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Sensory Architecture: A Seamless Experience

During the Middle Ages, cathedrals such as Yorkminster (above) were designed by master builders. These architects understood everything about the site–the terrain, the climate, the materials, the culture. These buildings seem to arise organically out of the landscape, as though they grew out of the native stone.

Today, most buildings are designed in pieces, by specialists who rarely talk to one another. Architect, engineer, electrician, plumber, contractor, interior designer: each designer’s expertise is abstracted from the specific environment, and from the rest of the design.

This results in generic buildings which, for the most part, are not attuned to the context they serve. They may be plagued with chaotic acoustics, unsustainable energy systems, toxic odors, and other unintended consequences which make their occupants sick and miserable.

Sensory architecture, by contrast, aligns with its location, people and purpose in intentional ways. Every element of the design works to invoke specific physical and emotional experiences in the building’s occupants.

Take that medieval cathedral. Its design invokes a sense of order, inspiration and awe, using proportion, light, color, acoustics and aroma. You don’t need a tour guide to experience a shift in consciousness within this space; you just need to walk through the door.

When buildings are designed without this kind of holistic intention, they can have the opposite effect–draining people’s energy, attention and focus, even affecting their health. Particularly for the highly sensitive, spaces which generate a high level of sensory chaos can be functionally inaccessible.

For example, restaurants with mostly flat, hard surfaces and no acoustic baffling can be so noisy that diners cannot easily track a conversation. Hospitals with harsh lighting and perpetually beeping monitors can impede healing, by heaping additional stress onto patients’ immune systems. Open-plan offices create distraction rather than allowing workers to focus.

For a building to be sensory accessible, it must align with its natural surroundings, the needs of its occupants, and the purpose it serves. This requires attention to the tactile qualities of materials, acoustics, air quality, visual and auditory privacy, light quality, and integration with nature.

Above all, sensory architecture requires an intimate understanding of WHO will be using the building, and why. Architectural space does not function separately from the human nervous system. Sensory design elevates its inhabitants; non-sensory space depresses them.