There is possibly a closer connection between architecture and our physical health than we previously thought. Researchers have a suggestion as to how we can measure it.
A new Danish study indicates that the layout of rooms has a greater impact on human well-being than previously thought. Good architecture and good design could possibly be much more than a matter of taste as indicated in initial trials with humans where researchers recorded different types of physiological responses to room conditions.
“We can see some clear signs that the quality of architecture may not be as subjective as we’d thought. The reaction of the test subjects was remarkably uniform in a physiological sense in the rooms they occupied throughout the experiment,” says Professor Poul Henning Kirkegaard.
The researchers subjected a total of sixty-five male test subjects to two different room experiences. The rooms were identical, but the sections of windows were larger in one of them than in the other.
The test subjects were asked to solve a series of tasks with a varying degree of stress load.
While they were doing so, recordings were made of their pulse, blood pressure, respiration rate, heart rhythm and cortisol level.
Large windows provide less stress
According to Professor Kirkegaard, the experiments showed a clear correlation between the physical signs of acute stress and the spatial surroundings.
“We saw a correlation between architecture and stress load. The test subjects in the room with small windows had a stronger physiological response when we measured the cortisol levels in their blood and recorded their heart rhythm variability,” he says.
None of the test subjects reacted with increased stress load in the room with large windows, and there is possibly a biological explanation for this.
“Our sympathetic nervous system is activated when we’re subjected to acute stress, which quite simply makes it possible for the body to react to danger in a faster and more targeted way. We feel a strong flight instinct, and this can be one way of explaining why we react with an increased stress response in closed rooms than we do in open rooms,” says Professor Kierkegaard.
In many Western countries, we spend 50–80 percent of our waking hours inside and, according to Professor Kierkegaard, just a small shift in heart rhythm variability, blood pressure or the amount of stress hormones we produce can thus have serious consequences over the years.
Virtual room as a laboratory
The research project is the first of its kind to work with the physiological impact of architecture on people. And this is a difficult discipline because it actually requires the setting up of a kind of ‘sterile’ environment, where it is possible to measure and document responses to the physical layout of the room alone.
For this purpose, the researchers make use of an advanced virtual room simulator that can provide a completely authentic 3D experience of a room by means of techniques such as computer tracking of head and eye movements.
The computer-generated room can be varied an infinite number of times, which makes it a completely new experimental platform in architectural research. This makes it possible for the first time for researchers to isolate the effect of architecture and atmosphere, and to control all other stimuli imaginable, including light, acoustics, air and view.
“Our aim with the study is to demonstrate that we can use modern technology to create virtual rooms in our research. A considerable number of new opportunities are now opening up for gaining more evidence-based knowledge about how we physically react to our surroundings and to a specific architectural atmosphere. We’ve only scraped the surface and shown that the method can be used. Now it’s up to our imagination to see what else we can study,” says Professor Kirkegaard.
The quality of architecture can be measured in the blood
The research group’s results are interesting because they show for the first time that it is possible to measure the effect of room conditions and atmosphere on human health using an empirical approach. This is a break from the dominant phenomenological tradition in architectural research and – according to the professor – it can lead to so much new knowledge in the long term that a start could be made by determining some objective quality criteria for architecture and design.
“Our study documents that virtual rooms can be used to explore the correlation between our environment and our physical health. And if you could be so bold as to push this to its logical conclusion, you could say that when you can measure the impact of architecture on people by means of a simple blood test, it’s a step in the right direction away from the so-called experts,” says Professor Kirkegaard.
In the coming years, the researchers will use virtual rooms for purposes such as testing human physiological responses to a number of different architectural conditions.