the dangers of innovative building design

Recent years have seen a trend to innovative architecture styles demonstrated in many public works projects. Many of these buildings seem to be guided more by the developer’s desire to experiment with new building forms than by the functional uses of the buildings. (establish widespread occurrence of the problem)  The designers and builders seem to be asking whether the buildings are fun or interesting to look at. Do they demonstrate some innovative style? Will the architect be memorialized for bringing his/her interesting visions to the community?  In these cases there seems to be decreased concern about whether the building is functionally efficient Is the building creating a pleasant environment for the occupants?  Is it appropriate for the local climate?  Is it easy to navigate? Is it accessible to the community it is designed to serve?  Most individuals would conclude that function is more important than form, especially in public building design (outline the basic sociocultural rule being violated) (point to unspecified building developers as villains)

 Bad building design can have a disastrous effect on the community it is designed to serve. Interestingly, the negative effects may not always be obvious to the casual observer. (create a sense of worry and unintended negative consequences). One example of ill-conceived building design and its consequences is illustrated on the campus of Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (Typifying story) The campus consists of three office and classroom buildings located in the hills on the outskirts of Pittsfield. The effects of bad building design were discovered almost accidentally as school counselors investigated ways in which to ease student stress on campus. 

 Faculty and staff at Berkshire Community College (BCC) have long sought to identify and eliminate the factors that cause student stress as they make the transition from High school to college. Changing social groups, more demanding coursework and moving away from home have long been accepted as factors but after listening to a number of student focus groups recently held at the college several counselors feel they have identified a previously unacknowledged factor that could be contributing to increased stress among students at BCC. A number of students in the focus groups reported a sense of increased anxiety as they approach the campus each day for classes. There is a vague sense of directional confusion and a notion that they are becoming lost while moving from building to building and even navigating the roads on campus.  Psychologists studying the students’ anxieties are now calling the condition Spatial Dysphoria Syndrome (SDS). 

Their research has determined the cause of the syndrome, SDS, to be continued exposure to an environment that challenges one’s sense of logical building configuration and direction. Students, especially those new to campus, often report an inability to navigate from one building to the next without inexplicably loosing their sense of direction.  This sense of hopeless wandering through the campus often causes students to loose track of time and some even miss parts of their critical first class periods. The students themselves seemed to be unaware of this until they began to honestly share their feelings in the focus groups. Several of the students interviewed were initially reluctant to admit that they had indeed become lost on such a relatively small campus, feeling that it reflected badly on their ability to cope with their environment. Mary P., a first year honor student at the school, noted “I’ve lived in Berkshire County all my life. I often drive through Park Square in Pittsfield and navigate through the challenging Wal-Mart parking lot to shop….. But this campus presented some very different challenges for me.”(typifying story).   As they opened up about the issue the students began to wonder if the stress of feeling lost had even affected their grades. One study compared a group of students’ high school grades to their first semester grades at BCC. The statistics indicate that a number students with a high school GPA of 4.0 had seen their averages plummet to 3.8 at BCC, further adding to the stress these young people are subjected to in college.(use objective facts- statistics to support a claim).  Other students experienced similar poor performance in their classes which could negatively affect their opportunities as they seek to transfer to 4 year colleges and pursue careers.   (establish the consequences and generate sympathy for innocent student victims). 

 Dr. Margaret Smith a respected Psychologist at UMass Amherst and one of her students recently published their research on the subject in the New England Journal of Student Psychology. (gain credibility by quoting experts) They traced the SDS symptoms to the unusual configuration of the campus buildings, noting particularly that the two classroom facilities each have four levels.   The 100 series classrooms and offices are located on both the first and second levels of the building while the 200 series rooms can be found on both the third and fourth level of these same buildings. Entrances and exits to the buildings can be difficult to locate as well. Many classrooms are only accessible through their own dedicated entrances forcing students to exit and reenter a building in order to reach an office on another floor in that same structure. In related research, it was found that mice exposed to changing cage configurations performed worse in learning new tasks than a control group that had stable cage configurations. Dr. Smith acknowledges that continued exposure to confusing building configurations may have enduring negative psychological effects. “Susceptible students could even experience PTSD like symptoms. This could explain some student’s anxiety and inability to concentrate in class, as well as physical symptoms such as increased heart rates and blood pressure that occur as these students travel to campus for classes. 

Dr. Smith noted the disturbing association between SDS and decreased academic performance by analyzing a survey given to the focus group participants. Students were asked to rate their importance of specific stress sources in their campus experience. They were asked to rate coursework difficulty, social experiences, SDS and remoteness from family on a scale 1 to 5.  She found that those students who rated SDS high (5) in their individual surveys showed the most dramatic decrease (- .4) in their GPA compared to their high school grades. (use of statistics to support claim)

 To further validate their studies the researchers interviewed several non students who occasionally visit the campus.  They found many of these individuals to have similar unexplained feelings of confusion as they approach the BCC facilities. (Establish the greater extent of the problem).  

Dr Smith cautions that students enrolling in classes at the BCC campus or entering any new building for work or school need to be aware of these issues and seek counseling if they experience these problems.   The college administration had no comments regarding the research but did note that many of their academic offerings were available on-line for students concerned about this issue. 

Planners of future public works construction projects should be cautiously aware of the dangers in adopting ‘innovative’ building designs and the negative psychological effects it can have on their communities. (establish solutions for the problem)

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3 Responses to the dangers of innovative building design

  1. mdrumm9 says:

    Though it isn’t exactly the same situation, the spatial dysphoria syndrome (SDS) strikes me as achieving a similar goal to the medicalization of deviance. Just the assignment of a name, particularly an official sounding “syndrome” and acronym can be an effective tactic. Instead of deflecting blame, it shapes and focuses conditions and lends credibility.

  2. ksgaherty says:

    I love the way this was laid out, very clear and understandable. The search for blame for a students bad grades is never ending! The only thing I couldn’t find was a good warrant connecting how exactly the school layout effected grades. You certainly proved it does with statistics and typifying stories but why does the layout cause PTSD and SDS? Your qualifiers are so strong, the need for a warrant is rendered unnecessary to convince the audience that this is a social problem.

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