A sense of place

Humans perceive the world through the five major senses and good design keeps this in mind. DANIEL VAN DER MERWE from LEAF Architects discusses the balance between our senses and our surroundings.

A sense of place



Humans perceive the world through the five major senses and good design keeps this in mind. DANIEL VAN DER MERWE from LEAF Architects discusses the balance between our senses and our surroundings.

“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”

– Winston Churchill, 1943

Natural sounds like birdsong, rain, or the ocean make us feel reassured while too much noise causes irritability and can even contribute to chronic diseases.

Architecture touches us from the day we are born, and buildings become the stage for most of our human dramas, routines and rituals. Our spaces should therefore be more than just functional; they should emphasise our identities, respond to our social needs, and assist in our emotional and mental wellbeing.

Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychology, described buildings as diagrams of the human psyche. Our homes are perhaps the most primal of our collective symbols and it is often said that your home is your castle and sanctuary. You could even describe home as your third skin, after clothing, and we should feel safe and held in our homes.

Viewing homes in this light goes a long way towards explaining the status society places on the house and, to some extent, the trauma of a burglary or an invasion.

Your home and work environments directly influence the daily business of living, and reveal a great deal about your inner state. However, many spaces influence the emotional and social state of individuals in ways that are not easily noticeable.

Psychology researcher Dr Harald Deinsberger-Deinsweger notes that spaces can influence our behaviour and emotions in ways we don’t often perceive, and researcher Millicent Gappell writes that “the mind, brain and nervous systems are directly influenced by sensory elements in our spaces”. Our environment is interwoven with our psychological state, and has an important influence on our behaviour and reactions.

Individuals have instinctive reactions to different materials and finishes, colours and windows, lighting and acoustics. Open spaces create different feelings compared to intimate settings. In many cases, living or working spaces are reflections of trends and the taste of others. However, few people stop to consider whether their surroundings give them comfort, which is essential to wellbeing.

Humans perceive the world through our five major senses and good design keeps this in mind, engaging vision through aesthetics, hearing through acoustics, and taking smell, touch and taste into consideration. Designers positively engage our senses and any person who has spent time in a beautiful interior can confirm this.

The sense of sight is the most important to our survival and, therefore, the one that most impacts our behaviour. Light is made up of different wavelengths of electromagnetic light, which our brain turns into colours. Within that range, we can differentiate 150 hues, translating into seven million colours. Each wavelength stimulates the brain in a slightly different way, meaning each colour makes a different impact on us!

Researcher Dr Roger Ulrich has proven that natural light regulates body rhythms such as hormone production and blood flow, which affects mood and productivity. It therefore makes sense to optimise natural light and minimise artificial light to make a difference to human wellbeing.

In addition, in his publication Colour for Healing, Antonio Torrice writes that when there is natural light, each colour is balanced. Designers can play with the poetry of light to increase our sensory experiences. North- and east-facing spaces are good for living and bedroom spaces, generating heat gain and loss. South-facing spaces provide more diffused light, which is ideal for kitchens and bathrooms.

In her publication Colour, Helen Varley writes “the colour wavelengths entering our eyes affect the centre of emotions in the hypothalamus which directly affect the pituitary gland which controls our entire endocrine system, including our thyroid and sex glands and the moods consequent to them”.

Research at the University of Bath investigated how the colour of interior walls influences imagination. Red walls seemed to activate skills that required accuracy and attention to detail. Blue walls affect short-term memory tasks but substantially increased creativity. Red tones stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, increase brain wave activity, heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. Blue triggers the parasympathetic nervous system and is accredited with a tranquilising effect.

Colour can even make a difference to whether we feel warm or cold as warm colours seem to advance and cooler colours recede. Cooler colours make us forget time while making objects appear smaller and rooms larger. The opposite is true of warm colours.

According to the studies of psychoacoustics, sound deeply affects us not only emotionally but also physiologically. Auditory neurologist Seth Horowitz says it can trigger deep emotions due to the connection between the auditory and limbic system, which regulates emotion. Most people have severe reactions to certain sounds such as nails scraping on a chalkboard due to the frequency of sound waves produced.

Research suggests that smaller spaces are considered calmer and safer while big rooms trigger primal fears. Acoustic designers know ‘good acoustics’ require more than clarity of sound. For example, a reverberant dining room might be unnerving, and a highly damped room might be perceived as ‘dead’ or ‘oppressive’.

Intuitively we all know the effects of calm versus fast-paced music on sleeping, dining, relaxation, working and even studying. Researchers have demonstrated that music triggers the release of dopamine, the feel-good chemical, in the brain. Wheat and other crops exposed to Bach’s sonatas increased their yield by 65%, whereas rock music decreased growth. While listening to music, our pupils dilate and our pulse and blood pressure rise; you could almost say music is the natural drug of happiness.

Sound has a profound influence on humans. Natural sounds like birdsong, rain, or the ocean make us feel reassured while too much noise causes irritability and can even contribute to chronic diseases.

Music or positive sound should be part of our daily experiences, not only to block out noise but also as an element in our spatial context. Research on ‘sonic seasoning’ or the effects of sound on tasting has found that high-frequency sounds enhance sweetness, and low sounds bring out bitterness. Loud background noise affects our taste buds, making food less salty or less sweet. This means sound actively impacts our enjoyment of food.

Smell is one of our most primitive senses and triggers quick responses in the brain, which was essential to survival for early humans. Pleasant smells can enhance productivity and encourage us. Aromatherapy is even built around using smell to trigger positive physiological and psychological effects on humans. Think about the use of aromas in your space to allow for healing, calming, or concentration.

Psychologist Joan Meyers-Levy examined the relationship between ceiling height and thinking styles. She concluded that low ceilings help people solve anagrams involving confinement. In contrast, rooms with high ceilings help them solve puzzles centred around themes of freedom and liberation.

Our skin allows us to experience pressure, temperature and pain. Fireplaces and lit candles have a huge impact on these senses and on our mood. According to psychologist Frederick L Coolidge of the University of Colorado, fire can have an impact on the quality of sleep. Using fire to keep predators away would have allowed early hominids to enjoy more REM sleep, which helps the brain retain skills and repeat previously learned tasks. Fire can also help with meditation, which has been found to have many health benefits.

Touching natural materials such as wood, stone and textiles seems to have a reassuring impact as the subconscious mind associates them with nature. The degree of hardness and softness, rigidity and flexibility and the heaviness of objects can have an impact on mood. Soft cushions allow for feelings of relaxation and wellbeing while marble tops can bring about feelings of achievement and stability.

Buildings also have energies and the ancient Chinese practice of feng shui claims to use energy to make people feel in harmony with their surroundings. The ancient Romans believed building sites have a ‘genius loci’ or spirit, and would plan the positioning of buildings and even cities using ley lines and earth energies. Surroundings such as mountains, forests or the ocean can affect the energy of a place.

Energy therapists believe the energy of our homes often reflects our own inner emotional states. In mainstream Rabbinic Judaism, a mezuzah is fixed to the doorpost of a residence to sanctify and protect it. Sage, rose, lavender, frankincense and patchouli are among the fragrances said to be specific for energy cleansing, and many believe that crystals can amplify the energy you need most in your environment. Everything from decorating your home with houseplants to burning sage or incense has a long history going back to ancient times in all cultures.

A well-considered and designed space is an essential component of your everyday wellbeing.


Photos provided Julia Day, Generation Design