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Making Design Better by Not Designing

July 1, 2015

Australian firm Studio Huss uses research and evaluation to better inform designers and their solutions.

Based in Melbourne, Australia, Studio Huss is a design research practice working at the intersection of human psychology, physiology, architecture and urban design. “We try to develop a better understanding of the relationship between people and their environments in order to inform built environment professionals and help them better align their work with human psychology and physiology,” explained Director Jonathan Daly.

“Brasília, designed by the architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1956, is arguably the best example of inhuman architecture on the grandest scale possible – the creation of a new city” says Daly

The two-year-old firm formed through a meeting of like minds who shared a fascination for the human experience of space, specifically the social spaces that form human habitats. Tai Hollingsbee, who came from a building physics background, and Jonathan Daly, whose background is in behavioral science, had been working together in a large built environment consultancy for several years. Tai and Jonathan then met Chloe Hamman, who worked in occupational psychology, and all three had a common frustration with the amount of assumptions made in many architecture and urban design practices.

The trio wanted to address how the human condition is affected by the built environment, and while they knew that a lot of research already existed, not enough was being done to translate it into usable knowledge for designers. Therefore, they formed Studio Huss with the goal to enable designers to think more holistically, work more collaboratively and, as a result, design better.

Translating Design Research into Action

To help designers design better, Studio Huss approaches their work through three main activities – research, client services, and communication. The team explicitly dedicates time and resources to self-initiated research, which they feel is an important way to explore and develop the firm’s methods and interests. Tai directs this area of their practice by working with teams of interns earning master’s degrees in either the built environment or social sciences.

Studio Huss_practice

One of their current research projects is ‘The Huss Index,’ a spatial performance index to assess the performance of spaces people love and hate. “The application of such an index for post occupancy evaluation and pre-execution design has potential to help understand failings in built environments and identify strategies to make them better,” explained Jonathan. “The outcome of this index is to have a means of categorizing experiences and quantifying subjective, experiential phenomena of the built environment.”

Studio Huss_services

Building on their commitment to self-initiated research, Studio Huss offers three core services that translate this research into information that designers can use to test assumptions and improve their projects.

  1. Current Occupancy Evaluations: “We help clients understand how an existing space functions, who uses it, and how and why they use it. We draw extensively on environment-behavior research, environmental psychology, behavioural science and building physics to provide a deeper, more meaningful understanding on the life and rhythms of a space.” Current Occupancy Evaluations can help with the development of a masterplan; to inform a brief for a new scheme; and to address specific issues associated with a given space.
  2. Design Psychology Assessment: “This is a method we are pioneering based on the well-established technique of psychometric testing. A Design Psychology Assessment tests the candidacy of a design concept for a role in the built environment. The aim is to work within the design process, to identify, question and test assumptions about how people will use and behave in a space.”
  3. Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE): “A POE is a measure of spatial performance, particularly how well the needs of its users or occupants are met. Our approach draws on environment-behaviour research methods, tools and techniques and is informed by our understanding of design, behavioural science and building physics. The outcomes of a POE address more than the physical aspects of the space, by considering the impact on people, the culture and proposing strategies to strengthen the alignment between all of these critical elements.”

To round out the design research practice, Studio Huss is keen to share knowledge and experience through writing, presenting and teaching. This allows them to test ideas in forums that provide critical feedback, which further helps to develop their practice.

Putting Inclusive Design into Practice

Blending evaluation techniques with informed research, Studio Huss have worked with a variety of clients from big developers seeking to examine new public spaces to corporations looking to improve their workspaces for employees. All clients who approach them have one thing in common—a desire for assurance that the design will deliver the outcomes they want.

One of their most interesting projects involved Melbourne’s Moreland City Council who wanted to evaluate the relationship between the built environment and crime behavior in the Jewell Precinct of Brunswick. The project arose out of the tragic rape and murder of a young woman, which shocked not only the local community but all of Australia. Because of the horrific nature of this incident and the long history of crime and antisocial behavior in this area, the local authority was determined to investigate underlying issues influencing these behaviors.

Inside the Jewell Precinct, Brunswick

Inside the Jewell Precinct, Brunswick

Studio Huss’s first step was to undertake a Current Occupancy Evaluation. They worked closely with the local community, engaging them in both research and a co-design process to develop interventions that would improve safety and the overall atmosphere of their neighborhood.

One of the interventions proposed by the local authority, and led by Brunswick’s Place Manager Will Coogan, was the closure of one of the streets in the precinct and the creation of a new public space. Initially Will Coogan instigated a ‘pop-up’ park in the space, which was fully programed for six weeks.

Studio Huss then worked with the design team to apply their Design Psychology Assessment tool to identify potential weaknesses with the proposed scheme. Although some issues were identified, their recommendations ended up not being physical in nature but rather involved how it could be introduced to the new community through engagement and programing. Now with the new public space due to open in the next few months, Studio Huss is eager to undertake a Post Occupancy Evaluation in order to complete the research-design-evaluation circle critical to their practice.

The space under construction.

The space under construction.

Influencing Design Processes in the Future

Although the practice has only been operating for two years, Studio Huss has begun to see positive results from their efforts. One of the most challenging aspects to their work is asking designers to make explicit what is often tacit knowledge or intuition. This was initially met with skepticism and push back from designers. But with a lot of patience and relentless commitment, Studio Huss evolved their approach to make it more empathetic and educational. To validate their efforts, an urban designer recently remarked to the team that he found the process therapeutic. It was a moment when Jonathan, Tai and Chloe felt completely vindicated about the practice of Studio Huss and it’s promising future in making design better.

Want to learn more about Studio Huss? Post a question below, visit, or follow @thesensorycity on Twitter.

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