Let's design Buildings for People, not for code compliance

Homes are built for people. People should be the priority of all residential projects and thus our design practices should aim to keep them comfortable and healthy. There is no doubt about that, and this is not a new idea. In fact, this is the underlying principle of an overwhelming amount of academic articles and books and presentations and declarations of principles and guidelines and laws and building codes. Nevertheless, I think that our research and design practices are often more focused on code compliance than on making people’s lives better. Let me explain this through two anecdotes. I swear I have a more formal way of evidencing this, but I think stories sometimes can be more expressive than a bunch of references.

The first one took place some time ago when I attended a presentation about how a Net-Zero Energy home was monitored and quality assured. The presenters explained, through charts and tables, that the annual on-site energy consumption and production were equivalent (i.e., it was, indeed, Net Zero) and that the air temperature and humidity were maintained within the “comfortable range” for more than 80% of the time or so. In other words, this was a good house according to all standards. When they were finished, I dared to ask the unimaginable: “Besides using sensors, did you ask the people who live in the house whether they liked it?”... Some people looked at me as if I had asked the most stupid question ever and, after a short but noticeable pause, one of the presenters answered: “Why would you do that? That data would not be statistically significant”.

The second anecdote happened about four or five years ago, at a masterclass given by a great lighting designer. After showing several of his projects, something in the conversation made me ask another nonsensical question: “If you finish a project and people do not seem to find it comfortable, do you change it?”. His response was somehow similar to the one I mentioned in the first anecdote: “I go and I measure. If the lighting levels are correct, then I don’t change them. I am paid to make a good design, you know”.

What these examples have in common is that they reflect how buildings are often not designed for people but for compliance. These designers—even if their projects were astonishing—seem to consider that the temperatures and illuminances defined in standards are the true representation of comfort and that, when people’s opinions deviate from these values, they are wrong. These designers mistake the true value of comfort—i.e., people’s personal and subjective satisfaction with the built environment—with the value estimated by tools meant to represent the average response of big groups of people. I think they are fundamentally wrong.

Comfort indicators are great because they help us design for people at early stages, when buildings are empty and we do not know who will live in them. However, when we know who will occupy buildings, we should invite these people to participate more actively in our research and practice. And do not get me wrong, I am not saying that we should ask non-experts about the heating system that would save the most energy (because that is a very technical kind of knowledge). What I am saying is that, when it comes to comfort—e.g., to whether people can read properly, or if the space looks attractive and clean, or if they feel they are properly protected from the rain—they are the experts. Regardless of how sophisticated your calculations are—even if it was done by a quantum computer with artificial intelligence optimized through an evolutionary algorithm on the cloud—people’s judgement is always the correct answer. Buildings are for people, and thus people should not adapt their preferences to our standards… And it is worth remembering that, unfortunately for some of us, people’s answer cannot always be a number.