'Happy space' the final frontier of design

Designing a place to live or work in is now about feeling good, and some of the world's best brains are investigating the 'happy space'. Sheena Hastings reports.

MANCHESTER City Council is so worried about poor performance in some of its schools that, among other measures, it is looking into how the actual fabric of buildings can influence a child's mood, performance and attitude to learning.

A team of experts on the built environment from Salford University has been asked to bring together all the newest ideas on "emotionally intelligent" design and incorporate them

into the blueprint for a new primary school.

It's a move which other education authorities will no doubt be watching with great interest, in the hope of learning how sympathetically thought-out buildings can help youngsters to turn on to the idea of education.

There is now a swell of research showing that factors like room layout, lighting, symmetry of architecture (or the lack of it), ceiling height and the position of doors have an effect on our brain function, health and mood.

While the concept of feeling happy in a room flooded with sunlight is not a new one, until relatively recently it was not known exactly how the light causes vital chemicals in the brain to increase and emotions and behaviour to change.

As neuroscientists use ever-more-sophisticated scanning techniques to measure these "feelgood" responses in our heads, they and experts across other fields, including sociology, psychology, design and architecture, are harnessing the findings to come up with ways in which life can be enhanced by planning feelgood factors into homes, workplaces, and institutions.

"Research has proven that children learn 20 per cent faster in a space where there is natural sunlight," says Professor Peter Barrett of Salford's Centre for Research and Innovation in the Built and Human Environment.

"A space is not a passive thing. Your senses are soaking up information from the environment, and it can encourage good feelings like security, warmth, optimism and energy to help you to feel happy, want to learn, or get better in if it's a hospital or other treatment setting. Being near a window while in hospital can actually reduce the need for medication."

Barrett describes Manchester City Council as an "enlightened client", willing to be open-minded about ideas on the effects of air-quality, use of light, colour, layout, plants, and the flexibility of space and acoustics in improving how children interact. "MCC want pupils to do better," says Prof Barrett, "so they are willing to help achievement by letting us try to 'design out' some of the problems that hinder learning."

Lighting that can be varied according to the time of day and required mood and an air system that can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in spaces (which brings about sluggishness) are likely to be part of the plan. The youngest children respond well to bright primary colours; older ones need more subdued tones to maintain order and calm.

John Zeisel is Barrett's colleague. He is an American sociologist and Alzheimer's specialist who knows that environment can even act as treatment for people with dementia.

"My approach is that if we can gain pleasure in a non-pharmacological way then why not," says Zeisel, visiting professor of sociology at Salford, who is also a director of the Academy of Neuroscience For Architecture (ANFA), an organisation that encourages partnerships between architects, designers and neuroscientists.

Zeisel has incorporated neuroscientific ideas on "happy spaces" into the design of five residential facilities for people with Alzheimer's in Massachussetts and New York. Studies printed in respected journals have shown that aggression, depression, disorientation, apathy and withdrawal associated with the disease are reduced in people who live in such places.

Healing by design, as it has been called, makes up for the loss of a person's "cognitive map" by providing "naturally mapped environments".

This means that, for instance, rather than merely putting up signs, each area of the residence speaks for itself – telling the individual where they are.

Features of the five Hearthstone residences include an unlocked door on to a park-like area, with a shady porch and patio suggesting the back garden of a house which will be reminiscent of homes residents have known in the past.

A single pathway leads past trees, shrubs and plants back to the only entrance to the building. At the centre of each residence are the fireplace, hearth, kitchen and comfortable and homely dining room, where there are always evocative wafts of home cooking. The perimeter fence around each property is high enough to stop residents climbing over it, but its top 12 inches appear to be purely decorative.

Doors that are not meant to be used by residents are camouflaged with clever decor; those that should be used are made very obvious. Each corridor has a clear destination in view at the end of it. When a particular room or area's use is made evident, the person who might otherwise be confused feels secure and acts appropriately.

"You don't have to be taught that a fire in the hearth and smell of warm food will make you feel good," says Zeisel. "It just does, and that sense of wellbeing is usually associated with early memories of home."

In Alzheimer's residences like those Zeisel works with, a holographic hearth is used for safety reasons, but it still evokes the same feelings of wellbeing.

Zeisel, who wrote the book Inquiry by Design as a result of his clinical work, has also worked with British kitchen designer Johnny Grey. They have together developed a theory of "happy spaces", based on neuroscientific principles, whose properties include light, colour, safety, a certain amount of personal mess, shared household history and culture, and eye contact. Austere minimalism does not make for a happy kitchen, they reckon.

Grey believes in making the modern kitchen a "room for all reasons", the multi-use hub of the home, a place in which to feel safe, comfortable and creative.

"There's so much more to it than just beautiful decor and nice things," says Grey, whose Kitchen Culture (published by Jacqui Small) argues that a great kitchen is not just about good cabinetry and hi-tech gadgets.

"The kitchen industry is all about sales, not design.... with large areas of laminate, everything fitted and matching and made in a factory. There's still a horrible trend towards minimalism which doesn't make a kitchen a comfortable place to be. This is fatal, seeing as today's families have moved towards centring everything on the kitchen, using it not just for cooking but for eating, studying, relaxing, talking and generally socialising. Increasingly the kitchen is the open-plan core of

a home."

The neuroscience of how we behave in our living and working environment has crossed over into many other disciplines, including philosophy.

"I definitely believe in the idea of a space being 'happy,'" says Matthew Kieran, senior lecturer in philosophy at Leeds University. "It's not just about designing for happiness, though; designing to make us smarter is now under investigation. Neuroscience has meant we can look in a much more detailed scientific way at mechanisms related to emotions and how we behave in relation to them."TIPS FOR A 'HAPPY KITCHEN'

Build in eye contact for sociability.

Plan views from wherever you spend a lot of time towards a window or garden whenever possible.

If you can, make your kitchen a room with access to a garden.

Orientate key work surfaces towards long views to provide a feeling of safety and control.

Where possible, create work surfaces where time-consuming tasks are carried out in places where there is cover for the cook's back, so that they feel safe and secure.

Create clear exits and entrances.

Create a sense of flow in the design that makes everyone feel there's room to move about.

Avoid sharp corners on work islands, peninsulas and other objects that sit in or jut out into the centre of the room. Spiky objects activate peripheral vision and our primeval "fight or flight" response.

Build in a hearth, the traditional focus of the home and a generator of both warmth and food.

Our brain responds to art and other hand-crafted objects, furniture and utensils. Make sure the kitchen has places for newspapers, notes, toys, craftwork and photographs.

By creating dedicated work surfaces that are not too long, you can make space for sociable pieces like a dresser or sofa.

Don't extract too many fumes; pleasant and welcoming aromas should be broadcast, not eradicated.

Salford Centre for Research and Innovation in the Built and Human Environment: www.scri.salford.ac.uk