Incorporating Sustainable Design Principles into the Built Environment for Positive Impact

The functionality and aesthetics of the built environment through history run deep into our subconscious mind. Human behaviour is affected by its surroundings, and the slightest change in environment can trigger the most unpredictable emotions.  

The built environment is a result of many catalyst factors. As economic, cultural, and political factors change over time, buildings are shaped by the forms of social organizations they sustain. Moreover, behaviour and design mutually affect each other: behaviour always occurs in the context of a physical environment. It influences thoughts, feelings, and performance. And human activity impacts its surroundings because of behaviour patterns, such as the use of finite resources and pollution (Steg & Gifford 2008).

However, this cooperative relationship between man and nature is not always sustainable. According to psychologist Katherine Arbuthnott “…we are less likely to make behaviour changes when we believe that our efforts will not make a difference.” From this statement, we gather that environmentally friendly behaviour must have a noticeable impact, or individuals might not gauge their attention toward environmental issues. 

But if environmental design can be a key factor in human behaviour, how could we design our buildings to promote unconscious sustainable responses in one’s mind?

  1. lighting projects 

The Charter of Athens, published in 1943, mentioned sunlight as a foundational joy in the built environment. Natural light is essential for its direct relation to the circadian rhythm and melatonin production. It affects health, psychological and cognitive functions. 

Employees perform 12% better when working in a building with natural light. Lack of it might cause mental disorders, fatigue, apathy, and decreased disposition (Abdou, 1997). Adequate lighting projects can favor the environment by improving energy efficiency. Natural light can also engage people in sustainable behaviours by integrating individuals into nature, even when indoors. 

Thus, natural light strengthens the link between intellectual performance, health, and environmentally-friendly behaviour.

  1. Air Quality

Polluted areas or spaces without air circulation may cause changes within the brain regions that control emotions and mood. According to the journal NeuroToxicology, people constantly in contact with fresh air are less likely to develop anxious, impulsive, or bipolar behaviours. 

Still, it is possible to use architecture to improve air circulation in the built environment by using ribbon windows, curved walls, and other types of partitions. In order to maintain the inner temperature and promote air circulation, buildings could use solar heating, green roofs, and construction materials with better thermal efficiency, such as ecological bricks.

  1. Green Constructions

Nisbet and Zelenski (2011) suggested that contact with nature is a “happy path to sustainability”. According to Harvard University researchers, cognitive function, mood and productivity are better in people who work in green building conditions. Besides that, physical representations of the natural environment might also help develop a sense of empathy towards our surroundings, spreading a pattern of closeness and awareness. 

Environmental issues are social dilemmas, and cooperation between individuals is imperative to solve such issues. By manipulating pleasant and unpleasant representations of nature—lighting, air quality and green constructions—the built environment will positively affect our psychological and cognitive behaviours. In particular, in relation to nature-relatedness and sustainable attitudes. 

Furthermore, architectural design can engage individuals in a model of social cohesion to engage in environmentally friendly behaviour, using design as a key factor for achieving a circular economy.

Writer: Sarah Tavares

Translators: Alessandra Monopoli, Lourdes Molina and Divine Danga


Abdou, O., ‘Effects of Luminous Environment on Worker Productivity in Building Spaces’, American Society of Civil Engineers, September 1997 <> Accessed 14 March 2023.

Arbuthnott, Katherine D. “Education for sustainable development beyond attitude change.” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education (2009).

Cummings, Neil. “Fostering sustainable behavior through design: a study of the social, psychological, and physical influences of the built environment.” (2012).

Köster, Helmut. Dynamic daylighting architecture: basics, systems, projects. Springer Science & Business Media, 2004.

Le Groupe CIAM-France, La Charte d’Athènes, 1st edn, Éditions de l’Architecture d’Aujoud’hui, France, 1943.

Uzzell, David, Enric Pol, and David Badenas. “Place identification, social cohesion, and enviornmental sustainability.” Environment and behavior 34.1 (2002): 26-53.

Zundel, Clara G., et al. “Air pollution, depressive and anxiety disorders, and brain effects: a systematic review.” Neurotoxicology (2022).