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Making Space: Why the Design of the Places We Work, Live and Play Matters

By Lisa Deane 

M.Sc. (Interior Design), LEED Green Associate, BIA Affiliate 

Buildings are made for people. At no time was this more evident than during the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic. With non-essential businesses and schools closed, many buildings sat empty or experienced significantly reduced traffic. The home became the office, the school, the gym, and the restaurant. This period gave many people the opportunity to reflect on the spaces we frequent, and we became aware of the elements that worked, and those that were lacking. 


Architecture and design transform our environments by marrying science and art; blending technical and artistic elements to create three-dimensional experiences. The creation of buildings, including the spaces within and surrounding them, can have a profound effect on us; exerting both overt and subtle influence on us as how we use them. 


At a minimum, the spaces we occupy must support the activities we perform. Basic technical elements that promote health and safety, such as ergonomics, relevant space requirements, indoor air quality, temperature control, lighting and acoustics must support the tasks being done. Once these elements are at optimal levels and promote ease of use, we may not even be aware of them. However, we easily notice design flaws that make conducting our activities more difficult, or negatively affect our bodies and physical health. If the lighting is poor or too bright, if the space is too hot or too cold, we definitely take notice. 


When these technical basics are missing and our physical comfort is impacted, the effect often goes deeper. While often harder to gauge, our productivity, interactions with others and mental health can be impacted. Work and school can be stressful enough without having to worry about being too hot or too cold, or not being able to hear ourselves think because we are sitting next to a loud talker. 


Conversely, when these fundamentals are accounted for, it creates a foundation for spaces to become more than just utilitarian. While design should be in service of the function, design professionals also make spaces beautiful, engaging and inspiring. These less tangible aspects of design also affect us subconsciously. Like art, well-designed spaces are layered and multifaceted. Design professionals often make use of spatial elements such as form, scale, rhythm, and light to elicit certain behaviours. Decorative elements such as material, pattern, colour and texture can evoke certain feelings in an almost imperceptible way. For example, a school that encourages free thinking, creativity, and collaboration may be colourful and open, with furniture, lighting, and rooms that promote those characteristics.  


Similarly, while healthcare spaces need to be germ-free, they do not need to have a sterile aesthetic. Their spaces can foster healing by promoting calming and positive emotions to counteract the often negative and anxious feelings we may experience during an illness. Historically, prisons have been spaces to mete out punishment, with cramped and dull accommodations. This often has a detrimental result on a person’s mental state and even their self-esteem, whereas these spaces should encourage personal rehabilitation. 


How we live, work, learn and relax all inform the design of the spaces we use. The field of environmental psychology seeks to investigate the relationship between humans and our surroundings. As research develops and trends come and go, our approach to design needs to remain open and flexible. A recent focus in the design world is that of diversity, equity inclusion and accessibility. As research expands in this field of study, we are better able to accommodate people considered outside the status quo: those from diverse ethnic backgrounds, different sexual orientations and gender identities, as well as those with disabilities and neurodivergency.  


By making design inclusive, we can illustrate that everyone is valued and important, thus making our societies stronger. At a more practical level, this means that everyone can have access to similar educational, work and recreational experiences and contribute to both society and the economy. For instance, tourist destinations making attractions, accommodation and surrounding environs accessible to persons with mobility challenges opens that market to both the visitor and the destination. 


Throughout history, humans have shaped our environments, and as our technology has improved, the easier yet more complex this has become. Building techniques and digital advances in the industry allow us the freedom to create spaces that are as complicated or as simple as we would like in less time than before. As we continue to create space, architects and designers must consider several factors including its primary uses and varying types of end users - as well as the society’s history, climate and budget - to devise the appropriate design solution. Although the design of our surroundings is not the only thing that has an influence on us, the physical, emotional and mental impact of the spaces we occupy cannot be downplayed. While nothing man-made is perfect, we must spare no effort to strive for excellence in what we create. 

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