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The Built Environment Affects Us Far More Than We’re Aware Of

What if I told you that there was a method & philosophy that, when applied properly, results in increases in health, wealth & happiness across the board? Sure, there are a lot of different things that do that, but what I’m talking about today is architecture. Specifically, designing built environments that are intentionally created to bring ease & reduced stress to those that live, work, play & live in and around these structures.

Most people think of architecture as either the fancy skyscrapers and/or houses that inhabit a metropolitan area, but architecture is so much more than that, and I truly believe that architecture has the power to heal, connect people, increase wealth, make it easier to make friends, as well as make you smarter and more relaxed. And it’s not just my belief. Here’s what the science says:

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be referring to physical built spaces as either “alive” or “dead”. I don’t mean to imply that the spaces are literally, physically alive, but that they either promote life, or promote death.

For the past 70 years, there has been a whole host of science that shows that the way we build anything, whether that be a gazebo in a park or a massive multi-building school campus, has drastic influences on our wellbeing. Most people can understand this concept in theory: When asked if they would rather spend the day in a room with natural light, plants, cushioned furniture and low noise pollution, or a concrete basement with fluorescent lights above & metal furniture, most people, without question, would choose the first option.

However, until just a few years ago, I was unaware just how much the built environment can affect our health & wellbeing on a consistent basis. Whether in a workplace, house, retreat center (like Acceptance!), public park, school or other building, the design choices that go into the buildings design are much more than aesthetic choices.

In the book “Welcome To Your World: How The Built Environment Shapes Our Lives” by Sarah Williams Goldhagen, it states “One recent study of the learning progress of 751 pupils in classrooms in thirty-four different British schools identified six design parameters – color, choice, complexity, flexibility, light and connectivity – that significantly affect learning, and demonstrated that on average, built environmental factors impact a students learning by an astonishing 25%. The difference in learning between a student in the best designed classroom and one in the worst designed classroom was equal to the progress that a typical student makes over an entire academic year.”

That is a profound difference. Literally having a room with bad lighting, metal furniture and drab colors vs a room with abundant natural light, cushioned furniture, good soundproofing and a nice relaxing color palette can influence a child’s learning as much as one full academic year’s worth of knowledge.

But the impact doesn’t stop there. Here’s what the science says about how an alive (or dead) space can impact pretty much every area of our lives:

Improving Learning & Socializing In School Settings

I’ve already mentioned how researchers determined how certain design aspects (like the amount of natural light in a classroom) can increase (or decrease) students ability to learn by 25%. But natural light does much more than increase ability to learn. Quoting again from “Welcome To Your World: How The Built Environment Shapes Our Lives”, “Light, especially natural light, also improves children’s academic performance: when classrooms are well lit—and most especially when they are naturally lit—students attend school more regularly, exhibit fewer behavioral problems, and earn better grades. Windowless rooms of the kind in the high school we visited exacerbate children’s behavioral problems and aggressive tendencies, whereas daylit, naturally ventilated classrooms contribute to social harmony and facilitate good learning practices. And the sort of noise that we heard that day detrimentally impacts learning, just as it does children’s sense of well-being at home, communicating to inhabitants their lack of control over their surroundings. This in turn elevates their stress levels, further inhibiting their learning.”

Ok now imagine for a second that you are raising a child that is having many behavioral problems, some aggressive tendencies, and is failing 2 classes, and almost failing the rest. In my work at Asperger Experts, we deal with these situations all day long. When parents come to us, it’s often because their kids are deep in Defense Mode. They are shut down, overwhelmed, and unable to cope with the stimulus of the environments they are in to such a degree that some of them get diagnosed with PTSD, even though they haven’t gone through what we think of as a trauma.

So as you are imagining this, what solutions come to mind? The most obvious & traditional ones are meds & therapy. Which work great! Most of the time. But the underlying issues are still there, nagging, and often show themselves in unexpected ways. When I was having panic attacks in 2013, I was put on Prozac, and while the meds helped, I was still anxious. I was just able to tolerate it better and pretend like it didn’t exist.

In order to truly relieve the tension that underlies the behavior issues we’re dealing with, we need to get to the root of the matter and resolve stressors the environment creates (Things loud noises, bright lights, and even sharp angles or the arrangement of furniture can all add up to stress).

“Ok, Danny. I get it! But doesn’t blaming the environment for a person’s behavior ignore the fact that there are real, behavioral issues going on?”

I completely agree that there might be behavioral issues being presented. But I believe that those behavioral issues are caused by horribly designed environments. Let’s see what the science says, shall we. Let’s go back to “Welcome To Your World”. This time they are referring to “action settings”, which is a fancy way for saying that the furniture or functions of a space define its actions (chairs promote sitting, as an example).

“The notion of action settings draws on the work of Roger Barker, one of the forgotten founders of environmental psychology. In the 1950s, Barker launched a full-scale critique of behavioral psychology, arguing that because behaviorists (such as B. F. Skinner) confined their psychological research to the laboratory, they inadvertently neglected an entire dimension of human experience that profoundly shapes human behavior: the environment. With colleagues at the University of Kansas, Barker set up the Midwest Psychological Field Station in 1947, and for nearly thirty years conducted studies of people’s behavior in situ. In one study, researchers outfitted with pens and notebooks followed children from morning until night, from home to homeroom to class to the cafeteria to playground to classroom to soda shop, and then back to home.

Predictably, the children’s conduct changed during the course of the day. Less predictable was Barker’s finding that one factor overwhelmingly determined the children’s patterns of behavior: location, where they were at a given time, and how that place was configured. How Jessica and Sabrina acted in the classroom predictably differed from how they acted at assembly. What Adam and Aaron did at home predictably differed from their conduct during chess club. This may not be so surprising, really, but here’s the field station’s other finding: Barker and his colleagues found that they could better predict a child’s conduct at a given time by specifying her environment and its action setting than they could by delving into her individual, psychological profile. Barker wrote that the “variability in behavior of different children in the same setting at a particular time was smaller than the variability in behavior of the same child across his or her entire day.” And just as Jessica’s and Adam’s conduct varied depending upon where they were situated, so also, it is safe to say, did their conscious thoughts and decisions, and their nonconscious cognitions and emotions. In unraveling the mystery of human conduct, action settings had been a critical hidden variable.” (Bold emphasis is mine).

Let’s look at what another architect says about this. Here’s a quote from Christopher Alexander’s masterpiece “The Timeless Way Of Building”:

“There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that a person need only do inner work, in order to be alive like this; that a man is entirely responsible for his own problems; and that to cure himself, he need only change himself. This teaching has some value, since it is so easy for a man to imagine that his problems are caused by “others.” But it is a one-sided and mistaken view which also maintains the arrogance of the belief that the individual is self-sufficient, and not dependent in any essential way on his surroundings.”

It’s time to stop ignoring the fact that the way we design the built environments in which kids learn DRASTICALLY affects everything from their mental and emotional well-being to how well they are able to absorb the lesson of the day. When there is an issue and we place the blame solely on the parents & child, it is not only counter productive (leading to more stress & shut down), but it doesn’t solve the root of the issue at all.

By designing environments that are full of light, integrated with nature & allow for learning to happen without distraction or stress, we set kids up to lead fuller, happier lives.

So we’ve seen how good, alive design can impact kids in the classroom. Now let’s look at what happens in other settings.

It’s Not Just Schools

Here’s a fun one: There was a supermarket that moved buildings, and this new building just happened to have a ton of skylights. Which meant that the supermarket was now getting a lot more of its light from natural light sources, rather than from overhead fluorescent lights. Which meant that it was more pleasant to be in. Which meant that more people went into the supermarket and stayed inside longer. Which meant that the sales of that particular supermarket increased by 40%. Seriously. 40% increase in sales, just by making your building more pleasant to be in. Which, when you think about it, isn’t that surprising.

Here’s the point to all of this: Environments cause tendencies. Let’s make sure that the spaces we’re designing are producing tendencies of healing, connection, acceptance & life, rather than those that quite literally make people hate their lives (and in rare cases want to kill themselves).

By using the design practices from books like “A Pattern Language”, the science shows that there will be a drastic reduction in the amount of stress people encounter on a daily basis. And less stress means less illness, less exhaustion, more time for fun, more productivity & a longer lifespan. In other words, and I only slightly exaggerate here, if you are depressed, lonely or sick, go remodel your house to be more in line with the principles we’ve talked about. You’ll legitimately feel better.

Or better yet, help us build out our retreat center & village based on these concepts, and come experience the healing effects yourself. Our campground, built around these concepts, is already up and running. Last year we had several people say “It feels like I don’t have Autism when I’m out here.” or similar statements. That wasn’t by mistake. They feel like that because of the way the space is arranged, designed & laid out.

So here’s the question: If there exists a certain arrangement of space that can literally help people make friends, increase profits, decrease stress, and help people not feel like they have anxiety, depression, autism, etc…. wouldn’t you do as much as you could to make sure that you lived in, or at least had access to that type of space as much as possible?

That’s one of our main driving factors here at Acceptance. Arrange the space in an intentional, welcoming and accepting way… and let the space do its work. Make the physical building a partner in the mission, rather than just a box.

About The Author

Danny Raede

Danny Raede

Danny Raede is the CEO & Co-Founder of Asperger Experts, the world's largest community & training platform for parents & people on the autistic spectrum, with a global reach of over half a million people each day. Having been diagnosed with Asperger's himself at age 12, Danny inspires, educates and provides much needed guidance to those struggling to live in a world that is, quite literally, painful to them. He serves as Director on the board of Acceptance, guiding the ultimate vision and helping create a place where people can finally feel truly accepted, connected and at peace. In his free time he enjoys walking in nature, researching the intersection of architecture & psychology, and eating tacos. Lots of tacos.

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Help Us Build Permanent Facilities

During the summer of 2017, we held camping & volunteer weekends at a location provided free-of-charge to Acceptance.  Over 100 individuals, primarily families, participated in those weekends, and the results that came to the participants were often profound.

We heard kids say things like "When I'm out here, I don't feel like I have Autism".

This year, we're continuing to offer camping activities at our temporary location in Centralia, WA, while we work to raise money to purchase a 20 acre parcel literally next to our current location so we can start building our permanent facilities. 

One of the big things we think that is missing in the current conversation around people that don't fit into the world (such as those on the autistic spectrum) is how the physical environment and space can affect them. I'm sure you've heard how restaurants and other public places are designed to maximize certain objectives (McDonalds uses bright colors to encourage you not to linger, Jazz music in bars increases tips, etc).

We're using those same principles, but optimizing for healing, space & relaxation. For example, according to the book "Welcome To Your World: How The Built Environment Shapes Our Lives", "One recent study of the learning progress of 751 pupils in classrooms in thirty-four different British schools identified six design parameters - color, choice, complexity, flexibility, light and connectivity - that significantly affect learning, and demonstrated that on average, built environmental factors impact a students learning by an astonishing 25%. The difference in learning between a student in the best designed classroom and one in the worst designed classroom was equal to the progress that a typical student makes over an entire academic year." 

We need your help to raise the $250,000 necessary to purchase the land and start to build our permanent facilities. Having permanent facilities will allow us to start conducting programs for children, teenagers & young adults, as well as weekend and week long programs for families. It will also allow for longer term stays, which means that we can start to offer internship programs to young adults & others that are looking to find their place in the world, as well as those that need a bit more time to relax, recharge and reconnect.

We'll also be able to offer employment, housing & a built-in sense of community to the people we serve. They'll work in the various parts of the retreat center, learning valuable skills, making friends, and contributing to the growth, relaxation and healing of our weekly participants.

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