“Murph’s Mind” series, Part I: The Psychology of the Built Environment

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The Psychology of Design in Retirement Style Housing

Facilities spend tons of time & $$ researching it, Shouldn’t we pay attention too?

I read an article this week in an interior design online magazine.  It was touting the positive affects of a multi-million dollar assisted living facility remodel and addition.  The crucial features that applied to the success of the project used a case study of one individual that has lived in the building for years.

She was always a  bit of a recluse, staying to her individual room, stating that it “felt safe” – implying she was comparing it to the rest of the spaces in the facility – the halls, dining, and activity portions of the facility, where she didn’t feel “as safe”.  After the remodeling and new addition had been completed, she has made a 180 degree change in her behaviors.  She now could be found socially wandering the building, interacting with staff and other patrons happily, and enjoying her time OUTSIDE of her own room!  What changed?

A few things changed during the remodel, and they are important things that are worth noting, in housing facilities design for older Americans.  But it should also, in my opinion (as an Architect and “Certified Aging In Place Specialist”), be noted when thinking about our own homes and spaces for us and our folks in the residential field as well.  In my mind, if institutions and large corporations are spending millions of dollars in research and development related to these 3-4 things, why should we “re-invent the wheel”?  Shouldn’t we just borrow from the research of the experts, when looking at our own homes and living spaces that will house the 55+ in the coming 3 decades?  This demographic is growing at a quicker rate and is quickly becoming the largest ratio of the population it’s ever been.  This group of our population, being called the “Silver Tsunami” for its title-wave affect, is exploding in a way that is more significant than ever before in our human history!

The FOUR THINGS that mattered most as a result of all that financial investment in research, according to this particular article:


Interior designers know it, architects know it, builders and developers know it.  Even the average home owner recognizes it at some level.  Colors affect us.  It’s true in everything from advertising print, to product design, to the selections of paint on the walls that we are surrounded by in our every day lives.  There is a psychology to it, and it’s been studied at length by any industry that sells product, prints pages, or builds walls.  It can’t be denied, and it shouldn’t be ignored or overlooked.



The idea that you can pause in transit, and have a safe place to “pull over”.  This is crucial to a comfort level in spaces where travel distance is perceived (real or not by some “standard” distance) as long, or “longer” than is comfortable for the given traveler.  Rest stops on the highways and freeways of our nation are a testament to this simple concept that is based in the reality of our conscious and subconscious psychology.  If the travel is extensive, the need to safely pause and get out of the way to take a break is a perceived and a real emotion and feeling about your spatial experience.



There’s a phrase that states “Begin with the end in Mind”.  In simple terms, it’s the intentional purpose and a clear understanding of where your destination is, and how to get there.  It’s logical at a larger scale when driving for example, when you consider street signs, exits and roadway directional information.  You need help in open spaces, to delineate a clear understanding which direction will get you to your desired destination.  Even at a large housing facility scale, it’s not just the signage that tells you that you are moving into a “new area”.  There are things that do so more suggestively vs. deliberately.  Design decisions such as  lighting levels, flooring materials, color changes, and wall treatments are just a few examples.  These are things that can be applied to the individual home as well, in smaller scale for an equally successful result.


Sketch by Alan Maskin at olsonkundig.com

In architecture school at the University of Washington, we learn a valuable concept very early, and it’s a phrase that has stuck with me for 20 years.  “REFUGE” and “PROSPECT” is the concept that we psychologically feel safest in scenarios where we “have our back in a corner” per se, (knowing there isn’t anything or anyone behind us) and have an unobstructed and welcoming view of the “beyond”, the social landscape beyond, with a clear understanding and safe vantage point of what’s happening “out there”.  It makes sense.

I even see this in one of my own children (the shy one of the two), as to how he enters and experiences a room as a young boy.  I’ve watched him since about 2-3 years old, and it continues (although to a lesser extent as he grows into his own skin) at age 7.  In the beginning of a spatial experience that involves socializing with a group in a room, he prefers to watch from the periphery.  He watches what’s happening, and assess the situation from the outer edge of the activity,.  From there he decides if it’s “safe” to enter the room toward the center and begin to interact with the main action taking place in the space.

This applies commonly to things you’ll see in building design in the real world, and it stems as far back as how we perched in hiding when we hunted (on an individual scale), and how we located our civilizations in the worldly space, even thousands of years ago.  Whether perched on a high point, or backed up against mountains and river on two or three sides, or even quite literally the vision of the cave-dwelling and or housing cut into hillsides such as the Mayan and Inca communities.  What do they have in common?  “REFUGE” and “PROSPECT” in the form of a combination of lower “ceiling” heights, and complete enclosure behind us, thereby providing a feeling of comfort, human scale, and safety to the viewer of the outside world.  The same is true in public space design.  Seating areas with dropped ceilings and softer lighting, outside seating located under a tree behind the bench, or with a trellis / structure overhead.  It’s all about a sense of safety and comfort for viewing the world around us, and it’s subconscious and psychological.  It’s been an understood design philosophy for thousands of years, from city planning to building siting (location of a building or dwelling on the property site, within the larger environment of its surroundings).


All of these things that the developers of housing projects study at length, and have spent tons of time and money looking at as a valuable and important part of the final designed product.  The goal is a facility that feels good to the client, is inviting and warm, and that feels safe to navigate and experience at a human scale level.

Good designers feel it’s worth noting the psychology of the built environment, not just in large scale facilities for public residence, but that it should also be considered with similar care and attention in your own “forever home”.  The same goal is in play here, to make you feel good, happy, safe, secure, and to organize and design your home for a clear understanding of how it can be the space you want to live in for the rest of your life.

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2 thoughts on ““Murph’s Mind” series, Part I: The Psychology of the Built Environment
  • Alan Maskin says:

    Hey – any chance you can credit my sketch which you have used in the prospect refuge piece….?
    I drew it to diagram Appleton’s prospect refuge theory as it applied to Olson Kundig’s entry in Fallingwater’s Cabin competition. Always nice when bloggers are thorough in relation to the work they borrow….

    • admin says:

      We will resolve our error and provide your credit for the sketch shortly. Thanks for noticing the error on our end, and I appreciate the opportunity to share your sketch and credit you correctly. Thanks again, Aaron @ EtMM

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