Building the Façade of Happiness

The construction of our wellbeing has foundations in design.

What’s most important for new architectural design? Innovation? Green materials? Heritage and tradition? It turns out there’s something else.

The look and feel of the buildings around us has a measurable impact on our emotional wellbeing. Good design makes us happy, bad design makes us sad, and some design can even make us ill. 

Using headsets that measure physiological responses, scientists can track our moods. Amazingly, while many people claim to feel normal in certain surroundings, their physical reactions tell a different story. Colin Ellard, who researches the psychological impact of design at the University of Waterloo, discovered that the façade of a building has a significant impact on human stress levels. If the façade is complex, we tend to like it; if it’s sleek and monotonous, it can cause us harm.  

“The strong behavioral effects of the simple appearance and design of a city street are well known.”

-    Colin Ellard, in “The Generic City

Imagine the hustle and bustle of an outdoor urban marketplace. The paths are narrow, the stalls are colourful, and you’re surrounded by natural glimpses of sky and trees. Now imagine the long, sleek grey exterior of a skyscraper. The pedestrian areas are cool, and concrete, with highly constricted natural light. It may seem obvious why we prefer the liveliness of the marketplace. However, sometimes our natural comfort takes a back seat to other design concerns. Unfortunately, due to unsuccessful social housing, the poorest among have often suffered the harshest consequences. 

Winnipeg's Central Park is a highly diverse, densely populated area.
The Centre Village project of 2010 was meant to be an innovative solution to the problem of unaffordable living. In order to maximize individual apartments, square footage was tight, with a four-bedroom coming in at just 875 sq ft. Ground-floor space was reserved as “community space,” and the large concealed courtyard was meant to encourage spending time outside, while providing shelter from wind.

Instead, the cramped living quarters made life very difficult for residents, and The Guardian writes, “with no direct sightlines through Central Village, [the] communal inner courtyard turned into a convenient spot for locals to drink and use drugs, hidden from the eyes of police.” 

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Although problematic, the Winnipeg example is nothing compared to the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing complex of St. Louis. Pruitt-Igoe was developed in the 1950s, and demolished just twenty years later. 

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To address the extreme housing crisis in 1940s St. Louis, city authorities approved the redevelopment of slums into 33 high-rise, high-density apartment buildings. The lack of regular maintenance mixed with a featureless façade and multiple crime-ridden isolated hallways, led to unbelievable squalor. The blocks soon became notorious for violence and vandalism, and as tenancy declined, decay was everywhere. By the late 1960s, local authorities refused to enter the blocks due the real danger of bodily harm.

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Those are extreme examples of unhealthy building design. But Colin Ellard contests that even a long, blank façade can cause stress-inducing boredom. That may seem like an oxymoron, but boredom research shows the link to illness is real. Cognitive neuroscientist James Danckert of the University of Waterloo showed that there could actually be a relationship between boredom and mortality rates.

In Calgary, mixed-use development and interesting, thoughtful design is something developers and The City are promoting. It’s easy to spot in neighbourhoods such as Currie Barracks and Garrison Woods, where locals and passers-by experience no lack of architectural stimulation.

It’s not only urban areas experiencing a surge in mood-enhancing design. The façade (and interior, for that matter) of the New Central Library elegantly mixes sleek with unusual patterns for a compelling visual effect.

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When psychological wellbeing is not prioritized in urban design, problems can arise. The isolation, stress and discomfort we find in examples like Pruitt-Igoe are extreme, but they tell an important, cautionary tale. Studies have shown that commuters tend to walk faster in areas characterized by giant, featureless buildings, so just imagine what it would be like to live in one, all the time. But, a stimulating surrounding encourages opportunities for meaningful social interaction, which have positive impacts on our mood. 

As Ellard notes, “Living among millions of strangers is a very unnatural state of affairs for a human being.” As our cities change and grow, the mood we experience in our buildings is as important as their eco-friendliness, and biophilia. It may sound sentimental, but happy buildings make happy people. 


August 17th, 2017
Updated: August 31st, 2017

A building’s success relies on the psychological impact of design.