Dan Holliday | 07.08.2022

Should Architects Collaborate More With Psychologists?

Should Architects Collaborate More With Psychologists?


The built environment has a huge impact on both our behaviour and mental state. Internal design can influence the way we think and feel, whilst an external facade can inspire or repulse us. Whether architectural designers are encouraging us to socialise in an outdoor space, live together more cohesively, or work more productively in an office environment, psychology has the potential to influence these designs and, in turn, our thoughts, feelings, and actions. With the stress and strains of modern day living, this could make a real, positive difference to us all.

This link between architecture and psychology was the subject of my EPQ and gave me the opportunity to explore the relationship between the two professions and determine to what extent architects and psychologists did collaborate. I also wanted to see if this partnership could be taken further in order to create more environments that have a greater positive psychological impact.

I also discussed why architects shouldn’t collaborate more with psychologists. I examined if there are other elements that may be more important to the clients and end-users, such as the internal culture and activities within a building.

Both my primary and secondary research confirmed that there is a strong argument for psychologists and architects to collaborate more although it was not as clear cut as expected.

The Argument For

The debate over collaboration gained renown with the pioneering work of Professor David Canter and his 1977 book The Psychology of Place. Canter explained the psychological processes which enable us to understand places, how to use them, and, most importantly, how to create them.

Exactly 40 years later, a recent BBC Future article by Michael Bond, ‘The hidden ways in which architecture affects how you feel’ highlighted ways in which we are impacted by our surroundings through some of the latest ideas in neuroscience (2017). In New York, the BMW Guggenheim lab worked with neuroscientists, Colin Ellard, and the University of Waterloo to measure skin conductance around different buildings to record participants’ mood (BMW Guggenheim, 2013). They found mood was rated lower when façades were monotonous, but 50 higher when facades were more complicated. These findings suggest the built environment has a direct physical and psychological impact on us.

Researching more into the findings on how aspects (such as light) can impact people led me to the 2010 paper ‘Lighting, Wellbeing and Performance at Work’ by Silvester and Konstantinou. This focused on types of lighting and its positive impact on productivity. This was also highlighted within my primary research, with the architect Helen Revitt giving an example of the importance of light for night shift workers. She worked on the design of a 24/7 call centre with an environmental psychologist to advise on colour and lighting. They also implemented intermittent lighting, water features, and plants based on end-user suggestions. The results were very successful, suggesting added benefits of collaboration.

Galan-Diaz and Martens also noted the heightened collaboration between architects and psychologists during the 1970s in their article, ‘Architectures’ brief love affair with psychology is overdue a revival’. They proposed the decline was due to the lack of a common interest. Architects need to satisfy the end users’ needs and collaborating with psychologists can be seen as a threat. A notable example of where collaboration could have been useful was the Glasgow’s Red Road flats, which were demolished due to higher rates of crime and little social cohesion because of a lack of psychological insight and focus on wellbeing of residents. So, it is likely that these failures in architecture will be repeated with future projects where there is still little or no collaboration.

‘Nudge’ theory was also discussed as a potential psychological aid to architects. Sociologist William Whyte pioneered a new and improved layout in the New York area (Bond, 2017) to encourage socialising. He had advised architects to have public spaces arranged to ‘nudge’ people closer through ‘triangulation’, by positioning seating to encourage strangers to socialise. His work has formed the ‘Project for Public Spaces’ organisation which continues to create sustainable and appeasing public spaces today. This provides a possible template for how psychologists could be utilised by clients as an advisor.

However, some of the challenges of collaboration were exposed in a 2001 Scottish joint university student study (Uzzell & Romice, 2001). The project centred around the regeneration of a deprived area of Govanhill, Glasgow. Strathclyde architecture students acted as the direct contact for the community clients and made decisions, while Glasgow environmental psychologists acted as the architects’ consultants. A significant benefit from collaborating was the use of ‘action learning’ to overcome problems, where the two fields considered the opinions of the other to help create a more diverse solution. However, one major hurdle was how the two fields needed to overcome their different educational backgrounds. Their different approaches to research methods, assessment procedures, and outcomes often resulted in communication problems. Familiarisation of this could be very time-consuming for little benefit. Explaining this further, it is likely that the ‘distinction between ‘intellectual’ and ‘cultural’ capital in architectural education has perpetrated the disconnection between architecture and other disciplines’ (Uzzell and Romice, 2001, 79). ‘Intellectual’ capital is basing work on academic discoveries, while ‘cultural’ capital is considering the modern design, fashion, and societal needs to produce work, such as interior design.

Arguments Against

Challenges around collaboration were voiced in Canter’s 1977 book. He describes how the lack of a solid generalisable formula for the optimum way to design a building means it is difficult for psychologists to present clear guidelines and justify their reasoning. This also creates an additional conceptual layer. Each conceptual layer of ideas in designing a building 51 consists of different groups, from architects to clients, and creates different viewpoints that may contradict and result in personal disagreements. This can hinder a project, especially between the very different disciplines of architecture and psychology.

The aspects of conceptual layers and a lack of a generalisable formula also came from the 2017 book by Bernheimer, The Shaping of Us – How Everyday Spaces Structure Our lives, Behaviour and Well-being. Bernheimer suggests the most important conceptual layer is from the users of the building and how ‘the most wonderful places in the world were not created by architects, but by people’. In other words, people feel more positive about their environment if they have input into shaping it, be this a building or outdoor space. This led me to consider how architects perhaps need to collaborate more with the users and not psychologists directly.

Gander (2016) suggested that buildings should be ‘designed first and foremost around their occupants’. An example was the successful Coop Housing project in Berlin. Here, potential residents were given the ‘opportunity to customise their flat to their specification and character’. This was possibly a more effective use of budgets and time than consulting a psychologist.

More arguments against collaboration were found in an article from The Psychologist, ‘Is there a psychologist in the building?’ (Jarret, 2006). This brought new thoughts about the lack of collaboration between the two fields. The major argument is that psychologists are suffering from ‘physics envy’, meaning, ‘they want their work to be seen as hard-nosed and they are afraid if they make it too qualitative, they won’t be taken seriously’. Effectively, psychologists are overcomplicating their research with too many quantitative findings, which is not easily understood by the clients and architects that could benefit from their research. This has led to psychologists instead preferring their work to be purely academic and not supporting its practical use. A lack of interest from psychologists was shown from the Environmental Design Research Association in Vancouver, where senior psychologists were saying ‘I am doing my research for pure science, the industry can either take it or leave it’ (Jarret, 2006). Therefore, it is not just the architects that need to make strides in encouraging collaboration, but also environmental psychologists.

In addition to the published research, I also carried out my own primary research. This involved the creation of a short questionnaire which was sent to both architects and psychologists. This provided a small amount of contemporary data about how the two disciplines felt about collaborating. Interestingly, only 30% had collaborated with the other discipline with varying levels of success. However, 90% of respondents felt there should be more collaboration. Thinking about the barriers to greater collaborating, respondents gave varying reasons such as cost, lack of contacts, and time. Architects, such as Eleanor MacCallum, stated she ‘does not know any psychologists in [her] professional life’ and Sarah Riley outlined a ‘lack of network and connections’ to psychologists. These issues are especially related to the uncertainty that architects have around benefits a psychologist could bring. One of my respondents to the questionnaire was Professor David Canter who described how architects and psychologists ‘have two totally difference epistemologies; from psychologists lacking visual understanding of buildings and architects thinking in more spatial terms’, which again suggested how different the two fields are.


Both the primary and secondary research confirm that there is a strong argument for psychologists and architects to collaborate more. The examples of the Scottish student project and the New York Public Spaces project highlight the benefits of including a psychological perspective in environmental design. Equally, the case of Glasgow Red Road flats painfully shows the enormous social costs of not considering the influence of design on both individual wellbeing and social behaviours.

The impact of better design also has huge economic benefits. A 2010 ECOTEC consultancy article (Friedman, 2010) highlighted the costs for health, which considered previous important psychological findings concerning light and space. Health had an assessed cost of £600 million to the NHS from patients being physically and psychologically impacted by poor housing design.

The premise of my EPQ dissertation was founded on a traditional view of collaboration in which psychologists and architects would connect at the pre-design and design phase. This would enable psychologists to share their expertise at an early stage and help shape architects’ decision making. However, the insight, particularly from Bernheimer and Canter, proposed a possible alternative role for psychologists. Not only are psychologists experts on human behaviour, they are also experts in research methodology. So, perhaps their involvement could be more directed to gathering objective, quality data specifically from end users, while also ensuring the regime or culture within the building is one that promotes wellbeing, cohesion, or productivity.

Reflecting on my research, I identified three recommendations:

1. Case studies need to be more widely available to the design community – whether this is at a micro level, in thinking about factors such as light or colour, or at macro level when designing huge complexes. There are many cases studies with strong quantifiable data which show how wellbeing, productivity and crime rates can be improved with often small adjustments to design. These examples should also be discussed in academic settings with both architecture and psychology degree courses including cases studies from the other discipline.

2. Taking this a stage further, more studies, such as the Scottish student project, should be carried out. This takes the collaboration from a theoretical one into a practical application.

3. Have more collaborative events. A good example was the Conscious Cities Conference held in London in 2015. This brought together architects, designers, engineers, neuroscientists, and psychologists. They would provide an opportunity for the two disciplines to meet and discuss the latest research and challenges and most importantly to make the connections that currently appear to be lacking.