Use Sensory Design to Boost Building Effectiveness

Understanding Cause and Effect within Your Architectural Design

In a previous article I taught you about meeting occupant needs before they arise, as compared to meeting them after they arise. This is important for effective building design, as your building needs to help its occupants meet their goals and enjoy their journey while striving to achieve them. And after all, when architecture becomes an active participant in an occupant’s journey, then their likelihood of achieving success increases.

Now, to help you better predict occupant need, which can often be a daunting task given many of today’s complex programmatic requirements, — sensory design can be used to help you unravel the “occupant need” architectural challenge.

Sensory Design
Image Credit: Puckillustrations | Fotolia

You see, sensory design allows you to dissect your building’s qualities to better understand how they will impact your occupant — and by having a better grasp of why your building works (or does not work) for occupants the way it does, your environments are more likely to improve because you would better understand the cause and effect relationships presented within your architectural designs.

The Role of Sensory Design within Your Creative Design Process

Sensory design is a way for you to think about how your building impacts your occupants — from the way they perceive it through their senses, to the way they react to it on all five levels of experience: physiologically, intellectually, emotionally, behaviorally, and spiritually. By building more humane architecture that actually taps into what an occupant needs, when they need it, you will be able to increase building effectiveness exponentially.

But how does this fit into your creative design process? Well, sensory design is a way of thinking and strategizing — where your design decisions directly impact the occupants whom your buildings serve. You see, there is great leverage in knowing about sensory design, because when you understand your building’s impact earlier on in the design process, then your building design outcome is much stronger: where it is more likely to be cherished by occupants because it is more effective in helping them to achieve the successes which they want.

Understanding Sensory Design’s Impact on the Architectural Design Discipline

If more architects used sensory design within their design process, our built environments would not only be more humane, but would actually help their occupants to thrive while within them. Within a hospital, for instance, patient recovery would occur in less time and with higher quality, all because the architect understood what the patient and medical team needed to ensure a speedy recovery from a particular illness for a particular type of patient. This would mean meeting occupant need in real-time, with real life-determining issues, and with real precision.

The beauty of sensory design is that you can get very detailed with it as you design. That is, you can really delve into occupant need, and fine tune building-to-occupant impact on macro and micro levels. This is extremely powerful for you as an architect — to ensure that both your grand design gestures and your architectural details are all aligning to yield happy and healthy building occupants.

How Building Data Visualization Can Make You a Better Architect

The emergence of big data is bringing with it some very interesting insights into how we can better understand the world around us, and the way we live within its fluctuations. Of course, analyzing this without a plan could be overwhelming and complex, but with data visualization and analysis techniques you can begin to get unique insights into how to make positive changes for better living. For instance, did you know that you can begin to use collected data to help improve the way you design? By knowing what questions to ask about your design process or about your design outcome, you can zoom in on important data that can give you insights into how well your buildings function for the occupants which they serve.

Building Data Analysis
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What Data Would You Like to Visualize about Your Building?

To begin, you need to start by asking questions about the way you design, or by simply asking how you can improve your designs. By asking such questions — more questions will surface, and these will lead you to collect the right data to give you the insights you seek.

In essence, there are five critical steps to the data analysis cycle as taught by Professor Tim Chartier, PhD. of University of Colorado, Boulder in his course called Big Data: How Data is Transforming the World. These steps are as follows:

Data Analysis Cycle (1)

  1. Collect data,
  2. Visualize data,
  3. Analyze data,
  4. Question the data (even ask an expert)
  5. Make a change or correction (then look for changes in data)

Applying Data Analysis to Building Design

For example, you may explore questions to improve building performance for your occupants. And from this point, you simply begin to collect the data that completes the “picture” and solves for your question. Thus, if you are trying to design better office buildings, you may consider asking how you can improve the reduction of stress levels, minimize sick days, and create an environment that boosts productivity. For this case, you could collect the following data:

  • Minimize stress levels to boost health and productivity: Collect data on heart rate, temperature, and time-dependent surveys, deadlines met or missed and sick days. You may begin to make correlations between environmental factors, time, and occupant stress levels. And to get to these correlations, it helps to visualize your data so you can analyze it. Once analyzed, you can begin to make corrections or changes to that environment — and then look for consequential effects (either positive or negative).

By using sensors within the environment together with time-based tracking, you could collect just the right data to help your architectural environments be healthier, stress-reducing places in which occupants can be most productive. And by visualizing your data and analyzing it, you can make building improvements and evolve your design process to help occupants to function better within your designed spaces. Thus, you are essentially solving for how you can make your design better based on the original question asked (before you collected any data). This is a great way to reach breakthroughs in your own design process, and to create environments in which your building occupants thrive.


(1) Chartier, Tim. (2014) Big Data: How Data Analytics is Transforming the World. The Great Courses. Lecture 2.

Design Better Architecture by Predicting Occupant Need

Understand Your Occupant’s Narrative
Get to their Most Pressing Needs

When you design, are you simply putting architectural pieces and parts together in hopes that your occupant will get some use out of them? Or, are you analyzing your occupants’ narrative so that you will better understand what it is that they will need — so that you can design your architecture to preemptively meet those needs?

From design vision to functional reality…
Your occupants narrative holds keys to the design of their optimal environment.
Image Credit: © Albasu | Fotolia

Well, today’s article is all about how you can do a better job at predicting occupant need to improve your design — in other words, finding ways to engage your building occupant with what matters to them, when and how they need it most. This often means that you will need to understand your occupants’ “flow” before-hand, to create a truly humane environment where they can thrive by reaching their goals and enjoying their journey toward accomplishing them.

Three Questions to Think Differently About Architectural Design

With all of this in mind, there are three questions that you should ask yourself as you design your architecture. Each one will get you to think about your design in a slightly different way — but all are designed to get you to calculate occupant need into your design poetically. Here they are:

  • Does meeting occupant need mean that your design needs to morph in real-time?
  • Does meeting occupant need mean that you need to know your occupant’s journey in detail?
  • Does meeting occupant need mean that your design should meet needs that your occupant does not realize they have?

Really, you can answer yes to each of the questions, but the real exercise here is to understand that you can always do a better job at meeting occupant needs. For instance, can your design morph in real-time to meet changing needs? Can you do a better job at understanding the narrative nuances of your building occupant? Can your design solve for needs before they even arise to become an issue for your occupant?

Architecture as an Active Participant in the Occupant Journey

It’s wonderful to design architecture with features that get your occupants to engage and take action — but it is also important to understand how your architecture affects them (in both the short term and the long term). If a hospital patient does not have their environmental needs met, for instance, this could detract from their healing progress — thus, it becomes important for the architect of a hospital to understand more in-depth what goes into proper healing for a patient, their illness and treatment — from a design perspective.

This is true for most all building types. Architectural design impacts occupants through their experience. This is why architecture should be considered an active participant in the experiential journey which occupants take.

Solve For Occupant Needs Before They Arise

So, make certain that you are not only taking occupant needs into account by solving for them once they arise, but also by solving for them before they arise. You can do this by analyzing your building occupant’s journey — by finding their milestones and goals, and by understanding how your architecture can help them to reach those. After all, if your architecture is preventative and proactive, it will go from merely solving for symptoms to getting at the root of what yields occupant happiness, health and safety.

Use your architecture to communicate to your occupants, by placing them at the center. Be predictive as well as reactive with your designs — for this will take your designs into another realm where occupants will find true comfort, beauty, and function on new levels.