Human-centred design 101: here’s what it means for architectural design

Posted on: 8 April, 2024

Applying human-centric design principles to our buildings and structures can have a wide range of benefits for both their occupants and the environment.

Society and the built environment are intrinsically linked. Infrastructure can have a direct impact on both the mental and physical well-being of individuals, as well as having an effect on environmental health.

From air quality and noise pollution to the functional layout of the land, transport and accessibility, the everyday lives of people are closely associated with the built environment they live in.

Because of this, more needs to be done to create residential, industrial and commercial structures that support both individuals and the planet, and this requires a human-centred approach.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at what human-centred design (HCD) means for architectural design and the future of the built environment.

What is human-centred design (HCD)?

Human-centred design (HCD) is a solution-based framework that puts real people at the centre of the design and development process and considers the human perspective at every stage.

The idea for HCD is often traced back to a Stanford University design study in 1958, when Professor John E. Arnold first suggested that engineering design should be human-centred.

There are four key principles involved in this type of design and putting the needs and experiences of the people at the forefront of the process.

The 4 principles of HCD

1. Empathy

Human-centred design begins with empathy for the subject or users. It’s important to gain deeper insights into the experiences, needs, emotions and aspirations of the target audience or individuals. This can be gained through statistics, interviews, research and observation.

2. Collaboration

HCD also involves collaboration. between designers, stakeholders, engineers, construction teams, users and any other relevant parties. This team effort brings together different perspectives and expertise to ensure innovative and inclusive solutions that result in the best products being created.

3. Iteration

HCD must be an iterative process  to encourage continuous learning and improvement. This involves prototyping, testing, gathering feedback and iterating on designs and refining them until they meet the user’s needs. Producing a much more effective and impactful outcome.

4. User involvement/experience

Finally, this is the guiding principle of HCD. From the research phase, through iteration and gathering feedback, end-u must be involved throughout the design process. This helps designers to better serve the people they’re creating these products or solutions for.

How does HCD work in architecture?

When it comes to human-centred design in architecture, this isn’t just a trend – this approach is the key to optimising relationships between people and buildings. Through applying these principles, designers can map out structures and built environments that are practical, ecological and serve society.

There are some key characteristics of human-centric architectural design that make it easier to recognise from afar.

The 7 key characteristics of HCAD

1. The health and wellbeing of inhabitants

First and foremost, the physical and mental well-being of residents must be prioritised. This is done through architectural features like ample natural lighting, good air quality and building comfortable, functional spaces that improve the quality of their daily lives.

2. Universal design and accessibility

It’s also important to ensure that these spaces are designed to be accessible for all people within the community. This promotes inclusion without barriers and means that there’s no need for adaptation or special design due to factors like age, ability or circumstance.

3. Closeness to nature

Connection with nature is important and incorporating green elements into these designs is key. It’s vital for the inhabitants as it impacts their health, and is also crucial for creating eco-friendly spaces within the built environment.

For example, by including elements like water features, green space and other biophilic design principles, you can enhance the user experience for all.

Learn more: What is biophilic architecture? 15 real-world examples in the built environment

4. Sustainability and eco-friendly designs

Energy-positive and carbon-neutral designs tend to be favoured characteristics of the HCD process. That, and the use of more eco-friendly materials and green initiatives, as these impact the wellbeing of both people and the planet.

5. Social interaction and inclusion

Building spaces that encourage social interaction can help to foster a sense of community. This, in turn, helps to promote the well-being of those in the local area. These spaces should meet the needs of a diverse range of people, becoming yet another inclusive part of these environments.

Learn more: What is urban greening (and how is it creating the cities of the future)?

6. Culture and identity

HCAD also acknowledges the importance of local culture and identity. These spaces must reflect and respect the unique identities, beliefs and traditions of those who will live there.

7. Technological integration

Lastly, incorporating new technologies, such as smart sensor systems, can enhance the comfort, convenience and energy efficiency of new designs. These tools can also be adapted to meet the changing needs of the residents in real-time.

Learn more: Smart buildings, explained – here’s what they mean for the built environment

Why human-centric architectural design matters

In a world that’s becoming increasingly automated and reliant on technology, human-centric design is more important than ever. It helps to create a world where humans can thrive in a comfortable environment, particularly a sustainable one that looks out for the planet.

By putting humans at the centre of the process, human-centric architecture can also increase positive interactions between humans and the built environment, creating a number of key benefits:

  • Engaging humans in the design process increases the chances of creating spaces they will enjoy long into the future
  • Encouragies more innovative and creative infrastructures and buildings
  • Promotes a more connected community, centred around key facilities and developments like parks, swimming pools and community centres
  • Incorporate more of a focus on sustainability, making this better for both social and environmental outcomes
  • Boosting the well-being of residents in these areas

Learn more: Making a business case for sustainability: why now is the time to act

Finally, an increase in productivity can lead to a higher GDP. In fact, a recent study found that creating the right living and working environment through HCD can have a positive impact on productivity and contribute up to £20 billion to UK GDP.

4 examples of human-centric architectural design

To help give some more context to human-centric architectural design and the role this plays in the built environment, here are some examples from around the globe, where HCAD has already been put to good use.

1. The Lantern, assisted living in Ohio

The Lantern is an assisted living community in Ohio designed to serve senior citizens suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. The architects designed the neighbourhood to reflect that of the 1930s and ‘40s because that was when many of the residents grew up. The community is complete with porches, rocking chairs and grass-like carpets.

2. Villa Verde, incremental housing in Chile

Villa Verde is a participatory design of incremental housing in Chile. It was designed as an incremental housing model for middle-class families. As these families can’t afford a finished house, these were designed to come with all the basic amenities and they can buy and build the remaining parts as and when they can afford them.

These properties are not just more affordable, but they also offer a unique twist and a one-of-a-kind home to every family.

3. Kamanar Secondary School in Senegal

Kamanar Secondary School in Senegal is made up of a grid of classroom pods that have been organised around pre-existing tree canopies. This is to promote flora on the campus and to use the shade as a way of creating comfortable social spaces that serve the students and teachers.

4. Miasteczko Wilanow in Warsaw

Miasteczko Wilanow in Warsaw is a 450-hectare housing development that holds 10,000 people per square kilometre. However, despite the high density, this development still has its people and their well-being at its heart.

Natural features are weaved throughout, including green belts and water features. On top of this, everything the community needs is within walking distance to remove the need for too many cars or the reliance on public transport.

Final thoughts

By putting people at the centre of architectural design, the built environment can better serve residents long into the future. Adopting this methodology can take into account the needs of groups previously underrepresented in the built environment, from younger generations who want more of a voice to an ageing population with evolving needs. What’s more, these spaces can be made more sustainable and help foster connected communities.

Architectural technologists are the digital experts that bridge the gap between an aesthetic vision and a practical reality. If you want to be at the forefront of the built environment’s digital future, UCEM’s BSc (Hons) Architectural Design Technology will give you the technical expertise and literacy you need to become a valuable contributor to the sector.

Find out more: BSc (Hons) Architectural Design Technology – University College of Estate Management