Energy, health and productivity: the impact of design and engineering on human behaviour in the built environment

A well-designed and -managed built environment can increase economic, social and environmental value, particularly if human behaviour is taken into consideration early in the design process, according to a new report published today by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Arup.

Drawing on extensive examples and case studies, Built for Living: Understanding behaviour and the built environment through engineering and design, demonstrates how the design of the built environment, in combination with other factors, has the potential to have a positive impact on behaviour. The report focuses specifically on fostering good health and wellbeing, bolstering performance and productivity and improving the stewardship of important resources (particularly energy, water and waste).

Based on findings derived from three workshops, together with case studies and narrative text, the study includes the views and experience of engineers, designers, architects, social scientists, behavioural researchers and government analysts. It suggests that, given a defined set of desirable behaviours within an environment, it may be possible to introduce, from early in the design process, the design characteristics that will foster these.

Professor Jeremy Watson CBE FREng, Chief Scientific Advisor, BRE, and Vice-Dean of Engineering at UCL, who chaired the steering committee for the report, says:

“Having identified three key impact areas where the interplay between people and the environment around them is key, it is important that we provide stakeholders with the collaboration tools to influence related behaviours through engineering and design. Similiarly, we need to identify where further research is required, so as to provide a firm base of evidence for technical and policy interventions.”

The potential benefits of successful application of the principles contained in the report are highlighted through the use of tangible and socially relevant cases. For example, while exploring health and wellbeing as integral components of human happiness, the report cites the benefits of personalisation and way-finding cues in the environments of Alzheimer’s patients and highlights the potential of the built environment to promote physical exercise, using subtle cues to present taking the stairs as a desirable alternative to using the lift.

A further theme reiterated throughout the report is the requirement for a systems approach to design, considering all stakeholders (including the user). Behaviour-changing design cannot operate in isolation and must take into consideration factors such as procedural knowledge, social norms and managerial structures. While automated heating systems in buildings, for example, assist in reducing energy use, employers can play a role in encouraging energy-efficient behaviours through changes such as updating dress codes and changing heating practices. A simple change, such as increasing the number of recycling bins in an office environment, in combination with featuring visual indicators for types of recyclable waste, can have a significant impact on recycling habits.

The clear link between design and productivity in manufacturing environments is also explored. Again, the study endorses a multi-stakeholder approach, extending across the life-cycle of the built environment: productivity is enhanced when physical and organisational design teams work together. The application of this theory can be seen when one considers how new physical layouts, in combination with teamwork and managerial structures, facilitate the consistent trend towards manufacturers operating continuous end-to-end processes that improve productivity.

The key themes, issues and conclusions identified in the report lay the foundation for future development, outlining tools and priorities for research and academia, government and the industry across a huge range of sectors and disciplines. To enable designers and engineers to capitalise on the existing knowledge base, Built for Living introduces a set of key principles to aid discussion, consideration and promotion of behaviours that will improve resource stewardship, health and wellbeing, and performance and productivity.

Dr Natasha McCarthy, Head of Policy at the British Academy, a steering group member, who will be speaking at the report launch event with Professor Watson says:

“We are excited to launch this report to policy makers, research funding bodies and all built environment stakeholders. Facilitating the use of social and behavioural sciences in building design, and gathering and applying deep end-user insights throughout the life-cycle of built environment systems, have the potential to bring huge social, economic and sustainability benefits.”