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The Happy House Of Horrors

Image credit: House of Horror

Architects, designers and, indeed, employers are increasingly aware that surroundings affect the mood, health and productivity of those who live or work there. This doesn’t mean that they always use this knowledge to make happy houses!

The huge dark oak doors creak open, casting a shaft of light across alarming and obscene gargoyles. The aroma of dust, mould and decay heightens the sense that something is amiss as you step through the door. The gloomy hallway is adorned with relics from the Middle Ages; the pattern on the threadbare carpet looks like it has been worn away by the footsteps of the suits of armour that line the walls.

What next? An axe murderer? A vengeful ghost? Whatever it is, the lighting, the atmosphere, the very design of the building itself has set a scene of foreboding; the rest of the work is down to instinct and imagination.

Wayne Lennox does not want his property to look inviting. Or at least he wants people to come, but he also wants them to feel frightened. As creative director of a new attraction, House of Horror, Lennox has redesigned a disused spa in Essex to give visitors an enjoyably horrific experience. The more practical design challenge was to create a natural flow through the building’s 13 zones that would not exhaust the paying victims; people are prepared to pay to be scared witless, but baulk at walking too far.

Each room has a theme, such as Sci-Fi-Die, Krow Killers or Medical Madness, all of which are connected by a storyline. It is described by Lennox as: “a 4D immersive experience, in which you live out your worst nightmares; your worst nightmares are embedded in your brain from watching movies or sometimes from real-life experiences.” Some 30 actors are being employed to provide the scares.

“Everyone is scared of something different,” says Lennox. “You might be scared of clowns holding balloons, or dark shadows in the woods. I tried to tick the box of most of the scare scenarios that people have,” he adds, cheerfully.

These scenarios are reinforced by adding stimuli for other senses, most notably smell and touch. A séance room, for example, uses musty-smelling Victorian furniture, while the medical zone is modelled to evoke the sharper, more clinical environment of the hospital.

While Lennox has used these tricks of the trade to make his house packed with tension and emotional discomfort, of course the majority of designers are out to create the opposite effect.

Buildings are usually designed to be bright, happy places and that begins with our very first impressions.

“The outside is perhaps more to do with context and expression,” says Dr Nigel Oseland, environmental psychologist and senior lecturer at UCL Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering. “The building can be used to reflect or make a statement about the occupier, or be iconic or even artistic. The exterior is an outward expression to the outside world whereas the interior is inward facing to the occupants. But of course most want the building to be inviting, depending on its use and occupier.”

Using our subtle senses is just as important as with the less subtle House of Horror, says Oseland: “A few of us have a saying: ‘architects design with their eyes’; we are trying to educate them about the other senses.” Anyone who has walked into a house-buying situation and been hit by the waft of freshly baked bread or real coffee knows that we are all susceptible to comforting aromas.

“Odours are the sense most connected to memory and emotion, so be careful of office smells,” continues Oseland. “Sound also has an emotional link and we know the effect of noise on people differs by their personality. Basically, introverts prefer calmer environments whereas extroverts fare better – and may even seek – stimulation through noise, colour, light and so on.”

Companies such as Air Aroma will scent an office environment through the air conditioning to provide air free from pollutants and unpleasant odours, providing benefits, it says, for staff health, safety and well-being. It claims: “Studies found there was an astonishing 54 per cent reduction in clerical error when workers were exposed to lemon oils.”

When it comes to designing innovative buildings Ian Ritchie, of Ian Ritchie Architects, is in no doubt about where to start: “Light is the first material of architecture. It is the opium of the architect and shadow its form. Light can render space spooky or wonderful.  The other crucial aspect is understanding the nature of how the building will be used, and the degree of spatial adaptability that needs to be built into the design. To achieve this understanding takes time up front, listening and getting to know the type of building user through genuine exchange over design issues.”

Those customer requirements can vary from simple building function to more prescriptive work practices, but developing them into an optimised design takes skill; get it right and you have a happy working environment, get it wrong and you could  create an instinctive reaction in the workers akin to that of the haunted house.

Oseland comments: “Evolutionary psychology is an interesting field. There are certain things in design that can cause an innate evolutionary response and may be unnerving. For example, we don’t like people looking over our shoulder; on the plains we like to see out, a vista, and sit against a tree or rock for protection.” So when designing an office, don’t arrange desks so people have their backs against the circulation route, regardless of how space efficient it may be.

“Complete quiet is also unnerving, as it tends to mean danger in the wild,” continues Oseland. “We prefer a background sound level similar to that found in nature. Natural sounds like birdsong and water are also more calming and re-energising than mechanical sounds. We are also inquisitive and social animals, so allow people to move around, explore and socialise over coffee, and so on.”

Ritchie takes that process further; we need to actively like our buildings. “Pride in the place where you work, play or live is psychologically important,” he says. “Each culture has its own design nuances drawn from history. Some are acceptable for a period; grey metal pylons were fine when bringing electricity in the 1930s; they became unacceptable only 50 years later when electrical supply was a given. The Eiffel Tower, in contrast, was considered hideous when built, but is now the pride and joy of the French. Understanding how aesthetics and taste evolve, and why, is an aspect of design to consider in any given culture.”

However, ignoring the transient produce of fashionable design, the original premise of both Ritchie and Oseland is that the atmosphere within a building is simply a reflection of how comfortable a person is within it. “Many times, this comes down to proportions and scale,” says Andy Payne, architect and a principal research engineer at Autodesk, providers of architectural CAD software.

“Buildings have many standard dimensions that most of us take for granted. The height of a staircase or the width of a doorway, for example, each have standard dimensions that make it easy for us to move from one space to another, or even one building to another, and maintain a sense of familiarity. When we begin to deviate from these parameters, it elevates our uncertainty and general discomfort. In some cases, this might be a designers’ intent. Scale and proportion, along with other tools such as lighting and colour choices, can be orchestrated in such a way so as to produce a specific mood or atmosphere.”

Software can be automated to establish rules and prevent certain proportions drifting uncomfortably. It is easy to generate warnings to tell the architect if the design parameters have deviated outside of the proscribed norms or generate a design that would be otherwise unsafe. Simulation or other numerical methods can be used to determine if a design will fit within the design criteria.

There are limits to how much a computer can be relied on for the design. Payne continues: “Is the colour of a wall the right colour to produce a given mood or effect? That is a much more difficult question for a computer to answer. For this reason, we strive to create software tools that act as a type of synergistic companion to the designer; one that is capable of making recommendations or suggestions on how to improve a design, but one that still relies on the designer to validate that certain design decisions are correct.”

After all, if CAD could be relied on for optimal building design, all buildings would look the same and architects’ imaginations would be a worthless commodity. Fortunately we are not at that stage and art and science can combine to produce beautiful – and happy – buildings.

House of Horror is open until 31 October 2019

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