Feel-Good Design

AIA Design Theory- October 2014 
By Rebecca Falzano | Photography by Nicole Wolf

Architect Andrew Hyland on design that feels as good as it looks and functions 


Think about a favorite place. It could be a sunny window seat at a camp. Maybe it’s a small outdoor cafe nestled in an alcove off a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, or maybe it was the farmhouse kitchen at your grandparents’ with the big fireplace and the sturdy wooden table that could fit the whole family around. One of architect Andrew Hyland’s favorite spots was the low space under the upstairs eaves of his childhood Cape Cod–style home. “It connected my older brother’s and sister’s rooms and was filled with everything from suitcases to Christmas ornaments. I would spend hours of my early childhood creating imaginary worlds for my boxes of plastic army men and cowboy figures,” he says. So what is it exactly that makes these spaces so special? Certainly many of them are aesthetically beautiful, but this cannot begin to explain their allure. After all, Hyland’s favorite childhood place was dusty, cluttered, and far from beautiful. So what is it, then? Hyland believes our attraction to these spaces comes from the deep feelings they evoke within us when we experience them. “These feelings of contentment, safety, and community make certain spaces so appealing, and just like visual beauty, there are specific design concepts that make an environment ‘feel good.’” MH+D asked him to tell us more.


Q. So architects are intentionally designing for feelings of attraction and attachment?


A. Most people think that the architect’s mission is to create a functional floor plan and an aesthetically appealing exterior and interior design. While those aspects are important, most architects see our mission much more holistically. Architecture is much more than art. It is art that we live and work and socialize within. We are every bit as concerned with how each space in your home or workplace feels as we are about how it looks. We strive to create a pleasing design experience.


Q. What are the factors that create psychological and social attractiveness?


A. My personal design theories were deeply influenced by the writings of architect Christopher Alexander. He postulated that certain design concepts or “patterns” are widely liked by most humans because of their psychological attraction. His patterns include pedestrian streets, sheltering lived-in roofs, thick exterior walls, alcoves, window seats, children’s caves, and many others. While he provided a great deal of empirical evidence to support his patterns, it may all boil down to our primal needs for safety, security, and community. When we intentionally weave these patterns together in a design, we create spaces that become truly comfortable and livable. We like the experience of a sloped roof over our heads because it makes us feel protected. While we have the technology to design wafer- thin walls of glass that will not fall down, we are generally uncomfortable with the vague feelings of flimsiness and exposure that they evoke.


A. How can these design patterns be applied to a home or workplace?


Q. Over the years I have modified Alexander’s patterns based on my own experience and developed new design patterns for both our residential and commercial work. In our residential work we believe in the kitchen as the “heart of the house.” Whatever stage of life you are in, your household community meets and bonds during meal preparation. A defensible meal preparation area is important for the cook in order to socialize without having others in their way. We encourage very large kitchens with plenty of comfortable sofa and chair seating, bar seating, and large table seating. We love booth seating because you can sit or recline in many positions from within a safe alcove. We also add a fireplace for a comforting glow and warmth in the winter. A central family computer is also a good addition so homework and research can happen while still being together. Additionally we incorporate ample natural lighting for the day and plenty of lighting fixtures for multiple lighting options in the evenings, especially on those long Maine winter nights. Incorporating these psychological principles in your project will take it to a higher level of design where you can visually and emotionally experience the space. Patterns create truly livable environments. The result will be a home or workplace that attracts people, makes them feel comfortable, and provides a positive environment for healthy social interaction. 

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