Writer and broadcaster

Windows of the mind. The Guardian

My old flat.
Architect: Simon Conder.
Photo: Peter Warren.

I’d always wanted a loft, perhaps fuelled by watching at an impressionable age films in which they featured. Ten years ago, I got one. The only doors were the front door and the bathroom door. Even the bedroom was separated off with only a mobile shelving unit. It was beautifully designed and everything I ever wanted. I loved it.

But within two weeks of moving in, my boyfriend found me crying, crouched on the bathroom floor – the only place of seclusion in the entire flat. Fact one about open-plan living: you don’t realise the psychological importance of doors until you don’t have any. Even forgetting about privacy for a moment, not being able to slam a door to diffuse a moment of anger does funny things to you.

Fact two: having acres of glazing is not easy. It took us two years to save up for the blinds, which, of course, had to be custom-made. I felt constantly exposed. “Of course you did,” says anthropologist Kate Fox when I mention it to her. “It’s a primal response to need somewhere to hide.” The relentless space afforded no pockets of seclusion. I would visit friends and envy them their window seats, their heavy curtains, the small, intimate corners that conventional rooms always seem to afford. I became obsessed with doors.

We often feel good or bad about places or particular rooms without sometimes being able to put a finger on why. This isn’t really helped by the fact that most of our living spaces are designed for us. “When it comes to housing,” says Peter Carolin, former professor of architecture at Cambridge University, “we’ve generally lost our sensitivity and awareness of the psychological issues. This is because our houses and flats have become more commodities than homes – ‘buy to let’ has furthered this trend. We’ve lost the ability to be shelter makers.”

Carolin’s theory is that, when we had to think about building our homes, we had to think through what we needed: to feel safe, sheltered, a fire for warmth and cooking, privacy for sleeping. “If you watch young children playing houses, you’d find them reflecting all those basic psychological needs.”

Johnny Grey is at the forefront of new research into the relation between human psychological needs and how they are met in housing. He collaborates with neuroscientist John Zeisel, director of the Academy Of Neuroscience For Architecture (Anfa), which was set up five years ago to get architects, designers and scientists to work together to see what makes a house – and us – tick. Zeisel says he thinks this is “the future of the field. People may ask what neuroscience has to do with house design, but we have an emotional connection – linked to the brain – of what it is to ‘feel at home’. When we are happy, a certain endorphin is released, so we need to design homes in order to release that neurotransmitter.” Some of Anfa’s work (most of which is used in institutions – Zeisel is a specialist in Alzheimer’s disease) uses electroencephalograms to track the reaction in a person’s brain to their environment.

Grey, who works with local authorities on social housing, says, “What has come out of brain research [in this field] is that fundamentally all humans have similar primitive needs.” He summarises these as “seclusion and sociability”. More practically, these translate as: long views out of the window. “We don’t feel comfortable unless we know where we are.”

If you have an island in the middle of your kitchen (and Grey recommends you do), make sure it doesn’t have sharp edges; they should be rounded. “Anything that’s in your peripheral vision demands more brain action. And something sharp would cause anxiety, however subliminal, because you think of it as something to avoid.” Grey’s key recommendation for the kitchen is “sociability. Any kitchen activity should happen facing into the room. You shouldn’t be preparing food facing the wall – it goes against everyone’s instincts. One of the things we’ve looked at is how hormones work with the brain and how certain activities stimulate certain hormones.” A prime example is that “stuff going on behind us increases adrenaline”.

Too much counter space in a kitchen, he says, doesn’t make us happy, but chaotic. And make sure that any surface where you’ll spend a lot of time, say prepping food, has “cover for your back”. This adds to the feeling of security and is the opposite of the way most houses are designed. “Tables in restaurants where you can sit with your back to the wall fill up first,” Grey says.

Away from the kitchen, fires – the hearth – make us ridiculously happy. Not rocket science when you think that to most of us fire symbolises warmth, food and sociability.

You may find your home too cluttered, but minimalism is not conducive to happiness, either. Claudia Hammond, author of Emotional Rollercoaster, A Journey Through The Science Of Feelings, says, “Two decades of study have found that most people have a preference for nature-dominated rather than human-constructed landscapes. This could make the hard lines of open-plan modernist design hard to live with, but we have to remember that this applies only to most people, so those who choose it are likely to be a self-selecting group who do like it. A few, though, might think they’ll like it and then find the reality harder to live with than they expect.”

Zeisel advises anyone who wants a minimalist interior to think carefully: “If you decide on a living room that’s all white, metal and glass, that will give you a very different emotional effect from one that’s all cosy sofas and a fire.”

My desire for window seats and “gossipy corners” wasn’t entire fancy. In his book, A Pattern Language, the American architecture professor Christopher Alexander argues that window seats are practically necessities, and goes so far as to prescribe the ideal sill height: window sills on first floors should be 30-35cm high, on higher floors about 50cm. This was so you could sit at the window, look out and still see the ground. “Everyone loves window seats, bay windows, and big windows with low sills and comfortable chairs drawn up to them. These… are not luxuries, they are necessary. A room that does not have a place like this seldom allows you to feel fully comfortable or perfectly at ease. Indeed, a room without a window place may keep you in a state of perpetual unresolved conflict and tension – slight perhaps, but definite.”