Environmental satisfaction and human comfort: Toward a process-oriented and contextually sensitive theoretical framework

Presented by: Jung-hye Shin

This study proposes a new theoretical framework of environmental satisfaction and human comfort in built environments through a logical argumentation. The theory builds on ecological frameworks (Bronfenbrenner, 1999) and the life course perspective (Elder, Johnson, & Crosnoe, 2003), and emphasizes the role of human agency in the interaction between humans and environment and the context within which such interactions occur. The goal is to provide a theoretical framework that allows a user-centered approach to studying human-environment dynamics, establish interdisciplinary collaboration, and help decision-makers and design practitioners construct a better environment in which human agency can dynamically achieve environmental satisfaction and human comfort.

Four important principles in the field of design research served as building blocks for the theory building: human agency, nested spatial structure, place, and optimization. First, the theory builds on the principle of human agency, which suggests that a human is a complex thinker who operates with goals and purposes and has the capacity for change, not a passive recipient of external stimuli. People’s reactions to their environment is conditioned through their previous learning and experiences, present situations, and future goals and purposes (Polkinghorne, 1995, figure 1). Second, the theory suggests that the physical space in which human actions occur has a nested structure of building-community-larger ecosystem. The interconnected and interdependent nature of the social-ecological system in the building process is highlighted (figure 2). 

The theory suggests a third principle: the spatial impact on human behavior can only be understood when human agency is placed in its original context with its nested system of social and psychical environments (figure 3). The final principle of the optimization process suggests that human agency imbedded in a place continuously interacts with the environment to optimize it and achieve a dynamic state of satisfaction and comfort. The optimization process involves four different modes of adaptive behaviors: (1) environmental modification; (2) behavioral adaptation; (3) normative adaptations (the adjustment of one’s expectations and norms about the setting); (4) withdrawal (Morris & Winter, 1975). This process is viewed as an on-going and cyclical process (figure 4). Thus, the newly synthesized theory conceptualizes environmental satisfaction and human comfort as conditions dynamically accomplished through one’s active perception, interpretation, and modification of his/her socio-physical environment.

Three methodological directions are proposed to support the new theoretical framework. First, the study proposes the use of multiple methods to increase methodological consilience and convergent verification. The methodological consilience refers to how much a research method or a set of methods employed can explain the given data set versus the portion that cannot be explained by the methods (Luke, 2005). The convergent verification refers to cases where the results from multiple methods to study one phenomenon reinforce each other, therefore providing independent validation of a potentially imperfect single research design. The study suggests a series of methods that can be combined to increase methodological consilience and convergent verification: multilevel modeling, social network analysis, and Geographic Information System analysis. Second, the study further suggests employing multiple sources of information to include the multiple perspectives of those involved with the given environment. Finally, the study suggests creating case research profiles for similar building types in similar contexts to accumulate useful information for practitioners and decision-makers in the field.


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