Last month, The Building Society was host to an interactive workshop exploring the ways in which empathy can be used as a tool to improve building design. Run by architect Asia Grzybowska, founder of Mycelium Studio, members were able to experience first hand the various stages of ageing and the challenges that come with it.Wearing special-designed suits that simulate the ageing process, ranging from impaired hearing, deteriorated sharp sight, reduction of body strength to decrease elbow movability and loss of strength in the arms, participants were asked to perform simple tasks like walking, climbing stairs or reading labels. Many of the things that are quite often taken for granted in the design process.
So to what extent can empathy make a real difference to the spaces in which we live, work and play?

Designing for our future demographic?

Understanding the size and characteristics of the UK population is essential when it comes to planning and delivering services as education, transport and healthcare. As the UK’s population continues to grow, experts estimate that one in four people will be aged over 65 by 2037. (ONS, 2018)

Now, more than ever we recognise that our built environment needs to adapt to the changing needs of different stages of life and our ever-changing human requirements. Aligning current housing models, construction standards, design codes and certification schemes to these needs is paramount to shaping future designs.

A case for experiential learning

Nothing beats first-hand experience, albeit a simulation, at a health condition, to relate to the real needs of an increasingly large sector of the population. Experiential learning can help designers, architects, building contractors, urban planners and many more to truly understand how people live with their disabilities. Asking questions to understand the needs and requirements of the ageing population is simply not enough anymore.

Current standards are too prescriptive

The new buildings and places where we live, work and play will have a direct impact on every aspect of our health. When we think of creating spaces that could make a real difference to our emotional states and our relationships to the physical world, we must do away with the standard procedural-based metrics and compliance considerations and start with a blank sheet.

Changes in visual perception, sensory/motor perception and control, strength and movement control require a re-examination of the ergonomic standards in relation to an increasingly ageing population.

With a need for the built environment to influence the health and happiness on those that use it is clear that a more empathetic approach and greater understanding of the challenges that they face is imperative to good design and the experience was eye opening for all concerned.