Software aims to tweak building design to encourage social interaction

Architects, engineers and psychologists are working on ways to change building designs to better facilitate “sociability.”

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Real estate marketing, with its glossy brochures, is usually all about luxury, status and exclusiveness.


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

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

Haden says it’s not hard to understand 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 hard to justify extra construction costs.

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

“I’m not a person that believes the entire world should be run by data,” he said. “But nowadays, sometimes you need that (information) to change the game.”


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Haden started with seed funding from B.C. 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 gaming technology.

“You populate (a design) with digital agents, which are avatars for residents in a building, let them run around, and, on a most basic level, you can see how frequently, over the course of a day, are you simply going to have eye contact with your neighbour,” said Haden.

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


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

Cape put its early designs for The Maxwell, a rental building it is developing near Commercial Drive in east Vancouver, through a 30-day simulation with the software to see how different options fared.

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

Haden said architecture can’t provide a solution “if you hate your neighbour,” but if you “never see them, you never have that neighbour at all.”


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The project also has input from Elizabeth Dunn at the University of B.C.’s department of psychology, who is the co-author of “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending.”

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

“We don’t know if, for example, the design of a building is as consequential as having the grandma near the entry unit who invites every new resident for tea.”

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

He’s been working with Dunn’s research students to see how physical distance and social reluctance affect interactions in a coffee shop. They have also been running tests in student residences at UBC where they can validate or question the statistics presented by their simulations with personal interviews.

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