for persons with Parkinson’s. Soneji called this “staircase illusion”.

Thus, she came up with simple, yet powerful ways to help her uncle after walking in his shoes: “The moment I saw my uncle walk down the staircase, I wondered, if real stairs work, would a printed illusion of a staircase on a flat floor work? So I immediately went home and printed A3 sheets and plastered them together to create a staircase. I created this easily to quickly test it with my uncle to see that it worked and to define the exact scale.”

Case #2: Reviving Best Memories with Human-Centered Architecture

Nevertheless, depending on the needs of the users or communities, some human-centered architectural projects are not necessarily as straightforward as Soneji’s designs for her uncle.

In the case of The Lantern, an assisted living community in Ohio, architects took a much more detailed approach to serve senior citizens with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

They designed the centers to resemble a typical neighborhood from the 1930s and 1940s, the eras when most residents at The Lantern came of age. The “neighborhood” is complete with porches, rocking chairs, grass-like carpet, and a fiber optic ceiling that transitions from a day to the night sky.

“The design is meant, in part, to connect to Alzheimer’s patients who often retain early memories from their first few decades of life, even as they slowly lose things from later years,” says Jean Makesh, the CEO of The Lantern.

This environment that envelopes the residents with comfort and familiarity proves to reduce anxiety, irritability, and depression — common experiences for those living with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

A Humane Approach to Future’s Complex Challenges

Mike Cooley, who fathered the terminology of human-centeredness in the late 1980s, questioned the value of the pie-in-the-sky architectural projects that offered little value to communities.

With no tools other than their bodies, bees build nests and hives that still fascinate scientists. In his work, “Architect or Bee?“, Cooley argues that even with the most superior technology, an architect can’t produce what a bee does. Thus, he emphasizes the importance of human-centric and straightforward design.

Hence, given its value-drivenness, scalability, and resilience, there’s no doubt that the future of architecture is a human-centered one.

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