Jonathan Daly, director at Studio Huss, is an urbanist and environmental psychologist.

He is a founding director of Studio Huss and also the principal of the Change Collective, an agency that designs, delivers and evaluates behaviour change interventions for environmental sustainability, health promotion and crime prevention.

Architecture and Design spoke to Daly about environmental psychology, his work involving a study looking at crime behaviour in Brunswick, and why he admires Danish architects.

You call yourself an environmental psychologist. What does that mean to you?

An environmental psychologist studies the relationship between people and built and natural environments. It is a very interdisciplinary field that brings together behavioural science with architecture, engineering, planning and design. In this respect, it is a very open-minded discipline.

Environmental psychologists understand that human behaviour is the outcome of a relationship between people and the systems/contexts in which they live, work and socialize. Our role is to understand the interplay between people and environment across different contexts. We use this evidence-based understanding to better inform design decisions. Being an environmental psychologist means being interested until an opinion is formed, as opposed to assuming an immediate position.

How many designers do you think would identify with the term environmental psychologist?

That probably depends on their age. Environmental psychology was prominent from around the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s, having been popularized by people like William H Whyte, Robert Sommer and Erving Goffman. This was a period when the effects of modernism were really being felt in many cities around the world.

I believe the popularity of environmental psychology during this period had a lot to do with its practical application in architecture and urban design. For example, Jan Gehl credits his wife, who was an environmental psychologist, for orientating his career towards people when he was completing university in the 1970s.

Although the practical application of environmental psychology continues, it has fallen away for various reasons, including how we train architects, engineers and designers, but also because environmental psychologists have been too content to stay in academia and just do research. If you don’t make the research practical, then it cannot be applied. Studio Huss was set up to bridge this gap. 

Can you tell A&D about the Studio Huss and how it came about?

The practice was formed out of our frustration at the high degree of assumption about human behaviour applied in architecture and urban design. We wanted design to be more evidence-based by taking advantage of around six decades’ worth of environment-behaviour studies. To do this we realised someone had to bridge the divide by translating the research. We needed to create a practice that could work collaboratively with built environment professionals.

We do not make the design decisions; we simply give designers better information to base their decisions on. For example, one of the methods we have developed is called a ‘Design Psychology Assessment’, which we use to test the likelihood that a proposed scheme will function as intended by clarifying and testing weak assumptions.

We are constantly striving to develop new methods and tools to make the research more applied and accessible. We undertake our own research to inform our practice, working in collaboration with other private practices and universities around the world.

What has been your greatest achievement with the company to-date?

We formed about two years ago so its still early days. However, a few things stick out. We were involved in a study looking at crime behaviour in Brunswick related to the tragic murder of Jill Meagher. One of the outcomes of this process was the creation of a new public space on Wilson Avenue, which our Design Psychology Assessment was applied to.

Another small but significant success we’ve had was when a designer who was involved in a Design Psychology Assessment described the process as being therapeutic, because he could openly admit that he had no idea if certain aspects would work or not.

In 10 years, what do you hope to have achieved with the Studio Huss?

We’re not a charity or a foundation but are on a mission to make behavioural science an integral part of the design of the built environment. If we are to design urban environments that are able to fully support the level of density and diversity that the cities are experiencing, then we need to see psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists (among others) more involved in architecture and urban design. We want to help this process happen by making the science more practical, accessible and commercially viable.

The relationship between behaviour and the environment is very important to you. Can you tell A&D when you reacted quite strongly to an environment that you were in?

Most reactions we have to an environment are very nuanced and take place at a subconscious level. Strong reactions are more likely to occur at one of two levels.

Imagine our relationship with the environment on one level as surviving – our basic needs of safety and comfort, and on another level as living – our reason for more than surviving, often found in beauty and awe. We will react strongly if we feel unsafe or if we are overawed by scale or beauty.

However, there is another level that is critically important, which is the congruence (of lack thereof) between an environment and our psychology and physiology. Imagine you enter a new building for the first time and get the lift to the top floor to attend an event. In the lift on the way back down after your event you are presented with the options 1-9 to select a floor.

If you are leaving you are most likely looking for the ground floor, which almost everyone will assume is level 1. Imagine after selecting level 1 you find yourself 3 levels below ground. That’s a poor level of congruence with people’s mental model of lifts in buildings. Maybe you can guess which building I am referring to?  

Which person do you most admire in the industry?

I really admire a number of Danish architects at the moment because they tend to have a well-established social emphasis in their work they are very open-minded in their approach. Among the many young practices in Denmark I am most interested in 3XN’s research offshoot GXN, who are exploring, among other areas, architectural psychology.

I am also interested in the practice of NORD who have been experimenting with different types of research and collaborations. The American architectural practice Payette has also been exploring the role of psychological research in architectural practice.