Emotional Architecture – Designing Resonant High-Density Homes

Words by Kate Donaldson
Photography by Timothy Kaye
Featured Firms by Woods Bagot
Featured Firms by Cera Stribley Architects
Featured Firms by DesignOffice

More than ever before, people are seeking to understand the emotional influence of the spaces built around them. For many, it was periods of lockdown and confinement during the pandemic that magnified the need to investigate the affective power of our homes. But within some communities the narrative was already shifting, particularly in the context of multi-residential design. Substandard, unempathetic multi-dwelling developments are falling short of rightfully elevated resident expectations, with architects and developers gradually acknowledging the emotional capacity of design to propel the sector into a new era.

An emotional response is difficult to quantify, as it is a personal and sometimes even subconscious experience. So, how do we know that design really can influence our mood? The answer lies in breaking down the all-embracing term of ‘architecture’ into its digestible features, such as access to light, integration of colour, relationships with nature and connection to others. In doing so, a whole world of ancient and emerging research reveals itself, whether from within the built environment or from fields such as psychology and anthropology.

For Edition in Toorak, Cera Stribley combined these methods to transcend expectations of apartment living and confer feelings of reprieve that might usually be associated with stand-alone living.

Woods Bagot utilise tiered biophilic terraces dripping with plants to confer a restoring connection with nature.

The positive cognitive effects of biophilia – or connecting with nature – was hypothesised in 1993 by Stephen R Kellert and Edward O Wilson, who published that humanity has a primal need to connect with ‘life’ in all its forms. The psychological influences of colour, light and ventilation are also well documented and discussed, even as far back as Ancient Greece, when Hippocrates recognised the therapeutic impact of colour in medicine. Today, groups such as the Royal Institute of British Architects are also directly investigating strategies to influence mental wellbeing through practicable design avenues, for example by translating the need for social connection into communal spatial outcomes in a multi-residential setting. While rigorous scientific exploration must be ongoing, many aspects of design are increasingly recognised as inherently regulating mood and emotion.

As this theory continues to gain momentum, some leading Australian architecture practices are already encompassing related approaches into their multi-residential projects. Co-Founder and Managing Principal of Cera Stribley Architects Domenic Cerantonio says that “abundant natural light, cross-ventilation and biophilic design considerations” are all key to elevating the mood of a space. With regards to the team’s recently completed Rondure House, Cera Stribley refused to conform to traditional rules of apartment design – “no apartment should rely on a single aspect for light and ventilation,” Domenic asserts. Instead they focus on creating enduring emotional attachments in residents by articulating each project’s environmental, social and historical contexts, manifesting a pride of place that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Domenic also emphasises that physical and tactile experiences can be just as important in influencing emotion. “Our philosophy promotes material palettes that are inherently authentic, textural, vibrant and enduring.”

These firms are just a few who are achieving sophisticated results for higher density living by engaging with ideas of emotional architecture, at a moment when soaring house prices are forcing many to reconsider ‘the Australian Dream’ of detached living.

DesignOffice gives back more design control to the resident to enhance feelings of ownership and satisfaction in a multi-residential setting.

At Woods Bagot, it is also a core ambition to design residential developments that offer a suite of emotional experiences, according to Director Domenic Alvaro. “Our approach is about total integration, ensuring social destination spaces and a strong sense of urban context; every location provides its own inspiration, from the quality of light, air, courtyards and entries.” For Woods Bagot, inspiring this sense of authentic connection to place and each other can only be achieved by understanding the fine grain of individual feelings that residents experience through a designed space, indicating a cycle of productive empathy captured through the architectural process. The team’s Short Lane multi-residential project in Surry Hills demonstrates the power of such thinking, with tiered biophilic terraces dripping with plants to confer a restoring connection with nature, while also integrating earthen materials such as oak floors internally to extend the urban retreat within.

DesignOffice’s Joint Creative Director, Mark Simpson, believes that the emotional impact of architecture begins before even entering the building, “The arrival process from the street to the front door should help residents decompress and relax; articulating the transition from shared space to personal space.” For Mark, a building must not just be efficient and logical, but also “feel like home, be emotionally resonant and personable.” This can be established by understanding the animating effects of lighting throughout the day or by introducing sightlines and elements such as window seating which expand interior spaces to foster “an inclusive and emotionally connected relationship between residential, street and hospitality tenants.” At Bedford in Collingwood, created with developer Milieu, DesignOffice coordinates these details while also creating an ‘ABC’ system offering kitchen and bathroom layouts, giving back more design control to the resident and enhancing feelings of ownership and satisfaction in a multi-residential setting.