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It may be a relatively new profession, but for Royal Haskoning, Environmental Psychology is the key to unlocking a building’s potential. It’s also creating more sustainable buildings and helping the company make prestigious new business wins. Range magazine interviewed Gerarda Nierman, Royal Haskoning’s Environmental Psychologist, to find out what everyone’s talking about.
She’s well educated and articulate, bold yet considered, but most of all, she’s utterly passionate about Environmental Psychology and the role it can play in transforming Royal Haskoning’s building designs. Yet for Netherlands-based Gerarda Nierman, this enthusiasm isn’t borne out of a sudden awakening or gradual realisation about the merits of psychological building design. Rather, it stems from a lifelong ambition to create inspiring building spaces.
“When I was young I was always fascinated by the stark differences between dull and inspiring building spaces,” says Gerarda. “I was also struck by the ability of a great space to broaden peoples’ thoughts and perspectives, translating into better working outcomes.
“I thought if I could play a part in creating spaces that would transform peoples’ lives from ordinary to great, that would be really satisfying.”
Twenty years on and with a combined degree in Architecture and Environmental Psychology to boot, Gerarda is doing just that. As one of Royal Haskoning’s first Environmental Psychologists, she is working with building services engineers and architects to redefine the way buildings are conceived. “It’s about thinking of building users’ needs and designing the building around these,” she explains. “By thinking about the lighting, temperature, acoustics, spatial and visual aspects of a building, it’s possible to develop a design that expresses and meets people’s needs more closely, leading to a more sustainable building and better working outcomes.”
An approach that is helping Royal Haskoning win new business is Gerarda’s ‘four Bs’ mantra (Behaaglijk- Comfortable; Betekenisvol – Meaningful; Beïnvloedbaar – Manageable; and Begrijpelijk – Comprehensible).
The most obvious example of this is the company’s successful tender to design a 47,000m2 building and office complex at a university in the Netherlands. Royal Haskoning responded to the brief to provide a campus for the 21st century student, by creating a setting of various atmospheres and learning spaces to enable students to work at any time and any place, using their preferred learning style.
These differences can also be created by natural indoor climate differentiation. People intuitively understand, and thus accept and value the north side to be a few degrees more chilly, than the sunny south side of a building, which naturally has a warmer climate. “The psychological input really made a difference to our tender, adding value to our already highly respected work,” says Gerarda.
Another successful tender is the design for the new National Children’s Oncology Centre (NK OC) in The Netherlands. Whilst it’s a well-known fact that the environmental aspects of health care buildings contribute to patient recovery and quality of life, one of the differentiating qualities of the tender was to use the building’s installations to add to the psychologically and physiologically supportive building design. For instance, transparent pipes installed in the interior of the building, designed to catch rainfall, can be incorporated as a playful element for positive distraction.
“By bringing the outside in, patients can avoid feeling isolated from the outside,” explains Gerarda. The NK OC plans flexible spaces to enable children and their parents to sleep in conjoined or adjacent rooms, close by, yet enabling privacy for both parent and child. The psychological gains will be achieved when these adjacent rooms are provided with the right technology for lighting, climate, and vision, when the rooms are both separate and joined.”
Reflecting on the past, Gerarda notes that much has changed in the way we design our buildings, with the stale air-conditioned buildings of the 1970s, giving way to more healthy systems and the creation of inspiring meeting places. However, in her view, there is still a long way to go.
“In the future, I’d like to see fewer ‘standardised’ office developments. The trick of creating well designed spaces is that even more money can be earned, because of higher employee productivity, less sick leave, and the ability to attract more staff!
“I’d also like to see the psychological aspects of building design become more integral to the design process, and have the opportunity to regularly check that the psychological features of the design are ‘on track’,” she adds.
At the same time, Gerarda is also involved in a more diverse range of projects such as Royal Haskoning’s wind park development in the North Sea. Through research on the psychological impact of such environments, Royal Haskoning has been able to make recommendations about the number, position and size of wind turbines, to minimise impact on local residents.
Environmental Psychology, it seems, is not just about buildings. Quite simply, it has the potential to enhance society and transform the space around us.