Marie Hesseldahl x My Lunsjö: Clients now ask about the human experience

Marie Hesseldahl and My Lunsjö. Image: Zuhal Kocan / 3XN

Marie Hesseldahl Larsen is a partner at 3XN / GXN and Head of the office’s dedicated Interiors team. Marie has extensive experience with the competition department, developing conceptual designs and large-scale competition projects – primarily for offices, as well as cultural, hospitality, and public buildings. Marie looks to integrate behavioral insights and sustainable techniques from GXN into her projects and has led the Interior design team in a range of ambitious projects in Denmark and abroad.

My Lunsjö is a behavioral specialist in the behavior design unit at 3XN / GXN. She is an architect by training, with an additional master’s degree in environmental psychology. My works closely with the 3XN architectural teams to inform design processes with her insights from the field of architectural psychology. Her aim is to increase the health and well-being of those who use the architecture by focusing on aspects such as sensorial experiences, and the influence of light and colors on the perception of space.

Michal Matlon: My, we met a few years ago at a conference in Prague. At that time, you were working for the City of Copenhagen. Tell us a bit more about your background.

My Lunsjö: I have an architectural background, but I also have a master’s degree in environmental psychology. My thesis focused on implementing research in the architectural design process and bridging the two fields.

Research is often text-heavy and not so hands-on. Architecture, by contrast, is a craft based on intuitive experience, and the way of working is more fluid. So, I make a connection between these two worlds. Now I work with Marie at 3XN, an architecture studio, and at GXN, their innovation department.

International Olympic Committee building. Image: 3XN

Marie Hesseldahl: At GXN, we have not only architects but also anthropologists and psychologists. We also have a couple of Ph.D. students, partly funded by 3XN and partly by the government. Some of them specialize in behavioral science.

We have also done post-occupancy studies on some of our buildings. It’s been quite interesting to get feedback on what we’re doing, if it’s working, and if it’s working the way we intended. The back-and-forth between theory and practice works really well.

How to communicate research to architects?

Michal: My, at the conference where we met, you presented how to communicate scientific knowledge about humans to architects understandably and practically. What did you find out?

My: Architects are fast-paced, and architecture is very production-based. When you work, you are expected to produce drawings and communicate. Because psychology is such a complex field, there are a lot of nuances. it can be a challenge to convey those, and the fact that there is no clearly right or wrong solution. Also, crucially, applying research isn’t a static process – it needs to be translated differently for each project.

Architecture schools also don’t teach in a user-centered way. There is attention paid to functional performance and aesthetics, but from a “sculptural” point of view, not from a user’s point of view.

And once you start working, you get overwhelmed with the number of technical requirements (things like fire codes and engineering) that it’s easy for the user perspective to get left out. It’s challenging to make complex psychological research accessible and useful with this overload – and to be able to do it in the short time frames that architects work under.

Michal: Maybe the whole field is ripe for rethinking the process to free architects from this constant pressure. When we were talking, you also mentioned that it’s important for architects to get a visual representation of information, and that they need detailed guidance on numbers and measurements. Since research can’t be easily generalized in this way, how have you managed to reconcile this?

Station student innovation house. Image: 3XN

My:  Because architects are focused on solving problems quickly, you must make research accessible and readable. What Marie and I do now works very well. I go and sit with an architect. We have workshops, sit next to each other while the architect sketches, and I make input from a psychological perspective.

It’s like a ping-pong game where the architects come up with the design and then come back to me, and we review it together. We work as an integrated team. And that’s a huge success compared to just communicating one-way to the architects. It helps us avoid information overload.

Marie: Yeah, it’s an integral part of the process now. Often, we only have a month or so to complete a competition. And during the competition phase, you design the building, its main spaces, and sometimes even the atmosphere. Based on that, the client decides if they like it.

When My works with us during this time, she might recommend a warm color scheme or particular materials for a specific space to create a certain atmosphere. She whispers the theory in our ears, and it comes out of our hands when we draw!

Clients want to know how buildings affect the users

Natalia Olszewska: That makes a lot of sense. This is an excellent way for researchers and architects to work together, head-to-head. At my consultancy, Impronta, we solved this problem slightly differently. We created a team of architects who also understand elements of neuroscience and psychology. First, a research team does detailed research on a project.

Then we hand it off to architects specializing in materials, color, geometry, or light. They usually stick to one of those elements, depending on their interests. They understand what the researchers say, filter the information, and create sketches or mood boards. So, the result is very visual.

My: We are seeing an increasing demand from our clients to show them how the building affects the users. They are interested in inclusivity, diversity, social and environmental sustainability, well-being, and biophilia. These requirements are now appearing in architectural competitions, which makes it easy to argue why psychologists need to be part of the team.

International Olympic Committee building. Image: 3XN

Natalia: One of the challenges I’ve faced is that, in most cases, we still have to educate our clients. Could you tell us more about the type of clients you have and how often you meet those who understand architecture and well-being? Do you have to educate some of them?

Marie: Many of our clients are already knowledgeable. They come to us because we provide the service. It’s often an important issue because they want to create offices that attract the most talented people. Especially after the last two years, these topics are very much in demand.

How building and interior architects can work together

Michal: There seems to be a difference in understanding between architects who design interiors and those who design buildings. Interior designers seem to have a closer relationship with human-centered thinking. Do you notice such a difference? Where does it come from?

Marie: Perhaps it’s because these two groups got their education at two different schools. But what is happening in our studio is that the two worlds are gradually merging. Some people even move between these two specializations. The good thing about having interiors and architecture under the same roof is understanding the common goal and concept.

You don’t have to reinvent your interior concept to justify yourself in the project. You can pick up where the architect left off and make it better and more refined with your enhanced knowledge. And you need both to create a successful building.

If the building architects finish the project, it becomes too hard, and if the interior designers go too far, it can become too complex. We need to have a shared understanding of our common goal: to make the best possible building for the people who will experience it.

Natalia: Would it be prejudiced to say that interior designers are closer to people and their experiences?

Marie: Of course, they are more focused on those things because that is the center of their profession. They have a better eye for light, colors, how people perceive spaces, and their atmospheres. In our office, there’s great respect for both professions, and they need each other. We must share the same goal to create a single, cohesive building.

Station student innovation house. Image: 3XN

My: In many competitions, the volume of the building is determined in the brief, so there’s less freedom for architects to truly shape the volume from scratch. Sometimes the shape or volume is not what we would recommend, but that’s influenced by urban planning, politics, economics, and so on. Interior designers often do have more of a blank slate to work from. They can at least work on making the building more holistic and humane on a smaller scale.

Marie: Often, a person from the interior design department is part of the competition team, so we get those perspectives from the beginning. We’re focused on designing the building from the inside out and the outside in.

We get valuable feedback from them on the overall concept, and sometimes it even influences the design of the whole building. The interior design is not just an additional layer. It has to be fully integrated into the whole.

Michal: Do you feel that your psychological knowledge allows you to influence other aspects of the building, such as the facade? We know that while the interior is significant for the people who will live in the building, the facade of the building has a responsibility to the public and the street. It can affect the lives of people who spend time around the building. Do you feel that you can apply your knowledge about this in practice?

Marie: So far, architects are aware of the need to create a suitable microclimate around a building and integrate it into the context of the street.

My: In recent years, there’s also been a lot of focus on the sustainability of the materials used, rainwater retention, and so on. In terms of façade aesthetics, I think that’s becoming a thing, but it’s an idea that’s still evolving.

International Olympic Committee building. Image: 3XN

Marie: These days, there is a big focus on tactility, for example – choosing the right materials and how people enjoy being near them. For a long time, there was a tendency to always design something smooth and beautiful in 3D. But now it’s about creating something more human and tactile. Something that gets better over time instead of being at its best at the beginning.

My: That’s something new. In Denmark, there’s a tradition of making very conceptual buildings, and the facade was part of that. Now we have started to work with our facade specialists on, for example, color perception.

There’s a lot of research on how different colors look when used on a facade. If you choose a gray color, it tends to feel cold when you put it on a facade because of the blue-tinted daylight. That’s the kind of knowledge we need to create buildings that look warmer and more comfortable,

The laws of psychology

Natalia: We had one of our interviews with Colin Ellard. He’s a cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Canada. He said something that has stayed with me. He said that just as there are laws of physics that we have to respect to build a building that doesn’t collapse, there are laws of biology and psychology that we have to respect when we design for people.

If you were to explain to our readers what some of those concepts are that you think are essential for creating places that are good for people, what would they be? What would you say those laws are?

My: I’d say multisensory experience – designing with all the senses in mind – would be one of them. Another would be to avoid monotony, to include change and variation. For example, there needs to be a play of light and shadow by combining light-absorbing and reflecting materials. Or using vertical lines and varying depth to create variety.

Marie Hesseldahl and My Lunsjö. Image: Zuhal Kocan / 3XN

Design should never be too homogeneous. This is in part because this is how nature functions. We have evolved in a world that is constantly changing, not static. The other perspective is that one size does not fit all. Users need to be able to choose. They are going to be different, and they are going to need different things. Even the same user would need different things on different days.

For example, I feel much more extroverted in the summer. If it’s Friday and sunny, I want to go outside and chat when I come into the office. I need an extraverted area where I can meet my colleagues. And some days, I’m under stress and need to finish an assignment. I don’t want to talk to people. I need a cocoon to do deep work. And I should be able to choose a space that supports that.

Marie: You should also be able to influence your environment – choice and autonomy are also key “laws”. You feel better even if you can control small things like turning on a table lamp, opening a window, adjusting a curtain, or moving a desk. We often forget about these little things that can make a big difference to the user.

Station student innovation house. Image: 3XN

Michal: Do you feel this knowledge is already being incorporated into architectural education, or is it still lagging behind the practice?

My: There is a focus now on having evidence, or at least a narrative, behind your design. You can’t just present something and say it’s a beautiful facade. You have to argue why you designed it the way you did. But that argument is often focused on something other than the human experience.

Some students might make a human-centered argument, but others would make a story about using a particular material and its evolution, for example. There isn’t a specific focus on psychology or users yet.

Natalia: On the one hand, I understand that the architectural curriculum is so full that adding more disciplines is challenging. On the other hand, it might not really be about teaching psychology or neuroscience to architecture students.

It could be about developing their mindset to be receptive to that knowledge and to understand that it’s essential. They don’t need that basic, deep training in the subject. It could be an optional specialization.

You mentioned that you also have anthropologists on your team. Could you explain why you hired them? Why is it important to have other disciplines on the team?

Marie: It’s about getting different perspectives and more profound knowledge from other fields, like user experience. And if we’re analyzing a big company, it’s good to have an anthropologist on board to help us understand their culture.

Positive examples

Michal: This could be the future – to become more open and multidisciplinary, basically redesigning the whole development process step by step to include these different perspectives. Finally, if you had to give an example of a building or a space where the principles we have been talking about have been applied, what would it be?

Station student innovation house. Image: 3XN

Marie: We transformed a police station into a student innovation house for the Copenhagen Business School. When we designed it, we studied people’s behavior and how they collaborate, and then we incorporated a lot of that into the design of the building.

We worked with the themes of choice and control and created various spaces with different qualities and atmospheres. The building represents a lot of new ways of working and collaborating.

My: Another interesting building is the International Olympic Committee building, which I like because we created it using findings from post-occupancy evaluations. Based on those findings, we created a staircase in the middle of the building to support social interactions.

At the same time, they represent the Olympic circles and give identity to a place. The facade is designed based on the movement of the athletes, so the whole building is very dynamic in its expression.

Marie: We heard statements from people in the building who said: “I met this person, we’ve been working together for five or ten years, we never met before because we were on different floors.”

International Olympic Committee building. Image: 3XN

My: Architects are now open to behavioral design. When we do workshops on the human side of design, we see a considerable increase in interest from architects. Our clients are also starting to ask more questions about the human experience, so it’s definitely going in the right direction.

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