The Problem of Environmental Design in Day to Day Life

Awareness of ‘place’ is critical to the definition of a memory. Physical environment is therefore essential to memory reconstitution.

John Zeisel, Inquiry by Design, Environment/ Behavior/ Neuroscience in Architecture, Interiors, Landscape, and Planning, p 147 ‘The Brain’s Environment System,’ W.W. Norton & Company, Revised Edition ©2006

Hello again.

We have been absent for a time, but are back to discuss the value, necessity and impact of environmental design on the day to day lives of each of us, most especially someone with dementia. We are an architectural practice and do not have a background in the neurosciences, so our bent and focus is definitely on the observable behavioural changes that occur with a change to environment and a regurgitation of current research available in this area. We will attempt to communicate what we have observed and provide ongoing references for you to review yourself should this interest you in any way. In the end though, we really are just providing some commentary based on our experience in the field of architecture on the necessity of including the social and psychological impacts of design into the concepts of sustainable practice with a rigorous and non-deterministic commitment.

One thing seems clear, that the context of life is not separable from the material aspects of said life. That said, architecture and design is not in and of itself alive. It is not a living creature, much as we as designers may wish to characterize it as such. It lives through the interaction that it has with living creatures – and let’s be honest, we are really talking about it’s interaction with the human hand and mind. While architecture impacts the world as a whole through its use and often abuse of resources and energy consumption, water consumption and overall design which runs counter to sustainable thinking, it is also a victim and manifestation of the policies at play which guide and determine its final form, whether for the good or bad.

As we begin to explore its importance in the intimate setting of a home built around the care of a person with dementia, we will discuss how and why we sometimes feel secure or stressed simply as a result of our environment. We will discuss why we have forgotten how to write our own story in some cases, and go in search of a ready-made idea into which we can fit ourselves and to which we can conform. This is not a condemnation of what has been culturally dictated over many years (and decades) it is more a plea for redirection and course correction. That the nature of building is tied to the mind’s ability to cope and navigate their environment is our position, and so, we propose neurological, psychological and social ills are contributed to and in some cases generated in part because of the physical environment we inhabit. We are not just what we eat – we are where we live, work, play and interact. 

As the initial quotation implies, our memory is shaped, nurtured and coloured by the places and spaces in which they occur and the emotional context that ‘sticks’ to these forms. We must look at this head on in our design principles if we are to understand the impacts that our buildings, cities and infrastructure have on our human mind and spirit.

This is our goal for this next series of blogs. We want to talk specifically about where and how the social and physical space has contributed to better well-being of someone with advanced Alzheimer’s and their caregivers and where it seems inconsequential to the care and stability of the group as a whole.

Please contact us if you have questions or wish to discuss further.

For now, we are signing off…

Architecture &c.

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