Smart buildings: Architects using brain science for design guidance

Applying neuroscience in designing buildings helps occupants learn smarter, heal faster and feel better

Corona del Mar Middle School in Newport Beach, California. Its design incorporates features to improve well-being and performance.
Haya El Nasser

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — After entering the Corona del Mar Middle School campus in Newport Beach, and an unexplainable sense of well-being washes over visitors. The courtyard is airy. Every classroom has a window — some with breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. Glass panels stretch floor to ceiling. Native California plants grow throughout the complex. The building has staggered edges to avoid the off-putting appearance of a big box. Solatubes in laboratory classrooms provide lighting without affecting experiments. There are no school hallways.

The public middle school, which is part of a larger complex that includes Corona del Mar High School, now is attracting more students who would normally have gone to private school in this affluent Orange County district, said Principal Rebecca Gogel. “There has been a significant change in student behavior,” she said.

Yes, the school is pretty. But what has gone into the design of this school goes much deeper than sheer aesthetics. Architects are now applying neuroscience to design schools, hospitals, community centers and even single-family homes.

The meshing of architecture and brain science is starting to gain traction. Architects are studying the way the brain reacts to various environments through brain scanners and applying the findings to their designs.

“We’ve all known this intuitively,” said Betsey Olenick Dougherty, the Costa Mesa, California, architect who designed the middle school. “Now science can prove it.”

The push is on to incorporate brain science into design and architecture. A decade ago, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture was formed in San Diego. Dougherty, of Dougherty + Dougherty Architects, is on the board. The topic is part of the American Institute of Architects’ conferences.

San Diego’s NewSchool of Architecture and Design is offering neuroscience courses to architecture students — the first school in the country to do so.

“There are a number of innovative firms that are beginning to lead the charge asking for neurodesign processes specifically,” said Eve Edelstein, the president of consulting firm Innovative Design Science, who teaches the courses. “However, few of those trained in the design profession have also been trained either with specific information neuroscience offers and the interaction between the brain and buildings.”

Design modifies the brain

The role of neuroscience in architecture is a contemporary concept that attaches scientific proof, measurement and research to the design of buildings.

The thinking goes like this: The brain controls behavior, and genes control the design and structure of the brain. Science shows that environment can modulate the function of genes and, ultimately, the structure of the brain. So if changes in the environment change behavior, architectural design can change it too.

“Understanding the power and significance of design is not a luxury,” Edelstein said. “It has a direct impact on wellness issues and a direct influence on activity within that space.”

For example, science has proved that natural lighting stimulates positive brain function and helps students learn. “Visual access to sky, trees and landscape stimulates brain function,” Dougherty said. “Providing vistas throughout the facility and particularly in classrooms has been a major strategy in the design of this building,” she said of the middle school.

She applied similar principles to her design of the life sciences building at Irvine Valley College. 

Curves matter

A new book, “Cognitive Architecture,” sets out four principles of how the brain responds to design to help architects. “Patterns matter,” said Justin Hollander, a co-author of the book and an urban planning professor at Tufts University. “And edges matter. The research argues that not only do we need order but our brain likes hearing stories … When you go to Times Square, you’re told a story. You go to Disneyland, it’s a story.”

According to the book, humans are a wall-hugging species that avoids the center of open spaces. People who are outside seem more comfortable when buildings create a roomlike feel, surrounding them on several sides, Hollander said.

People also respond more positively when they can identify a “face” in building design — windows as the eyes, doors as the mouth and so on.

Shapes also carry weight.

“Humans have a clear bias for curves over straight or sharp lines,” Hollander said. Studies have shown that curves elicit “feelings of happiness and elation, while jagged and sharp forms tend to connect to feelings of pain and sadness.”

He argues that because the seat of power of the American president — the Oval Office — is curved, the room may carry a psychological advantage for its occupant. It also has the bilateral symmetry that humans prefer, with the desk centered on its longer axis.

The Life Sciences Building at Irvine Valley College.
Haya El Nasser

Studying the way the brains of Alzheimer’s patients react or how hospital lighting affects patients’ sleep cycles is taken into account in designing care centers and hospitals around the world.

It was used in the design of a $2.4 million hospital campus in China that used studies of brain reactions to connect space with nature, such as a river.

Visual and sound simulations and a 3-D model were used to design the Jacobs Medical Center at the University of California at San Diego.

“Architects have always valued the impact of light on people and how that makes us feel,” Edelstein said. “What we didn’t know and haven’t fully incorporated in many designs is how the pattern of lightness affects our moods.”

Neuroscience shows that light triggers brain reactions far beyond vision. “It has an impact on heart rate,” she said.

Michael Arbib, with the University of Southern California Brain Project and the vice president of the Academy of Architecture and Neuroscience, said smart architecture can learn from brain science. “To use artificial intelligence to build buildings that can better interact with people — that is beginning to get some traction, and it’s going to be very applicable to a home,” he said. “Important architects have become very interested in considering what we can learn from the brain.”

He’s working with the Pratt Institute — a New York art, design and architecture school — to host a symposium in March called Sculpting the Architectural Mind: Neuroscience and the Education of an Architect.

“This is a human condition that affects our well-being,” Dougherty said. “Why not take the utmost advantage of our capabilities? … Hopefully, the days of windowless classrooms to prevent vandalism and distraction are over.”

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