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.

Examining the Relationship Between Architecture and the Human Body

Architecture Designed as a “Nest” or “Cave”

The relationship between architecture and the human body obviously has a long history. And the questions that arise when exploring this relationship are more than simply about finding the proper dimensions and placements within architectural space to “accommodate” a person and their behaviors within it. The relationship between architecture and the human body delves deep into why those behaviors manifest in the first place, as it calls upon the experiential characteristics and qualities that spark when the two unite — impacting not only occupant behavior through the body, but also impacting occupants intellectually, emotionally, physiologically and even spiritually through the body as well.

Architecture and the Human Body
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In a lecture which I once heard at Harvard University, the architect Sou Fujimoto describes the contrast between what he calls the “nest” and “cave” type architectures. I found this quite interesting in that he identifies the nest-type architecture as an environment that is made for people, customized for them in order to comfort them in specific ways. In this case, architecture acts more as a guide, directing when, where or how occupant behavior can take place. While conversely, Fujimoto describes the cave-type architecture as a building with an inherent “landscape” — where within the architectural fabric, occupants will ultimately find their own comfortable place which suits their needs. In this case, the architecture is more of a strategically designed fabric which invites people to use their own creativity and curiosity as they adapt what they want to do into the space.

I find Sou Fujimoto’s two descriptions quite fascinating as I often write about architecture that is innovative and adapts to its occupant at specific “just-in-time” moments throughout their day. Because of this, I think it is great to further explain how an adaptive architecture can also have integrated within it cave-like qualities, which Sou Fujimoto describes as more “creative” and “experiential”.

Exploration, Adaptation and a “Sense of Place”

Thus, the human body and architecture are engaged in a “dance” where each adapts to the other — where you as the architect need to find the right balance between the two. As you delve into this balance, the question soon becomes about that interplay, finding where the two meet, exchange, part ways and influence one another. The goal here becomes to find those just-right moments within your design to take your occupants to a new “sense of place” that arouses curiosity, creativity and/or comfort at the right time.

As we are already entering an age where materials are becoming more malleable, transient and inherently yield more functionality within less and less space, I think architects will expand the range of what a space can do when it comes to “adaptation” between building and occupant. The interplay between freedom and control is becoming more fluid and dynamic; and for an occupant, “exploration” may be carried out in renewed and innovative ways.

However, it is key to remember that the relationship between architecture and the human body is as much about being “still” as it is about “movement” — whether that be physically, emotionally or spiritually.

Variation, Skin and Emerging Methods and Tools

The purpose of my writing this particular piece is to light a spark that helps you think beyond meeting your occupants’ needs in a one to one relationship. For, there are creative design methods which can yield both comfort and unexpected awakening for your occupants as they travel within your architecture, which can both adapt to them and provide them with an environment that allows for their curiosity and natural instinct to learn, explore and be surprised.

Just as Fujimoto, within his designs, uses layering to establish greater variation and in-between situations to better connect architecture with the human body, you too can explore such gradations, particularly as you begin to understand emerging architectural methods and tools that can be integrated within your architecture. I think that with greater variation and layering, and by making strategic use of “surface” and “skin”, you as an architect can creatively expand the way architecture relates to the human body — pushing boundaries that make a positive difference in your occupant’s lives.

This means that it is important for you to hone your ability as an architect to capture that “sense of place” where your building not only speaks to your occupant, but communicates with them in a two-way dialogue. And to do this, new forms of materials and ways of thinking about information (including the way we think about communication itself) are making themselves more available — and with those you can begin to reconsider just what “sense of place” will mean for you and your occupants, as the relationship between building and body expands.

Thermal Comfort: Can Buildings Please Everyone?

It Can Be Difficult To Control

When do buildings feel just right?

As your occupants live, work and play within your designed spaces, thermal comfort becomes an important quality that can make or break an environment quickly. Often, building designers strive to keep room temperatures comfortable throughout the building — but all too often, room temperatures fluctuate uncontrollably from room to room.

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Perhaps you may have experienced working in an office that is too cold, only to discover that your colleague’s office is warmer. Then, there is the problem concerning seasons. In the winter your office is too hot, while in the summer it is too cold. As a workaround, many building occupants are forced to keep sweaters in their offices during the summer and wear layers which they can shed during the winter months.

So, why is coordinating a comfortable room temperature throughout a building so difficult?

Thermal Comfort Gets More Complex

There are so many factors that must come together to get the perfect temperature just right in all rooms throughout a building, regardless of location. The Center for the Built Environment even is working on a project researching the links between ventilation and productivity. In fact, their findings indicate that “there is some evidence that high temperature (> 25.4 C) is associated with lower work performance”. (1)

But can thermal comfort be that generalized?

Numerous factors contribute to the need for a building’s air systems needing to adapt. For instance, a room’s functional needs, air quality shifts, exterior temperature swings and occupant loads may all need to fluctuate at some point(s) during a given 24 hour period. Also, occupant’s personal comfort levels are different. Some occupants prefer slightly cooler temperatures while others prefer slightly warmer ones.

Fluctuating Preferences

Did you know that at the National Institute of Building Sciences, research is underway on the “Advanced Human Thermal Comfort Model”? This research focuses on using computer models to help designers visualize and make better decisions about things like HVAC, building and façade designs. (2)

With such models it will become possible to visualize specific thermal qualities of a space. In addition, designers can even model information on how that space’s thermal qualities affect certain areas of an occupant’s body within it. (2) With these types of technologies developing, it should be possible to better target personalized thermal preference through your designs.

Your designs will be not only more comfortable, but also healthier.

A Vision For The Future

I can now begin to imagine a time when there might be clothing worn by occupants that could collaborate with the surrounding environment to help the building’s air system coordinate the best air quality. The clothes could send sensed data about an occupant’s temperature, activity and so on. The building could synchronize individual occupant data with more general building information —- transient behaviors of façade materials, interactive building elements combined with how many occupants are in a room and what functions are going on there.

It will not be completely without challenges, but increased building flexibility should help designers tailor to the few and the masses.


(1) Federspiel, C., et. al., 2002. Worker Performance and Ventilation: Analyses of Individual Data for Call-Center Workers. Proceedings, Indoor Air 2002, Monterey, CA, June.

(2) Advanced Human Thermal Comfort Model. Center for the Build Environment. UC Berkeley (Accessed July 31, 2014)