The Psychology of Safety
We instinctively configure our homes to create a sense of safety. Our most public and transparent spaces are typically at our entries, while our most private and secluded spaces tend to be more solid and sheltered from public view. Our furnishings, art, and mementoes create a sense of comfort and connection; our homes are a haven from the stresses of the outside world.
As designers, we can learn from this innate desire to seek a sense of security. Understanding this very basic human need is particularly important for project types in which building users might subconsciously feel vulnerable, and is critical in projects with a residential element such as hotels, multi-family, hospitals, and shelters. For a guest to rest, heal, or seek assistance in comfort and security, the physical environment must first be, and feel, safe. Imagine a solo traveler on a first business trip, a new resident in an apartment building in a new city, a caregiver spending the night at the hospital with a loved one, or a victim of domestic violence seeking refuge at a shelter. Even for seasoned travelers or long-term residents, a physical environment designed with a sense of safety in mind is more relaxing and enjoyable. Hotel guests are more likely to return, and tenants are likely to stay longer.
Providing a sense of comfort and safety in the built environment begins with an understanding of human psychology. In addition to overt security measures such as secured access points and protection of personal information, we can incorporate thoughtful and subtle design elements which support a psychological sense of safety.
The user experience starts with the most public spaces at the building’s approach and proceeds through multiple zones to the most private spaces for sleeping. Each stage of the journey offers opportunities to design for the psychology of safety.
- Proper lighting in the parking areas is essential for functionality and security. To further this idea from a psychological perspective, short-term parking outside the entry door allows guests to check in and become familiar with the environment before unloading and parking overnight. A well-lit interior with views from the exterior creates a feeling of safety and connection both inside and outside the space, allowing guests to prepare themselves and feel comfortable walking into a new environment. Views from the inside to the outside also give the user a feeling that somebody is watching and safeguarding the exterior from a security standpoint.
- Cleanliness is a critical factor for hospitality, healthcare, and residential applications. However, the smell of cleaning supplies such as bleach can trigger a feeling of institutionalization. This subtle cue makes the building user feel as though the environment is temporary and not inviting. A simple solution to this issue is the addition of a scent machine at the front entry. The smell of warm cookies or vanilla has been shown to trigger a feeling of “home” and comfort.
- People feel most vulnerable in environments where they are forced to be without choice; airports and hospitals are good examples. To alleviate this feeling, the built environment should rebel against any design elements which feel impersonal or institutional. For instance, rather than a large volume of space for registration, designers can provide a more intimate space to allow the building user and employee to have a “one on one” conversation. Additionally, the registration process can be uncomfortable for some people, since they are providing a lot of personal information. Creating a small, quiet registration zone allows the building user to feel more secure in sharing sensitive information.
- While large, grand areas with high ceilings are still a popular design trend in many sectors, it is important to provide smaller, more intimate areas on the perimeter. People feel safer when they have the ability to choose their environment. Building in these intimate spaces gives guests the ability to survey their surroundings from a comfortable distance and make an active choice to join the crowd once they feel comfortable.
- Strategic lighting can also support a sense of safety. While well-lit corridors are important for security and functionality, the corridor should offer varied levels of lighting to provide a less institutional, more residential feeling. Entry doors should be well lit, but overall the corridor lighting should be somewhat dim. Research has shown that dimming the lighting (while maintaining adequate lighting for safety) keeps building users quieter in the corridor areas and allows guests in their rooms to relax. Sight lines are also very important, providing the guests with a clear view of their projected path and alleviating any concerns that someone or something unknown could emerge in the distance. If the corridor design necessitates a 90 degree turn, mirrors should be included to allow the user to see around corners.
- The guestroom is a culmination of all the components above. Smell is important upon entry, as the smell of cleaning supplies can trigger a feeling of a temporary dwelling. Installing interior glass doors for closets has proven to make female business travelers in particular feel more comfortable, giving them the ability to see into the closet to make sure no intruders are hiding. Light levels should be soft but bright enough for safety and function upon entry, with additional lighting allowing the user to make the choice of brighter or lower light levels if one so chooses. Small scale furniture serves a functional approach, but also allows guests to manipulate the environment by rearranging the furniture, giving them a sense of ownership in the space. Providing a land line in the restroom may seem excessive, but it creates the psychological comfort of a “safe room” which adds an additional level of security within the hotel room. Though this is extremely unlikely to be necessary, the added layer of security may allow guests who feel nervous in a new space to feel comfortable, let their guard down, and fully relax.
Though building users may be unaware of the myriad design decisions which have led to a sense of safety, this thoughtful design mindset benefits everyone using the space and ultimately makes the project more successful in the long term for the owner.