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ANFA 2023 | From the lab to spatial design:a framework proposal for designing enriched systems

By Andréa de Paiva

By bridging the scientific concept of enriched environments with architectural design, this paper presents a framework which considers spaces as systems, altered not only by spatial configurations themselves, but also by the human dynamics that take place within them. Based on an exploratory research methodology, the framework aims to help scientists and architects translate the experimental concept of Enriched Environments to architectural practice and education to create spaces that support brain plasticity and its benefits for memory/learning and overall wellbeing.

Research in neuroscience has highlighted the substantial impact that the physical environment and its affordances can have on the structure of the brain (Rosenzweig et al., 1972; vanPraag et al., 2000), resulting also in behavioral and overall well-being changes. More specifically, research into Enriched Environments and Brain Plasticity has shown that exposure to enriching surroundings can lead to beneficial structural changes in the brain, resulting in enhanced cognitive abilities, including improved memory and cognitive reserve (Mandolesi et al., 2017). Although most of these studies have used mice in controlled laboratory settings, there is increasing evidence to suggest that these findings are also relevant to humans (Maguire et al., 2006; Mandolesi et al., 2017). This raises the question: what makes an environment enriched for people?

Comparing laboratory cage studies with built environments for humans presents challenges. While mice in these studies live solely in cages, humans have more agency and can occupy a variety of environments. Additionally, cages are limited and do not offer all the complex spatial qualities and affordances that real environments do. In this context, this paper aims to develop a framework that can assist architects in translating knowledge from laboratory studies with mice to their work designing diverse spaces for different users.

This framework is based on the understanding that Enrichment is about what the environment affords individuals to do, perceive and feel and spaces are part of a Dynamic System based on the human experience, rather than just on the spatial configuration. Therefore, not all spaces need to be Enriched, the combination of environments in the System is the one to be Enriched. In this case, the human experience and its dynamics are central to the system’s balance: different groups of users might occupy distinct sets of spaces in a building, creating sub-systems. Therefore, what one sub-system needs to offer an enriched experience may differ from what another sub-system needs, depending, among other things, on how the space is used and by whom.

Based on a literature review, this paper’s framework involves a holistic comprehension of spatial arrangements, and the way humans interact within them. This framework could help bridge the scientific concept of Enriched Environments and architectural design. Its purpose extends beyond application in design practices, facilitating dialogues between neuroscience and design to find new approaches to an architecture that enhances well-being. Given recent transformations in space usage, design approaches prioritizing human experience and behavior are crucial for crafting spaces aligned with our habits and needs.

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