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Choose honest materials that agree with the senses

July 7, 2015
by Matt Finn
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Guest Blog

Throughout our lives, interactions with the people and objects around us are logged as memories.  Depending on the emotional significance of those memories, something resonant of your past can revive sensations from another time and place. Likewise, memories also can define our expectations for the future. 

As a designer these concepts—expectation and experience—are important to consider when trying to understand how a user will perceive and react to a space.  As an example, let’s explore how these concepts apply to the selection of flooring, which is an important part of every space we design.

In many parts of the southeastern United States, where I live and work, hardwood flooring is common.  We interact with it using at least three of our senses: sight, sound and touch. (I usually can’t “smell” and personally have never “tasted” a floor, but I don’t want to rule anything out just yet!)

Our first interaction with a space is usually visual, seeing the surface before we’re able to feel or hear it underfoot.  That visual interaction ties into the memories of our experiences with hardwood floors and evokes an expectation of the sound of the floor giving beneath our weight as we walk on it and the natural feel of the wood.

But in some spaces, for practical reasons, wood flooring isn’t suitable.  With good intention, we might consider using a product that looks like wood, but is actually something altogether different, such as wood-look ceramic tile.  When we interact with a product like this, what you feel and hear don’t align with what you see.  Information from your different senses doesn't match your expectation that they will, which is a conflict that must be resolved in your mind.

Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be much of a problem and the benefit of the desirable aesthetic might outweigh any distraction.  The surprise to some of our senses may even be a desirable outcome in some circumstances.  But when we’re looking at spaces used by people in a compromised mental state, this becomes a different equation. 

Considerations for PTSD

One of my areas of focus is how design can facilitate therapy for combat veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  An individual’s life experience determines how they perceive and therefore react to their surroundings. 

The built environment shouldn’t attempt to change these reactions; it’s simply not possible to treat PTSD with a building. The role of a therapeutic environment is to facilitate, in concert with the psychologist, an expedient and comprehensive recovery.

Many veterans have learned to understand, from their time in combat, a misalignment of sensory information as a signal of danger.  This can create an anxiety reaction that triggers PTSD symptoms, even in a predictably safe situation.  When we’re designing to facilitate therapy, it’s important to avoid materials that have a higher potential to be distracting, which could slow the therapeutic healing process. 

A space comprised of honest materials helps by avoiding unnecessary and unproductive anxiety, leaving more focus and attention for the healing process.  Confronting one’s traumatic memories isn’t without anxiety, so by avoiding materials that create conflicts in the mind, we can help limit anxiety to that associated with the problematic psychological condition, that which is productive and part of the healing process.   

Matt Finn, an architect with Perkins+Will, studies the impact of the built environment on those suffering from PTSD.  His work has been published in numerous trade journals and was recently presented to the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture and the American Institute of Architects.
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