Designers taking cues from science to cultivate feel-good factor

Neuroscience is driving architects and designers to create mood-boosting living spaces that help us relax, feel more connected and give us a positive sense of place.

A luxury villa at Dubai Desert Palm uses feel-good factors such as open space and light. .
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Neuroscience is driving architects and designers to create mood-boosting living spaces that help us relax, feel more connected and give us a positive sense of place. When you arrive home and walk through the door, do you smile with pleasure and contentment? If not, it's possible that the design and layout of your home is not doing what it could to boost your mood. Alongside the typical features that people look for in a home - size, location, number of rooms and the building's quality and finish - another category needs to be added to the list: emotionally intelligent design.

But can buildings make us happy? "It is easy enough to recognise when a room is properly lit and a staircase easy to navigate, but so much harder to convert this intuitive sense of well-being into a logical understanding of the reasons for it," says the philosopher, Alain de Botton in his book, The Architecture of Happiness. "To design means forcing ourselves to unlearn what we believe we already know ... and to acknowledge the mystery and stupefying complexity of everyday gestures such as switching off a light or turning on a tap."

For centuries feng shui masters - who practise the Chinese principles of placing objects to achieve harmony within the environment - have recognised what neuroscientists and architects are only now beginning to discover: the correlation between place and human wellness. This design element has only recently been recognised as a scientific component, despite having been in practice since the 14th century.

Over the last decade, science and technology have accelerated the pace of change within society and consequently design is becoming more integral to our ability to adapt to change. "The designer is changing from formgiver to fundamental interpreter of an extraordinarily dynamic reality ... increasingly informed by science and mediated by technology," Paola Antonelli, curator of design and architecture at New York's Museum of Modern Art, told Seed magazine.

Creating something of a buzz within design circles, neuroarchitecture is set to shake up our living environments. You could say that the next hot trend in interior design is neuroscience. It may sound far-fetched, but scientists are using modern scanning devices and imaging techniques to measure reactions to different features of the home, and the effects that room layout, light levels and ceiling height have on our brain functions, that regulate our health and our moods. The research has revealed that these factors of a room affect both our physical and psychological well-being, influencing brain processes such as those involved in emotion and stress. For example, high ceilings activate sections of the right brain associated with freedom and abstract thinking, whereas low-ceilinged rooms trigger more constrained thinking that focuses more on specifics.

So what, you might wonder, does neuroscience have to do with designing an 'emotional' house? Quite simply, when our brains are happy, certain endorphins are released, so our homes need to be designed to help release these neurotransmitters. For more than a decade, American neuroscientist and professor of psychology and psychiatry, Richard Davidson, has been studying the brain structures behind happiness and compassion. He is committed to putting these emotions on the scientific map. Using a sort of Hubble telescope for the brain, his "brain maps" reveal that the adult brain is changeable, as opposed to being fixed. Thus with a little training, the brain's furniture can be moved to a more appropriate arrangement. A fretful mind can therefore be coaxed towards a happier outlook.

The US Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA), established in 2003, was the first initiative to acknowledge the implication of neuroscience in the architectural profession, and is encouraging scientists to get out of the lab and collaborate with architects and designers. Scientists partnering with architects could well be the future of architectural design. The great American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was well aware of the power of architecture on the mind. His use of fireplaces, large windows and open areas was a subtle nod to the dwellings of our ancestors; the cave with a firepit, overlooking the plains. His vision became an aesthetic that encouraged a more spiritual life - with beautiful spaces literally transforming its inhabitants, encouraging them to live life differently.

The Dubai-based interior designer Lisa de Luna has been responsible for creating pleasing spaces - notably at the DIFC and Emirates Towers. "I definitely subscribe to the philosophy that architectural environments influence certain brain processes, and alter or stimulate the way we feel. When I think of a built environment in the UAE that puts a smile on my face or uplifts me, it's the Yas Island Hotel. The architects Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture based their design around speed and movement, and yet, the almost heavenly white surroundings evoke a feeling of peace even amidst the roaring noise of race cars. It's such an interesting juxtaposition. All the key components in the science of neuroarchitecture, which create a happy environment such as natural lighting, soothing colours and nature, are present in the Yas Island Hotel."

The alzheimer's specialist John Zeisel, who is also a director of ANFA, collaborated with the British kitchen designer Johnny Grey to develop a theory about what makes for "happy spaces". This turned out to involve light, colour, a bit of mess, and room layouts that encourage eye contact. The kitchen, according to Zeisel and Grey, should always be the hub of a home - both a functional and social space that offers a sense of comfort and warmth, where family and friends can congregate and chill out. Yet given the huge number of kitchens that are devised from scratch, it is astonishing that only a tiny few comply with the most basic principles for human connection. Crucially, its location should enable you to cook with your back facing the wall, so as to keep eye contact with other people. Preparing food at the sink, cooker or counter means facing away from family members or guests, decreasing sociability in what should be a social area. As a result, the brain produces adrenalin and cortisol, the hormones associated with anxiety and stress. Facing into the room means that oxytocin and serotonin hormones are released, which are associated with enjoyment and relaxation. The best scenario is a kitchen giving a view of the door where people enter, a window overlooking a landscape, and a fireplace.

Which brings us back to the great Lloyd Wright. Light is a well-known regulator of moods - we are creatures of light, it powers our planet and when we deprive ourselves, we have less energy. From natural sunshine through to artificial sources controlled with dimmers and candles - light helps to improve people's productivity. It might seem obvious that sun-filled rooms are more pleasant than dark ones - windows are a major preoccupation for today's architects, interior designers, estate agents and property buyers - however, research suggests that we need to be trying much harder to bring more light into our homes. It also may come as little surprise that minimalist interiors don't exactly nourish the brain, compared to a living space that is a bit cluttered. This is because people need visual clues, such as familiar photographs and objects that reveal who they are and their interests while also serving to make them feel grounded. Decorating your pad with an eye-catching artwork not only puts your stamp on a place, but conveys a sense of authenticity. In a nutshell, a room full of things that catch our attention captures our affection, so reinforcing a positive sense of place and well-being.

Hisham Youssef, a Dubai-based architect at Gensler, says that a good architect understands how to modulate the tools of light, colour, materials and openness to create a positive experience for occupants. "We know that a bright space, for example, can put you in a cheerful and therefore productive mood." Also on the neuroarchitectural checklist is a garden or terrace. Failing that, a balcony or large windows. If you can see how the weather is faring and what's going on outside, not only does this give people a heartwarming boost, but it actually helps people to relax and feel more connected and in control. Another tactic to keep those happy endorphins flowing is using curves rather than hard edges for surfaces and furniture items. Organic lines and shapes help to nurture a feeling of contented bliss.

Misha Stavrides, founder of Mishascape, sums this up: "There are no straight lines in nature, and architecture should emulate that." The self-proclaimed 'soft modernist' neuroarchitect designed a floating island kitchen, complete with sink, cooker, worktops and storage, for a London apartment. "The client loved its fluid form, which was on a raised platform, making the whole cooking ritual more fun, and the absence of the usual linear row of cupboards and surfaces, freed up the space, both physically and visually," he says.

Furniture and product design is another area in which scientists are trying to transform our residential spaces. Market research groups such as the UK's Neuroco are using eye-tracking machines and blood pressure monitors to evaluate responses to furnishings, textiles, flooring and fragrances in today's living environments. Its findings suggest that our choices are determined by the brain's limbic system that governs a variety of functions, such as emotion and behaviour. We may intellectually justify our style of decor and preferences but our brain activity indicates that it is more to do with emotion than logic.

Even an environment that makes one's spirits soar - such as a magnificent view - tends to grow stale over time, simply because we get used to it. To counter this, one of the keys to a home that elicits happiness and positive feelings is one that changes and evolves. This doesn't mean turning everything upside down, but if you get the urge to move things around, or play with the lighting and colour-scheme, this might just help give your mood a little lift - so go for it.

When you combine design, psychology and neuroscience, you come up with a much richer understanding of the importance of designing houses with our emotional needs in mind. Today there is so much fast-paced design around, with everyone working and thinking in a hurry - perhaps designers simply need to design less and think more. So will this realisation stem the flow of rotten buildings? "Bad architecture is as much a failure of psychology as of design," writes de Botton, " ... a tendency not to understand what will satisfy us." We live in hope.

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