We have been exploring ways in which architects can work with the ‘sensory elements of space’.  Those sensory elements, such as light, wind, movement, views, heat and cold, are the qualities that fill the spaces we create when we practice architecture – the spaces in and between buildings.  We believe that by being better at observing these qualities, adding new layers to the design process and rethinking our approach to environmental design, we can offer architecture

which is more generous in the experiences it provides for people without necessarily costing more.

These thoughts have emerged from ALT-Architecture’s collaborations with glass artist, Rhian Haf, which included a mini-residency at Ruthin Craft Centre in 2019 and a paper presented at the ‘Generosity’ conference at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University in 2018.


The mass and space dialogue

At a fundamental level, architecture uses mass to define and manipulate space.  The mass of a building is made from physical materials – timber, stone, brick, metal.  Space is made from sensory elements – light, wind, temperature, movement, time and memories.  An intriguing and fascinating dialogue exists between mass and space.

The elements of space contribute to our experience and understanding of the places and environments we inhabit and also to our wellbeing.  The spaces in and between buildings are as important as the buildings themselves. As individual buildings or collectively as part of the urban fabric, architecture has the power to manipulate the elements of space through design.

The elements of space are usually free, so thinking carefully about the spaces in and between buildings offers architects and designers the opportunity to add value and be more generous without the project costing much more – something we think is really important in times of austerity.

The sensory elements of space

The sensory elements of space have the ability to add delight to our experience of the built environment, involving all our senses.  Perhaps it’s the play of a pattern of light and shade; a warm patch of sunlight creating an inviting spot to sit in; reflections of light on water or glass; a cool refreshing breeze funneled between buildings; the sound of footsteps walking across a hard surface or the echoed noise of voices; special views which are framed or gradually revealed, or a glimpsed view which creates intrigue.

Our experience of the sensory elements of space might be about movement through a series of spaces; the tactile textures of the materials which surround us; our interaction with landscape elements such as trees, plants and water; or a pleasing composition which provides rhythm, scale and proportions which delight.

Often the best combinations of the sensory elements of space are un-choreographed, accidental, and sometimes those experiences of the built environment reflect experiences found in nature.

An abstract diagram of mass and space in architecture

Adding value and delight

Being thoughtful with the spaces in and between buildings adds both value and delight.

A physical building has a value as a commodity, relating to its function, size, location and the materials it is made from, but another kind of value is added with careful consideration of the sensory elements.  The first type of value sees a buildings as objects; the second type of value is concerned with the nature and qualities of spaces in and between buildings. The second type of value is about people’s experiences in those spaces, and the ways in which their senses are affected.  The second type of value can’t necessarily be measured with numbers; it is a qualitative value.

This requires a move away from ‘object’ architecture to ‘everyday’ architecture.  In everyday architecture – homes, schools, workplaces, healthcare buildings – it is more valuable to design for the spaces and experiences that will take place in and between buildings, where there is greatest potential to have a positive influence of people’s everyday lives. 

These are not new ideas, but they are particularly relevant today.  As far back as 1st Century BC, Vitruvius wrote On Architecture which contains the well-known statement ‘well building hath three conditions: firmness, commodity and delight’ (Henry Wotton translation, 1624)

These fundamentals of architecture have not changed over the last two millennia.  We can go above and beyond a client’s brief for a building which provides certain spaces, functions and durability, and compose the physical elements and spaces to add delight.

The potential benefits of designing positive spaces in and between buildings are numerous:   It can create homes which are comfortable, enjoyable and healthy places to live.

In healthcare faster healing is promoted.  Roger Ulrich, a Swedish professor, conducted a study in the 1980s where he compared two sets of hospital patients, one with ‘tree views’ and one with ‘wall views’.  He showed, using clinical data, that patients with tree views had 'shorter postoperative hospital stays, fewer negative evaluative comments from nurses, and took fewer moderate-to-strong analgesic doses’.

In schools – the sensory elements of space can contribute to better concentration and learning progress.  A study by the University of Salford and architectural partners IBI Group found that differences in the physical characteristics of classrooms explained 16% of the variation in learning progress over a year for the 3,766 pupils in the study.

In the workplace, numerous studies have shown that air quality, daylight levels, acoustics and views have an impact on staff productivity, staff turnover, the amount of sick leave taken.

Colonnade in Cairo - rhythm - light and shade
A shaft of dappled sunlight through trees - architecture
Red painted traditional Welsh House, Kennixton Farmhouse - St Fagans National Museum of History - Wales
Shadows through trees on stone block wall. Casa Das Artes by architect Souto Moura - Porto
Stepping stones with moss and concrete at threshold - Japanese architecture

Observation and Empathy

Exploring and observing where and when delightful moments and experiences occur, how the sensory elements of space work together to create them, and the role the physical elements of architecture play is key to being able to design good spaces in and between buildings.  Developing an ‘empathy’ with the experiential side of architecture allow architects to consciously be more thoughtful with the spatial elements as we design. Physically visiting and experiencing places is important; this cannot be done virtually or digitally.

Finding effective and innovative ways to record and interpret observations is also necessary.  How do we make the intangible, tangible? How can we see what is unseen?

Another design ‘layer’

An additional ‘layer’ can be added to the design process to promote better design of the in and between.
Another layer of site analysis allows for good understanding and interpretation of a place and context at various scales and various levels.  Site analysis is often presented as a technical operation, but ‘in the field’ studies which explore sites through experience, perception and intuitive response are also required to look beyond the technical and physical representation of a place.

Adding a qualitative layer to the brief, in addition to functional requirements, helps architects work with clients to create places which bring delight.

Throughout an iterative design process, a new layer of studies can explore, test and communicate sensory experiences through drawings, models and other methods.  Analogue, physical models are valuable to this process.

light and shade on concrete architecture - Holy Cross Church in Chur, Switzerland by architect Walter Förderer
Diagonal light and shade on concrete and weathered steel architecture - Leca swimming pools, Portugal by architect Alvaro Siza
Dappled light through trees on rusted weathered steel sculpture - Richard Serra Walking is Measuring, 2000 Corten steel (2 elements) 532 x 244 x 15 cm; 386 x 244 x 15 cm Coll. Fundação de Serralves — Museu de Arte Contemporânea, Porto
Narrow street in Marrakech - light and shade - cool and hot - terracotta
People sitting in the dappled shade of a bamboo lattice structure - Venice Biennale - photo by Rhian Haf
Light and shade - street between buildings - buildings cast shadow

Rethinking approaches to environmental design

Environmental and passive design principles, standards and targets are useful and valuable tools for helping to achieve comfortable conditions with responsible and efficient use of resources.  They are concerned with the spatial elements – light, wind, temperature etc. - but they do not capture the delight value that these elements can bring. Much guidance in this field is prescriptive, with tick boxes or quantifiable targets, but the magic of the sensory elements cannot be measured or specified so easily.

By designing with and valuing the qualitative aspects of the sensory elements of space, architects can explore working methods which can sit alongside conventional environmental design practice to re-inform creative practice.

Informing our work

The thoughts outlined above and our exploratory collaborations with Rhian Haf continually inform the work of the practice. As part of this ongoing collaboration we were invited to undertake a residency with Rhian Haf at Ruthin Craft Centre, which we used to explore conceptual ideas through physical modelmaking and photography.

Rhian Haf’s interest in glass draws on the properties of the material’s ability to capture, transmit and reflect light.  Find out more about her work at:

Experimenting with light and form, mass and space - paper and coloured film - Artist residency - ALT-Architecture and Rhian Haf at Ruthin Craft Centre
Experimenting with light and shade - mass and space - folded paper - Artist residency - ALT-Architecture and Rhian Haf at Ruthin Craft Centre
Capturing light and space - cotton thread and coloured film - Artist residency - ALT-Architecture and Rhian Haf at Ruthin Craft Centre
Experimenting with light and form - mass and space - packing foam -Artist residency - ALT-Architecture and Rhian Haf at Ruthin Craft Centre
Experimenting with light and form - mass and space - Artist residency - ALT-Architecture and Rhian Haf at Ruthin Craft Centre
Amanda Spence