To all the architects, designers, and students out there: What’s the first thing you do when you start designing a building? A site analysis, isn’t it? A study of environmental studies and scrutiny of the environment in which the building is to be built; understanding its social/cultural context, climatic conditions, land type, etc is one of the primary steps in architectural design.
There’s no doubt that architecture and its environment are greatly interdependent on one another. While the environment gives context to its architecture, architecture defines the environment it is in.
The following are a few of the most important things, I believe, we learn about in Environmental studies in college.
1. Thermal Comfort
The ultimate goal of an architect is always to satisfy the user and the most important way to do that is to ensure thermal comfort. Nobody wants to have sweat patches amidst an important meeting or to need to wear three layers of warm clothes in the middle of summer, just to tolerate the office’s air conditioning. Thermal comfort, although a subjective and wide-ranging term, is the creation of building systems that are adapted to the local environment and functions of the space. It essentially means, ensuring a comfortable interior thermal environment by controlling factors like insulation, solar gain, thermal inertia, and air ventilation.
2. Sustainable Building
With the rapid increase in global warming, artificial means to provide thermal comfort (like blasting air conditioners and heaters) are not really the best way to go. Materials used for the exterior have a huge impact on the indoor climate of a building. For example, brick has high thermal inertia and is used in hot environments to keep the interiors cool, whereas, in cold regions, low thermal inertia materials like wood are commonly used. Solar gain and even air ventilation can be effectively controlled by the building’s orientation and wall to window ratio.
3. Passive Cooling
Passive cooling is a building design approach that focuses on heat gain control in a building with low or no energy consumption. Some passive cooling systems include shading devices, wind towers, courtyards, earth air tunnels, evaporative cooling, roof sprays, etc. These systems are the least expensive ways to provide cooling, but the applicability of each system depends on the specific climatic condition of the region.
4. Environment and Behaviour
Although ensuring ideal living conditions is an important aspect of this field of studies, it isn’t the only one. Environmental studies also include the examination of the psychology of the user: relationships between the environment and human behaviour. A major part of designing is understanding how people would react to that type of built environment, what their needs are, and how these needs can be applied in the design process.
5. Timeless Architecture
It is seen that the best buildings from historical times are the ones that responded to human needs and sentiments, not only in their own time but also as social lifestyles evolved. A timeless design will only arise when the architect has paid attention to how the built environment and behaviour interact with each other.
Proxemics deals with the amount of comfortable space that people feel necessary to set between themselves and others and plays a significant role in space design (possibly even more in current times of increased social distancing). Territoriality, a concept comparable to personal space, refers to settings that a person will personalize, own, defend, and possibly feel discomfort if they are violated in any way by intruders. Examples of human territories can be a home, a workspace, or even a complete neighbourhood, and can be protected often in architectural or symbolic ways.
7. Small-Group Ecology
According to Gary Moore in ‘Introduction to Architecture’, dimensions, shape, and character of a space influence interpersonal contacts. Several studies prove the fact that in group discussions or seminars, people tend to respond to others more if they can fully see them. These are just a few examples to show how the interior environment can largely impact a person’s day to day activity and state of mind.
Meaning and symbolism is an aspect of environmental cognition and is one way that people react to the environment. Communication between people is often influenced by the organization of space, as well as the layout and character of the building. For example, people tend their gardens and have fancy entrances for their house to convey a welcoming image to passers-by.
9. User Groups
Accommodating different user groups is an essential aspect of design. The built environment today mainly caters to young adults and middle-aged people, somewhere neglecting the elderly, who have a greater need for services like handrails and ramps.
10. Building Types and Design
A broad topic to cover in Environmental studies, it essentially means efficient design according to the functionality of the building. For example, open-plan schools allow students to grow and learn in a better way, however, if the same concept was to be applied to offices it would result in distraction and inefficiency.
This article briefly covers a few of the many environmental considerations that architects take into account in building and urban design. Studies make it evident that architecture that has as its goal, the welfare of users, are the ones that make the largest impact on society.