Psychology is key to everything we build: part 1.


Dr Paul Hanna, Senior Associate & Chartered Psychologist

New voices of the built environment.

What is a psychologist doing at an engineering consultancy? Don’t we already place people at the centre of our design process? Indeed, there’s no doubting that the human-centric approach puts people at the heart of decision-making in terms of air quality, lighting, aggregated comfort temperatures and so on, but there are ways in which psychology can add to and complement this valuable, ambitious work in these areas and more besides.

Low-lying fruit

Post-occupancy evaluations give us an insight into how buildings perform in the real-world setting, beyond the initial modelling, and offer an account of where things are or aren’t working. Often when things aren’t functioning as well as the simulations and modelling suggested, it is as a direct result of the people using the buildings. It is here that psychological understanding can offer us a better idea of how people might behave in the built environment at the planning and modelling stage. In addition, psychology can add to our post-occupancy evaluations by examining how people are engaging with and experiencing the built environment; what they are doing, what they are not doing, why they are behaving in such ways, what could be modified and what can be learnt for future projects.

Building people and communities

For years, psychology has studied the ways in which people interact with spaces and how those spaces shape, and potentially enrich, human lives. For example, there is extensive evidence that while community spaces (social clubs, sports facilities, myriad others) function outside of formal mental health care, often without an explicit focus on mental health, the environments and activities they offer can be extremely beneficial in terms of positive mental health. They add to a sense of being, belonging, identity, purpose and meaning, as well as social cohesion.

In master planning, we have the opportunity not just to construct buildings but communities; to work with people from the start of the process to co-produce built environments with them rather than imposing environments on them.