Volume 79 | Issue 6
November 2011

Socially Ergonomic Environmental Design: Efficiency vs. effectiveness in union facilities

Gwen Drury

Given the hundreds of college union facilities today, one finds great variety in their physical attributes, services, and programs. In attempting to compare these buildings, doesn’t it feel like some places are just better “people-magnets” than others? Doesn’t it seem that the staff just has to work harder to achieve the desired results in some spaces than in others? We know that historically many college unions did not even have facilities at first; it was the program alone that facilitated the community building. Still, we know that facilities can make a difference.

William H. Whyte said: “Given a fine location, it is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.”

ACUI colleagues discuss visually stunning new facilities, designed by internationally acclaimed architects, which somehow “will not attract people.” We hear stories of both deeply traditional designs and modern high-tech motifs that may attract people to pass through them, but not to hang out in them. People may come in to grab a coffee or a sandwich, but they do not choose to spend time and interact with anyone else; they keep moving.

To fix these situations, we have to discuss them. But how? What language really expresses the je ne sais quoi that is missing? The language we use to describe the building, the organizational goals, and even the solutions are all problematic. We need a new lens and new language for examining how spaces help us build campus community.

Language describing the building

Suppose an architect has delivered a beautiful college union that includes all of the items and spatial types listed in the client’s program, comes in under budget and on time, within the footprint designated, with utilities that function using less energy, elevators that work flawlessly, kitchens that can deliver a perfect panini, and “smart” conference rooms that include the latest communications technology, all within the efficiency ratio that was set at the start of the project. The building is technically perfect, but no one seems to linger or gather in the building; it does not feel like the hub of the campus community. If everything is perfect, how do we describe what is wrong with this picture?

Language that clarifies our own aims is a good start. The list above of competently delivered results is actually a list of tools that are subparts of the goal—they are the means to an end. A perfect panini is the basis for a lunch that helps attract people to a facility to meet and talk. The end goal was not to deliver the panini. The panini is primarily a lure to bring people to the facility. For all these tools, the actual end goal is for the people on our campuses to build innumerable interpersonal connections that accrue into an overall sense of community. Do we clearly see these priorities? Can we clearly describe them to our architect colleagues? Are our intentions clear?

Typically, campus professionals are intentional in determining which tools could help build community. We survey students, engage a broad spectrum of constituents in planning meetings, and pore over programming documents with architects. But perhaps we are using unclear language. Maybe we talk about the visual image or the ambiance we want. We might discuss the perfect price points. We may feel that it is clear that we want these convenience services in our building because they represent one more thing that will draw people into the same space, thereby increasing the effectiveness of our community-building efforts. But in reality, maybe we put services in our building that seem to be more about convenience and efficiency than about community building. If we are not clear about why we have included these conveniences in our facilities, how can we expect our architect colleagues to be? Do we know what message we are sending to students about our intentions?

These conveniences truly can help us build community, but they will not advance our missions at all if we treat them only as efficiencies. Conveniences are in our buildings to contribute to the overall interaction dynamic. Once we clarify that the services we make available in our buildings advance our mission in the same way that our famous panini does, we can focus on the ways in which those services can intentionally contribute to the spaces where self-organizing relationship building is most likely to occur.

The 20th century is now

The 21st century is about new forms of interaction, even new forms of groups. Self-organizing groups were not welcome in the 20th century workplace but may become the norm in the 21st century. Lack of relationships will be problematic.

In the last century, the mindset was the exact opposite: The zeitgeist of the 20th century was all about efficiency—breaking each thing down into its smallest constituent parts, standardizing those, and putting everything back together in hierarchical order, so as to produce more, better, faster. The 20th century was about separating things, not uniting them. It was about standardizing, not customizing. It was about discrete objects. The spaces in between them? Not so much. Relationships? Problematic.

One assumption left over from the 20th century is that the spaces between things are best minimized or eliminated. Time and motion studies like those done by F. W. Taylor, father of “scientific management” in the early 20th century, advocated eliminating space between constituent parts of any job. Less space between actions means less time and motion expended, which translates into greater efficiency.

While Taylor often focused on the micro level of an individual worker’s time and motion expenditure, industrialists like Henry Ford focused on a more macro level. Most of us know the story of the first auto assembly lines. Before Ford invented those, cars used to be assembled in one spot, and teams of workers moved themselves and their tools to the location of each new car they worked on. Ford was famous not for inventing cars but for inventing a way to make their production more efficient by changing the assumptions of how to use space during production. In terms of space, both Taylor and Ford focused on the discrete points of production and tried to get rid of spaces in between.

Geographer Robert Sack points out that one of the architectural innovations that made assembly lines possible was the development of strong, narrow iron columns to create rooms not punctuated by massive masonry columns, and that this innovation would frame another new set of assumptions about space that would perfectly suit the times, as seen through a 20th century lens. With columns minimized, production efficiency could be increased. This development also increased efficiency for architecture. Once the architect did not have to expend space and materials for columns or 6-foot-thick walls to support the building, that amount of space and materials could be dedicated to delivering more usable space within the structure for the client.

The ratio between overall space and space the client can use has become known as the “efficiency ratio,” meaning the “net” amount of space that is usable on a discretionary basis—the sorts of items that a client specifies in the building program, like lounges, meeting rooms, or kitchens. For instance, the pipe chases and boiler rooms are counted in the “gross” space. They are not discretionary. Other spaces such as janitor’s closets, elevator shafts, stairwells, and hallways are often counted as gross space as well, rather than net or “assignable” space.

It has become part of the architect’s job to deliver as much net assignable space as possible. This makes sense, because who wants their building money to be tied up in 6-foot-thick walls or overbuilt stairwells that are not necessary? The less we spend on “waste space,” the more we get in terms of our building program. Don’t forget that what is listed in our building program are the defined spaces, the official points of production.

What’s not to like about efficiency?

Efficiency ratios are good things. However, they are embedded in a set of assumptions, and language can obscure those assumptions, making it difficult to explain what a building is missing.

Here’s an example: In a nonassembly-line building, like an office building, the points of production are assumed to be the assignable spaces that will contain the worker’s desk, chairs, files, etc. Another point of production would be a designated meeting room with a conference table, chairs, projector, and screen, as well as the copy room and mailroom. Each of those points of production gets listed on the building program. Each is considered a separate object to be designed. Adjacencies between these “objects” are considered and logically arranged to minimize time and motion wasted traveling back and forth.

Here are the assumptions embedded in the example: Work is only happening when an official task is being executed. Ideas are being communicated only in official meeting settings or through official electronic media. Production is occurring only in the places that are official points of production. Gatherings around a water-cooler or hallway conversations—people occupying waste space—are wasting company time.

In the 20th century, organizations wanted to optimize team spirit focused on accomplishing specified tasks and to minimize personal entanglements that would add friction to the workplace, causing a drag on production. Though everyone acknowledged that the way to effectively get things done in an organization was through networks of unofficial relationships, this was considered mildly subversive. Such subversion could be tolerated if it increased efficiency, of course. Then, it’s a “work-around.” These assumptions fit perfectly with a top-down, hierarchical organization. 

The problem arises in that the 21st century is emerging as the “Knowledge Era.” Organizations are flatter. Top-down hierarchies are no longer seen as the source of all decisions. Workers help to develop organizational plans to better achieve the organization’s goals. Flexibility of organizational structure and informal communication among workers is more and more important. Groups need to self-organize. Suddenly, the waste space and wasted time around the water cooler could instead become an important point of production for an organization. The Knowledge Era requires a new set of lenses for examining spaces. This new worldview also is going to put the kinds of skills that students gain through participation in their college union at the top of the skill set that the 21st century will require.

Design for community

If “efficiency” was the buzzword of the 20th century, then “collaboration” is the buzzword of the 21st. Architects have begun making workspaces flexible and more suited to self-organizing tasks. New developments in workstations ensure that individuals can move points of production around and reconfigure as needed. There is talk of creating spaces where people can “bump into each other” and have conversations. But the language and assumptions are still more about efficiently coordinating work and accelerating communications than about creating effectiveness through relationships. This work is a step in the right direction, but seems still to be rooted in the old paradigm.

The new paradigm is that relationships will be the drivers of production, especially of innovation. Toward the end of the 20th century, sociologists studying organizational theory began writing about the role of interpersonal relationships in organizations, coining the term “embeddedness” to describe the networks of informal relationships underlying any official organizational chart. They posited that this embeddedness could either augment the efforts made through the formal structure (the efficiency) of an organization or could slow down or even scuttle those efforts. In other words, structures deliver efficiency while relationships determine effectiveness.

We can see that the relationship-building skills that students gain through community-building activities on campus have never been more important than they are about to become. Yet the relationship-focused buildings on our campuses are often still designed using the lenses, language, and thought processes that developed the efficiency ratio.

Efficiency vs. effectiveness

What would it take for us to imagine an “effectiveness ratio” instead? While official effectiveness based on self-organizing interpersonal relationships is a new idea in many business organizations and institutions, it is actually part of the very foundations of the college union movement. On the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, President Charles Van Hise called for the creation of a union, commons, residence halls, and athletic fields in his inaugural address in 1904. He specifically noted that this system of social spaces might not seem like an efficient mode of education. However, he also noted that Oxford and Cambridge followed these models, and though they seemed inefficient—even “absurd” in the modern university of 1904—there was no doubt that the students’ educational experiences in these spaces were effective.

The effectiveness of opportunities for frequent, intense interaction and the development of friendships and relationships has been the most basic assumption behind college unions since the start. With nearly 100 years of practice, one would think that a building type would have been perfected to accomplish the goal of relationship and community building. And yet, some beautiful new spaces still do not attract people.

We may not have an “effectiveness ratio” yet, but we can shift to an effectiveness approach. Our new lenses help us take the first step: shifting our focus from the structure of the building itself to the spaces where the human interaction takes place. Once our focus has shifted, we can see that some aspects of the design are going to shift in terms of relative importance to our missions. Those parts of a building that have a specified function are what architects have down to a science. They are the official sites of production. But college unions are just as concerned with the spaces in between. Those often get more attention to aesthetics than function. After all, if a hallway’s function is defined as simply support for locomotion between other functions, what more can one add but beauty? But college union professionals know that people bond while waiting for elevators and gab in stairwells. They may talk while drying their hands in the restrooms. People will even stand and hold a conversation in the middle of a doorway, blocking other people from engaging in proper locomotion. People may attend a formal meeting in a dedicated space, but then engage in deeper communication with the same people on the same topics once they leave the meeting room and linger in the hallway. Since our mission is to build community, we need to optimize the spaces where self-organizing occurs in between official points of production.

In most college unions, community-building activities fall into one of roughly three domains:

  • Programs planned in-house by students or staff
  • Programs planned by outside groups, held in the college union
  • Spontaneous use of space in the college union for hanging out, for casual meet-ups, and for unscripted recreation

We need to optimize the spaces that are not specifically programmed. Users’ self-organizing decisions about how to use those spaces need to be front and center, since those are some of our facilities’ most important functions. Who on our projects advocates for those spaces? And what language and concepts can they use? How might a 21st century lens help us see differently and develop the tools we need?

A promising new lens

One element of a new lens has already been forming. In the past few decades, a small but dedicated field has arisen in academia, often called “environment-behavior studies” or “environmental psychology,” which focuses on the users of an environment and how the form of the environment influences human behavior. When the field first started in the late 1960s, there was some belief in “environmental determinism,” meaning a causal link between how an environment was constructed and how people would behave. When the causal link was found not to be so clear, many lost interest in the field. Through a 20th century lens, specific cause and direct effect were the gold standard of validation in most fields. Just like the rest of us, many architects, architecture training programs, and environmental psychology programs framed problems with this cause-and-effect lens. Thus, the field of environmental psychology never became a truly mainstream approach, and few architectural firms employ environmental psychologists. There was not a demand for their services based on the efficiency paradigm of the 20th century.

But now, planners need to know more about how people will decide to use spaces, especially all of that space formerly thought of as waste, since the 21st century will be more focused on self-organized interaction and relationship building. Now that real physical spaces have to compete with electronic, virtual spaces, environmental psychology and other user-focused disciplines will become more important to both.

What is needed is a way for designers, project managers, clients, and users to decide on a common set of concepts and some shared language that can be used to advocate for optimization of “un-owned” space for self-organized socializing. We need to let go of environmental determinism in favor of “environmental probable-ism.” No one wants to mandate socializing, but within any design constraints, we can optimize the things that will make self-organized socializing behavior more psychologically comfortable and a more likely choice.

New language

A place-making planning framework can be used to optimize spaces for interaction. This framework brings together concepts from environmental psychology, biology, geography, sociology, human factors engineering, web page design, and other fields. Called SEED, for Socially Ergonomic Environmental Design, the concepts involve supporting people’s natural behavior tendencies in relation to things in their environment.

For example, one SEED concept from environmental psychology is “fascination.” This term, coined by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, refers to one of the elements that they identify in restorative environments. The Kaplans’ research suggests that humans can improve their feelings of mental clarity and satisfaction by engaging in activities that fascinate them. They differentiate between hard and soft fascination. Hard fascination describes “directing” one’s attention to pursue and understand a complex idea or process. Soft fascination involves “undirected” attention, such as watching patterns of dappled light dancing on the forest floor, sailboats gliding in the distance, or the ripples of water cascading down a “water wall.” Fascination is included in the SEED framework since it can both attract people to a space and help put them in a relaxed mood, which makes them more available for interaction.

The concept of “biophilia” comes from E. O. Wilson, a biologist at Harvard. He suggests that our evolution has essentially wired us to seek the presence of other living things or living systems. Biophilia explains why your cat wants to sleep in the same room with you, and why so many people who “work at home” actually take their laptops to a coffee shop to work. A landscape that includes plants will invite us to linger more than the same space covered in asphalt.

The concept of the “shill effect” is an old one. At a carnival, a “shill” is a person who stands at a booth and plays the games so that others will approach and become paying players. In an auction, a shill is a fake bidder. If no one is bidding on an item, a shill might cast the first bid. The presence of a shill serves to break the ice and make it easier for the next person to participate. William H. Whyte used the term to describe the effect exerted when passersby see people eating in a space. Whereas the actual food attracts the first people to the space, the presence of people eating seems to have a multiplier effect and attracts even more people to the space. We can use this principle in designing spaces by ensuring that we are not just efficiently dispensing food, but are designing our food spaces so that passersby can see others and easily approach and linger themselves. People are apparently the best attractor of other people.

The term “sticky space” comes from the world of web design. A sticky space is a place in which people tend to linger because it includes many different things that a given visitor can do or access and that appeal to that particular visitor or demographic.
The idea of “layering of uses” comes loosely from writer Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Whereas “sticky space” refers to spaces with multiple items appealing to a single person or demographic, the term “layering of uses” refers to the idea of putting a variety of things in a space that can attract different people to the same space. Kiddie swings and barbecue grills are not going to be used by the same individuals in a park, but if you put them nearby each other, there is something for people in each demographic to do. The constellation of people who can be engaged in an activity in close proximity to each other is expanded.

“Temporal uses” refers to Jacobs’ recommendation that planners ensure that times of usage are considered in the design process. If we zone and build an all-office district, then we are left with a ghost town after business hours. Such vacant spaces can feel menacing to those few people who find themselves there. She suggests that a given space should have uses that supersede each other at different times of day and night. If we have a food service unit in the union that closes long before the building does, we can create a design that will ensure that the space does not look empty, sapping the feeling of energy from the social environment. 

Through these few examples, one can tell that the SEED framework does not prescribe how to create “behavior settings.” A lounge is a particular behavior setting, but we have all seen lounges to which people are drawn and others that people seem to avoid. The concepts in the SEED framework would describe aspects of people’s experience of the lounge that could make it more likely to attract people. Even the spaces in between can be made more robust for social interaction by bringing SEED concepts into their mix.

The debut of an experimental approach

SEED was applied with two projects at the University of Wisconsin–Madison: the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (a science building) and the new Union South. Each project used the framework in a slightly different way, since it was—and is—still evolving.
The planning team for the science building began with a basic overview of the wide variety of concepts that one can include in a SEED framework. The group members worked together to decide which concepts were relevant to this project, then put them into the SEED framework to track progress on their design intent for interaction space, much like the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) framework encourages and tracks optimization of “green” building practices.

The science building architects, while initially skeptical, were open to experimenting with the concepts, choosing those they felt best met that project’s needs and pointing out that some concepts served better as categories for organizing than others. Having this shared language allowed the group to clearly state and track the design intent for interaction space and to think in terms of optimizing each design opportunity by incorporating multiple concepts, all aimed at increasing the likelihood that users would choose to engage with one another. Once the architects saw how they could use this particular design lens, they decided it could be helpful—particularly in the spaces on the ground floor that are open to the public.

SEED was already part of the discussion for the new Union South project when the time came to hire the architecture team. The Wisconsin Union was in favor of giving SEED a try, but the crucial agreement came from the architects. They were open to trying a new approach to making spaces even more social, especially since they specialized in building civic spaces and student unions.

One of the best things about the SEED approach is that it is tailored to each individual project. A group defines planning principles then chooses the SEED concepts that will support the desired outcomes. With these concepts loaded into the framework, everyone looks for opportunities to use them as the design evolves. The group keeps an informal running score to track its progress and maintain its focus.
The document keeps the team focused on human-centered design without being prescriptive. A guiding assumption is that the more of these concepts applied in a given space, the more likely the space is to be a people-magnet. This approach lends itself to large group participation since more minds generate more ideas. Given that the group has a touchstone for validating suggestions, lots of input does not become overwhelming.

Though neither of the buildings that incorporated the SEED framework have had a post-occupancy evaluation, using the SEED scorecard from the planning process should make it easier to remember and evaluate specific design decisions. Even buildings that are open and occupied can use the framework to modify designs and track what makes a difference and what does not.

It is possible to use SEED for a remodeling project or even to rearrange existing space and furniture. Within any given project constraints, there are many design decisions that could be made. Of any two design decisions, one is going to be more socially successful than the other. We can optimize any space for self-organized interaction by always opting for the more socially appealing design choice. But first, we need to view and frame the design problem through a 21st century lens.


Though college unions have always been about relationship building, this building type has been shaped by the efficiency zeitgeist of the 20th century. A union needs to be a people-magnet to fulfill its purpose, and a union’s social program goes a long way toward bringing people together. A building can either help the process or hinder it.

The 21st century is challenging the assumptions about and organization of work and relationships that will make new demands on our built spaces. We are becoming more conscious of our physical facilities as tools for people to use to build relationships.

Additionally, 21st century technology has created a new competition for buildings. Online relationship-building tools will be increasingly easy and satisfying to use. Those who value face-to-face interaction in physical spaces can no longer assume that any space is good enough to do the job.

Another 21st century phenomenon is a rising expectation that users are now co-creators in most domains. Building users will increasingly expect—even demand—to participate in building design processes. We need a way to bring our users together with a unified focus. 

Now is the time to begin creating a new lens and new language for exploring these emerging spatial issues. The SEED framework—an evolving experiment—is one attempt to approach the design of social spaces in a truly human-centered way. If our union buildings are tools for building relationships across our campuses, don’t we want them to be socially ergonomic?