Does Experience Impact How Occupants Perceive Architecture?

Finding One’s Architectural Perspective

Not everyone that experiences your architectural design will perceive it in the exact same manner. This is because of past experiences, that differ from person to person. In fact, according to an article in The Brain periodical, it is stated that people “organize sensory information in a systematic fashion and then match it against [their] own experience and knowledge”. (1) In other words, a person is more inclined to “see” certain aspects over others in a design — all dependent on the frame of reference which is set by past experience and knowledge. This gives deeper meaning to the term architectural perspective.

So, how can this insight help you to design better architecture?

First, as an architect you maintain a design intent — where your design delivers on the goal you set out for your project. But the occupant benefits you strive to achieve with your design can actually impact people in different ways. This is one reason why a particular design may be intended for one function, but then gets used in a variety of other ways by occupants because they bring their past experience to interpret how that particular design might be used.

An example of this can be seen when designing public park features like stairs, ramps, benches and handrails. The original design intent with these elements is to provide way for park-goers to freely circulate throughout the park by walking or sitting on a given bench. Yet, there are those park-goers that see these park features differently. Instead, these other park visitors use such features for skateboarding. Thus, people see the world, and their environments, through different “lenses”.

The Effects of Differing Architectural Interpretations

As you design, it may help to expand your mindset to more deeply understand the many ways a design feature can be interpreted by occupants. And while it may be impossible to predict how every single occupant will interpret your architectural design features — there are some common and innovative ways you can predict how occupants will not only perceive your design elements, but also behaviorally respond. For example, if a loud alarm goes off in an auditorium — it may be predicted that some occupants will panic while others will remain calm. But as the designer of such an auditorium, you need to consider what occupant behavior you wish to encourage for such an event. In other words, how could you get both the panicked and the calm occupants to safety by using your design? Thinking in this light will deepen how you think about your designs.

Thus, it is important to gain deeper understanding regarding the occupant-types that will live or work within your architectural creations. But it is also critical to delve into the different ways occupants can respond because of their varying interpretations to their environment. Also, consider how the interaction between occupants that perceive differently can impact your design intent. Remember the park example? How might the skateboarders impact the pedestrians in the part, and visa versa? And how might the calm occupants impact the panicked occupants in the auditorium, and visa versa?

In essence, gaining a deeper understanding about who you are designing for and how they might “see” your design through their own lens is important. Go beyond generalizing your occupant-types, to more carefully considering the way they might interpret your design features differently as stimuli emits from it in real time. Consider how their architectural perspectivesdiffer from person to person, and design so your architectural intent is reached once in use.


(1) (2016) Understanding the Illusion. Health, Intelligence, Creativity: The Brain. Page 25.

‍Image Credit: © lzf | Fotolia




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