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Built for Living: how understanding of humans and cultures – from behavioural sciences to the humanities – are key to creating buildings that work

Blog • • Dr Natasha McCarthy

Do buildings understand people? Do they respond to our needs and allow us to meet shared goals such as promoting performance and productivity or reducing our energy and water demands? I was part of the steering group of a report published on 21 July by the Royal Academy of Engineering, with input from UCL and University of Leeds, and support from Arup and ESRC, which suggests that while there are great examples of built environment systems created with human behaviour as a guiding framework, there is still much to be learned. Central to the report is the idea that there is need for collaboration between diverse disciplines in order to create buildings and built environment systems that meet human needs and goals. What is most striking and challenging in this idea however is just how wide that field of collaboration might be, and how it might present some of the deepest challenges posed by cross-disciplinary working.

Built for Living is all about developing and utilising knowledge about human behaviour to design buildings that work better for people. This idea of ‘better’ buildings linked specifically to limiting energy and water use and waste generation; to improving performance and productivity at work; and to promoting the health and wellbeing of building users – whether in homes, businesses or hospitals.

One of the premises of the work was that the attractive and addictive properties of devices such as smartphones suggest that product designers seem to have a better connection with and understanding of human behaviour. Empathic design is central to the design principles of companies like Apple, creating devices that are intuitive and easy to use straight from the box. They are devices that we connect with, that shape our daily behaviour and make us live our lives in new ways.

But a key aspect of this empathic design is that this is very much about a one-one relationship – about the habits of individuals. Buildings and the built environment are quite different. They are not for individuals but for families, for companies and organisations. They are for delivering services – from transport to health care – and need to cater to a huge range of people, their individual behaviours, group behaviour, and social practices.

For this reason, one of the key authors of the report, Professor Chris Clegg, has refined a concept of sociotechnical systems that brings together the full breadth of elements that make up a building, and that must be factored into the design of these complex systems. Infrastructure and technology is one aspect, and the processes and practices of the people and organisations that use them are another. But Clegg also brings into the system the goals and metrics for the organisation and for the building itself, and the wider culture within which it is created. He has brought this concept to life in his work on theFactory of the Future – an advanced manufacturing research centre, which was designed by a collaboration between architects and engineers, organisational psychologists, researchers and sponsors. The aim was to create a building to allow people to work in new ways to achieve both local and broader aims to foster innovation in manufacturing.

This example showed how this collaborative approach to design can help to improve performance. To achieve goals of sustainability and of productivity on a national scale through the built environment will crucially involve the understanding of groups, communities, cultures. This will involve more than ‘nudge’ theories that look at how individuals respond to prompts and influence, and into areas such as social practice theory. One example of this need to think about practices was highlighted in a workshop that informed the report. Professor Nigel Gilbert talked about how we understand long-term trends, such as how often people bath or shower and how this has impacted on household water use over time. Gilbert argued that this is not a matter of individual choice that can be nudged one way or the other – it is about broad social practices.

It is also about culture and cultural change. These long-term trends are the subject matter of history – social history, the history of work and of domestic life. These trends are the kind of thing that we need to shift to really change the demands that we make on our environment. To understand how we can impact on the daily, routine behaviours that seem fixed and impervious to influence, we need to look at the high-level influences that shape our lives and how we live them as households, as communities and as society.

The challenge is of course that this creates a need for very broad interdisciplinary working. The report calls for more collaborative and multi-disciplinary research to bring together design and engineering with a range of disciplines that allow us to understand the people that form a central aspect of built environments systems. Finding shared languages and frameworks for research will be difficult. This links to a central question of the British Academy’s current study on interdisciplinarity – how do we develop and support researchers who can tackle these complex challenges? What are the needs of researchers taking on this cross-discipline and cross-sector challenges?

There will no doubt be a range of answers to this, with many manifestations of interdisciplinary research. There will be collaborations between specialists, finding ways to bring together diverse disciplines. There will no doubt need to be development of new research processes that monitor and model human and technical structures and systems. It will need holistic thinkers, exposed early to the need to tackle complex problems by drawing on a range of disciplines. Properly resourced and implemented, the research question will help create responses to huge challenges in adapting the way we live, but also a deeper understanding of how we live – in homes, in workplaces, in communities and in society.

Natasha McCarthy is Head of Policy at the British Academy.