How Does Architecture Affect Quality of Life on Campus?

Many college students spend much of their day in or around a college building. But have you considered how these buildings are actively affecting their quality of life? In the wise words of Winston Churchill, "We shape our buildings and afterward our buildings shape us." We used this same reference in February of last year to talk about how campus buildings can change our behavior. But what about our comfort, mood, etc? The fact is that student comfort, mood, and quality of life can fluctuate greatly depending on the atmosphere of the spaces they spend the most time in. While it can be easy to discount or even ignore completely the effect that architecture has on our day-to-day lives, we shouldn't. Nearly every moment of every day is influenced by architecture. So if we want students to live happier, healthier lives, it seems reasonable that we pay a bit more attention to the design of the buildings they spend their time in.

The Research

Thanks to many modern psychological studies, we now have a much greater scientific understanding of the types of environments college students prefer. Some of these studies have attempted to measure participants' physiological responses with smartphone apps that ask them about their emotional state throughout the day and in some cases, EEG headsets that measure brain activity relating to mood, stress, and state of mind. Because of these studies and others like them, we now know for certain that campus architecture does, in fact, affect mood and well-being. It has also been brought to light that specialized cells in the hippocampal region of our brains are attuned to the geometry and arrangement of the spaces we inhabit! The implications that these studies have for college students can't be understated! It should be said that many of these studies were performed on a small minority of our population in specific environments. But with that said, these studies do provide us with a firm introduction to a concept that applies to all people – including college students. One piece of research we can take away is that your psychology changes with your environment. Improve your environment, and you could improve the quality of your life.

Let's Get Practical

So the science is in. The design of campus facilities do effect student and staff psychology. So how should college architecture improve in light of that? The answer is actually pretty intuitive. We all know the dreadful feeling of spending too much time in a dark, dull environment. It dampens your mood and leaves you feeling cold. In contrast, we've all experienced beautiful, inspirational spaces. Admiring and appreciating them with joy. It's also clear that the layout and size of a space has a considerable effect both physically and psychologically on your ability to undertake a given task. Apply these intuitive principles to campus facility design, and it's no wonder why colleges which lack aesthetically pleasing designs, have poor natural lighting and limited open space are firmly correlated with a strong negative effect on behavior with students and teachers alike. In these types of architectural designs, people feel confined, crowded, and unproductive. Designing for function alone isn't enough in the real world. We need more.

Designing Happier Lives

First and foremost, campuses should be designed around the people who are intended to use them. The relationship between humans and their environment contains aspects of social and psychological influences along with a physical impact. You can't consider the relationship between people and space as a one-way street. But when setting out to create better spaces for people, you’ll find that creating the “perfect” space is an impossible, subjective balancing act between form and function. This is made harder by the fact that architects don't have the luxury of creating prototypes outside of computers or physical models, and are restricted by laws and often tight budgets. But by considering the effect that each design decision will likely have on students, and making an effort to improve those decisions, we can greatly improve the quality of life for all those who will work and study there.

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