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The Role of Color in Architecture and Environmental Design

Even when we aren’t necessarily aware of it, colors have an impact on how we think and feel. Imagine for a moment that your workplace is an office with black walls and no windows. Now imagine working in a room with white walls, plenty of natural light, and an assortment of green plants. Which space would make you happier and more productive?

That example is a little extreme, but it illustrates just how much our environment shapes our experience of everyday life. The field of environmental design focuses precisely on this. And as we’ll see in a moment, color plays an integral part.

What Is Environmental Design?

Illustration of a half globe with a green city

“Environmental design” might sound like a design strategy that centers around the natural environment. The natural environment is certainly a major part of it. However, environmental design (at least in modern times) focuses on working environments, built environments, and social environments as well as the natural environment. It encompasses several disciplines:

    • Engineering
  • Landscape design
  • Urban planning
  • Architecture
  • Industrial design
  • Interior design
  • Graphic design
  • Fashion/textile design

As you can see, the field of environmental design is a broad one. But some researchers have zeroed in on environmental color design, a narrower part of the field.

According to Environmental Color Designa study published in Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology, “Environmental color design involves the use of color in order to configure it as a more beautiful, usable, and informative component of the environment that allows theoretical and practical activities.”

Color and Energy Efficiency

A view of dark-colored skyscrapers in New York City

The use of environmental design in architecture is hardly a new trend. In fact, the first known instance was around 500 BC in ancient Greece. Ancient Greek architects designed homes and other buildings that could harness the energy of the sun for heating.

The reasoning behind doing so was simple: the ancient Greeks had previously used wood for fuel, but the supply of wood was eventually exhausted. Solar energy was a renewable resource that wouldn’t run out.

So how did Greek architects manage to use solar energy? They built homes with facades facing south. This way, they received ample sun in the winter, keeping them warm. They received little sun in the summer, ensuring they wouldn’t overheat.

This design didn’t necessarily rely upon color. But in modern times, architects and designers use color to apply principles of solar heating and reduce energy bills.

Silver and white are two shades that reflect heat away from buildings. A building with a white or silver roof will decrease a building’s internal temperature on hot, sunny days. By some estimates, this relatively simple design feature can reduce air conditioning costs by up to 20%.

On the other end of the spectrum, architects can also use color to help keep interior temperatures warm in colder climates. Black absorbs all wavelengths of light, so it helps buildings retain heat. Both design features may help to reduce a building’s carbon footprint. In a world where businesses are concerned about both energy costs and environmental impact, that’s a great thing!

Color and Building Camouflage

An image of a luxury pool inside a home designed to blend in with the desert landscape

In nature, many animals rely on camouflage to protect themselves from predators or conceal themselves from prey. But what’s the point of helping a building blend in with the environment?

It turns out that using color to camouflage buildings has surprising benefits for people and wildlife alike. If we live or work in environments that blend into the landscape, it gives us a sense of harmony with nature. This type of feature is also less disruptive for surrounding wildlife. For people and animals, this design feature can create a sense of calm.

Color and Urbanized Nature

A green rooftop with natural wood seating area against a city skyline

When you picture a big city, you probably don’t imagine much green. But fortunately, as architects and city-dwellers alike have discovered the benefits of being close to the natural world, the concept of “urbanized nature” has grown in popularity.

“Urbanized nature” is essentially the integration of nature into urban areas. Think rooftop gardens, greenways, parks, etc. As you may have guessed, there’s not really a need for artificial color here. Rather, the color comes from nature itself. Green plants and blooms instill a sense of peace, and neutral shades from wood, stone, and other natural materials offer an escape from concrete cityscapes.

Color and the Working/Learning/Relaxing Environment

A bright, colorful preschool classroom with shelving, toys, chairs, and a puzzle-style mat

If you’re already familiar with the field of color psychology, you know that colors can have a profound impact on the psyche. Certain colors even create physical responses. For instance, being around warm colors like red, orange, and yellow can raise your body temperature. Being around cooler shades can have the opposite effect.

Just about every color has an application in the world of education or business. And choosing the right shades for a home environment can have a considerable impact on the mind, too. Here’s a sampling of colors and how they can shape built environments:

Warm Colors: Red, Orange, Yellow, Etc.

When you think of colors you could use to design an interior, these probably aren’t the first shades that come to mind. But believe it or not, high-energy colors like these do have a place and can help boost our mood. They are ideal for spaces that encourage collaboration and engagement, like K-12 and college classrooms.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to cover every classroom in warm colors from floor to ceiling. Too much can be overstimulating, overwhelming, and anxiety-provoking.

Read more about warm colors.

Cool Colors: Blue, Green, Purple, Etc.

Cooler colors tend to have a calming effect. That doesn’t mean they’ll put you to sleep, though — research has indicated that the color blue increases our productivity. Blue, in particular, is a good choice for offices and other quiet environments.

It’s possible that blue and green are soothing because they are reminders of trees, lakes, and other parts of the natural world. Regardless of the reason, these colors can be used to create a sense of harmony at home, at work, and at school.

Read more about cool colors.

Wood Tones and Warm Neutrals

A Scandinavian-style kitchen with various wood tones

These shades are wonderful reminders of the natural world. If you can’t be outside, they’re a great way to bring the outdoors to you.

Of course, the exact wood tones you choose can influence your mood. Darker stains give rooms a sense of sophistication. Lighter stains help create an ultra-modern look, especially in Scandinavian-style layered palettes. Weathered wood gives any space a refreshing touch of the outdoors.

Shades of Gray

If you’re designing a built environment, gray is an interesting decorative choice. It’s a bit like a double-edged sword: on one hand, it can deliver a sense of sophistication and calm, perfect for maintaining focus. On the other hand, too much gray can make people feel depressed.

Gray can also be used to create dynamic, modern spaces that deliver the perfect balance of energy of calm. If you want to give an environment the benefit of a warmer color without making it overwhelming, consider the combination of charcoal gray and tangerine orange. It works for interiors and exteriors alike!

Bright White

White imparts a sense of cleanliness, even sterility — that’s why it’s the primary color you see in hospitals. In homes and workspaces, it’s used for creating a contemporary aesthetic. Cool shades of white can give rooms a fresh, airy feel, and they’re perfect for making spaces look more expansive.

In some spaces, cool shades of white create an environment that seems cold, even unwelcoming. Warmer shades of white are ideal for creating a slightly cozier feeling.

Biophilic Design: Where Architecture Meets the Outdoors

A modern workspace with white walls, several plants, and plenty of natural light

“Biophilia” is the human tendency to be closely connected to nature. Some workplaces have begun harnessing the power of biophilia to improve the working environment for employees. This practice is known as biophilic design.

Biophilic design has a couple of key components: it involves incorporating elements of nature (actual plants, natural light, etc.) with nature-inspired colors (like green-painted walls, natural wooden chairs, etc.).

This design style isn’t just a gimmick. A report from Human Spaces called The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace found that workplaces with natural elements like sunlight and greenery had substantial positive impacts on both productivity and general well-being:

  • Employees were 6% more productive
  • They were 15% more creative
  • They reported a 15% increase in well-being

It’s not too much of a stretch to think that biophilic design has the potential to transform your home environment. After all, who wouldn’t want a greater sense of well-being and creativity?

How Does Color Impact Your Life?

Woman painting a white wall blue

You don’t have to be an architect to apply concepts of environmental design to your everyday life. If you’re painting your home, for instance, you might choose a soothing blue or teal for your bedroom and a lively orange for a game room. If you’re creating a garden, you might include walkways or benches that let you feel at one with nature.

If you aren’t sure how a given color will impact your environment, there’s a fairly easy way to tell — just spend some time in the color’s presence. Ideally, get a small paint sample. Look at the color for a bit and see how you feel. Does your mood change? What about heart rate and blood pressure? Take your time and let your feelings be your guide — in any environment, the right colors make all the difference!

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