skip to primary navigationskip to content

The Martin Centre for Architectural and Urban Studies

- the research arm of the Department of Architecture

Studying at Cambridge

Alex Coburn

“Natural” buildings to support well-being: Environmental quality, biomimetic geometry and health

This project investigates how architecture affects well-being, the study of feeling good and functioning well, which has emerged in recent years as a robust new measurement of health. Although genetics play a crucial role in determining an individual’s baseline well-being set point, other factors such as environmental context and intentional behaviours also impact mental health outcomes. A strong evidence base has emerged documenting the salutary benefits of natural environments and linking natural features in urban landscapes to positive health outcomes. Studies suggest that even urban environments devoid of biological life, when designed to a standard of high enough quality, can induce has ealthy cognitive and behavioral responses as natural environments. One promising method for clarifying the question of environmental quality lies in a form of systems thinking developed by Christopher Alexander with the support of several other architects, mathematicians, and scientists. He argues that man-made environments can also embody, to a greater or lesser degree, the same geometric properties found in nature. Humans may therefore unconsciously perceive certain buildings and urban neighbourhoods as more or less “natural”, based on the relative presence of these structural patterns. The theory of natural structure could, if validated, bear great relevance to the study of well-being in the built environment. The present research project seeks to test the robustness of Alexander’s definition of environmental quality as a potential tool for evaluating architecture and for designing healthier environments.

The project tests two hypotheses:

1) Natural structure is an identifiable quality of buildings that people recognize with a high degree of consistency. The relative presence of natural structure in an environment can also be measured mathematically with some degree of reliability.

2) The degree of natural structure embodied in a building will be positively associated with well-being and positive functioning.

These hypotheses are studied through a series of case studies comparing pairs of residential buildings selected on the following criteria: the two buildings differ significantly in the relative presence of natural structure embodied in their architecture, but are consistent in terms of size, geographic location, use type, and occupant demographics. The first hypothesis is tested through surveys in which participants are asked to judge and compare the relative degree of naturalness of numerous pairs of residential buildings. Each case study also tests the second hypothesis by evaluating key aspects of occupant well-being including measures of positive feeling, such as subjective vitality, and measures of positive functioning, such as social interaction patterns. The prediction is that respondents will demonstrate consistency of opinion about which building in each pair feels more natural, that these empirical results will correlate with mathematical evaluations comparing their geometry, and that the building within each pair deemed more natural by these tests will be associated with trends of positive feeling and functioning.