Software aims to change building design to encourage social interaction


Architects, engineers and psychologists are working on ways to modify the design of buildings to better facilitate “sociability”.

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Real estate marketing, with its glossy brochures, is usually synonymous with luxury, status and exclusivity.


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Yet after a certain level of comfort, those things have little to do with personal happiness, says Bruce Haden, director of Vancouver design firm Human Studio. Personal relationships, he says, matter more.

“We know being socially connected is good for people.”

Haden says it’s not hard to see that having spaces where people can interact is a good thing. But without a way to measure the potential for social connections, it can be difficult to justify additional construction costs.

Haden is working with engineers and psychologists on software that helps tweak designs to see which ones best facilitate “sociability.”

“I’m not a person who believes the whole world should be driven by data,” he said. “But these days sometimes you need that (information) to be a game changer.”


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Haden started with seed funding from BC Housing and later got more money from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funds public health efforts.

The software, which will be widely available on GitHub, uses video game technology.

“You fill (a design) with digital agents, which are avatars for the residents of a building, let them run around, and at the most basic level you can see how often, over the course of a day, go you just want to have eye contact with your neighbor,” Haden said.

The software records the number of times residents can see each other and are within a certain distance of each other, or the number of times residents have the potential to greet each other, adding various factors such as proximity and caution.


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“When you live in these tall towers or a stacked tower, sometimes you only know one person. You’re basically isolated from your elevator and your unit and maybe an amenity space if they have any. have,” said Zack Ross, chief operating officer at Cape Group, a Vancouver developer.

Cape put his first designs for The Maxwell, an apartment building he’s developing near Commercial Drive in East Vancouver, through a 30-day simulation with the software to see how the various options fared.

“It’s really about today’s world. With mental health, isolation, and depression, how can we make people’s lives a little bit better every day through social interaction,” Ross said.

Haden said architecture cannot provide a solution “if you hate your neighbor”, but if you “never see him, you never have that neighbor at all”.


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The project also benefits from the contribution of Elizabeth Dunn of the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, who is co-author of “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending”.

Haden says he learned from Dunn that while there can be many contributors to personal happiness, such as different backgrounds, identifying helpful solutions in a building is one way to start.

“We don’t know if, for example, the design of a building is as consequential as having the grandmother by the entrance unit inviting each new resident to tea.”

He’s motivated to dig into it, in part because “Vancouver has a bit of a reputation for being a socially isolated city, but I don’t think it’s a particularly friendly city.”

He worked with Dunn’s research students to see how physical distancing and social reluctance affect interactions in a cafe. They also conducted tests in student residences at UBC where they can validate or challenge the statistics presented by their simulations with personal interviews.

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