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Sense and Survivability: How evolution shapes design decisions

Published on 9 Jan 2015Written by Sam Pobst Posted in Education

The 3.8 billion years of evolution of the DNA strand that uniquely identifies the human genome has invested in humanity a host of sensory inputs that are essential to our survival. This distinctive combination of skills has made Homo sapiens the single most efficient predator on the planet. We possess an exceptional set of sensors from which we extract many subtle cues from our environment, providing us with constant reassurance of our safety. If our building designs do not satisfy our innate security interests, then we feel disconnected.

Various theories and hypotheses about the interaction between man, nature, and the built environment have been proposed. Biophilia references the spiritual aspect of a visual contact with nature. Eco-psychology submits that contact with nature extends a bond that provides sensations of harmony, balance, and stability. Environmental psychology addresses the psychological responses we have to environmental stresses, and proponents have performed studies on the effect of the built environment on human behavior.

Humans thrive in many harsh environments from the desert to the arctic. We have designed and built protective shelters unique to each of these environments to facilitate our survival. From these shelters we obtain security, comfort, convenience, and efficiency. The scientific community lists as many as 21 acquired sensory traits in humans, with many appearing to be subsets of the five senses of taste, touch, smell, hearing, and vision. In addition to these five familiar traits, breathing is relevant as a sixth sense as it relates to how we design our buildings.

The need to satisfy these elemental instincts is no more a discussion of nature vs. nurture than learning to cry or breathe is a response to a sharp whack by an obstetrician. Removing your hand from a heat source is not a learned response. The smell of bread baking in the oven is not a learned response. Tastes of bitter, sweet, salty, and sour are not learned, but serve to sharpen our survival skills. Addressing these most basic instincts in our building designs provides for our sense of security.

Each of these six sensory inputs has an impact on how we design and operate our buildings on an elemental level that exceeds what can be derived from a spiritual or psychological influence. As we think of these senses, they are so primal that we are unconscious of their origin and impact. We taste because we have taste receptors, we feel the touch of heat and cold because we have a neuro-chemical response to those influences. We see, hear, and breathe from the moment we are born with no thought to the implications. We have responses to each of these sensory inputs that affect our survival and are hardwired into our essence.

Sam Pobst

Principal Eco Metrics LLC

Pro reviewers, Chapter members, Member employees, USGBC faculty


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