In the fourth article of this series, Constructing Our Niches: The Misalignment of Ultimate Design Features with their Proximate Manifestations, I presented specific examples of how misalignment of an environment’s proximate manifestations with the requirements of the relevant ultimate design features for a given organization and group of building occupants results in varying degrees of failure. By not proactively taking the relevant ultimate and proximate design features into account, we increase the risk that misalignments will occur, as well as the degree of their severity. For those interested, the first three articles in the series can be found through the following links:

Now I’ll broaden the discussion of ultimate design features for the building/construction industry. Conveniently we don’t have to start from scratch, as there is a wealth of existing research, best practices and expertise to draw from. Whether we’re talking about the design of utility energy conservation programs, hospital facilities or mixed-use development projects, we can use the vast reservoir of knowledge that’s out there, interpreted within an evolutionary framework, to formulate the relevant ultimate design features.

For this article, I’ve focused on ultimate design features that are likely relevant for most facility types. Recall that design features are ultimate because of their impacts on human physiologies and psychologies, as well as aspects of our social/cultural worlds. Single individual design features often have varying impacts on all three of these areas, and they have varying relevance at multiple scales, from the individual to nested groups of ever-increasing size. This makes their categorization somewhat difficult and fluid, depending on the facility, occupant demographics, and mission of the organization in question. For now, I’ve used the following six categories: Connection to Nature, Individual Comfort / Wellbeing, Control, Enablement, Cooperation, and Competition.

Connection to Nature

One source to draw from for determining ultimate design features is biophilia, the supposition that humans have an “instinctive bond” to other living systems – that we have an “innate biological connection with nature” – originally proposed by Edward O. Wilson (1984). Evidence from research at the intersection of biology, health, psychology, architecture and urban planning suggests that biophilic design, by facilitating this connection to nature, improves the health, performance and general happiness of building occupants.

Terrapin Bright Green, a sustainable building consultant, has developed 14 patterns of biophilic design, quoted below from their guide (Browning et al. 2014:9-10). I would suggest that these patterns represent a solid first pass at formulating ultimate design features focused on the physiological and psychological connections all humans have with nature.

  • Nature in the Space: addresses the direct, physical and ephemeral presence of nature in a space or place.
    • Visual connection with nature. A view to elements of nature, living systems, and natural processes.
    • Non-visual connection with nature. Auditory, haptic, olfactory, or gustatory stimuli that engender a deliberate and positive reference to nature, living systems or natural processes.
    • Non-rhythmic sensory stimuli. Stochastic and ephemeral connections with nature that may be analyzed statistically but may not be predicted precisely.
    • Thermal & airflow variability. Subtle changes in air temperature, relative humidity, airflow across the skin, and surface temperatures that mimic natural environments.
    • Presence of water. A condition that enhances the experience of a place through seeing, hearing, or touching water.
    • Dynamic & diffuse light. Leverages varying intensities of light and shadow that change over time to create conditions that occur in nature.
    • Connection with natural systems. Awareness of natural processes, especially seasonal and temporal changes characteristic of a healthy ecosystem.


  • Natural Analogues: addresses organic, non-living and indirect evocations of nature.
    • Biomorphic forms & patterns. Symbolic references to contoured, patterned, textured, or numerical arrangements that persist in nature.
    • Material connection with nature. Materials and elements from nature that, through minimal processing, reflect the local ecology or geology and create a distinct sense of place.
    • Complexity & order. Rich sensory information that adheres to a spatial hierarchy similar to those encountered in nature.


  • Nature of the Space: addresses spatial configurations in nature.
    • Prospect. An unimpeded view over a distance, for surveillance and planning.
    • Refuge. A place for withdrawal from environmental conditions or the main flow of activity, in which the individual is protected from behind and overhead.
    • Mystery. The promise of more information, achieved through partially obscured views or other sensory devices that entice the individual to travel deeper into the environment.
    • Risk/peril. An identifiable threat coupled with a reliable safeguard.

It’s not difficult to see how these 14 patterns are rooted in our evolutionary past, the majority spent as hunter/gathers who had a much deeper and more intimate connection to the “natural” world than what we have today. For example, the millennia our species spent viewing the landscape around us on a daily basis led to a visual system (and the associated cues it provides to various aspects of our physiologies and psychologies) optimized for views of the “natural” world, not the interiors of our modern built environments. This is likely one of the reasons underlying research results that find pleasant exterior views that include vegetation can have significant impacts on office productivity (Heshong Mahone Group 2003b), learning in educational environments (Heschong Mahone Group 1999; 2003a) and patient recovery rates (Ulrich 1984).

In the last essay, the New Mexico high school media center’s proximate configuration with large expanses of exterior/interior glazing aligns well with the following Connection to Nature ultimate design features: Visual connection with nature, Dynamic & diffuse light, Connection with natural systems, Prospect and to a lesser degree Risk/peril. It also aligns well with Ostrom’s (1990, in Wilson et al. 2011) ultimate design feature 4 – Low-cost monitoring, so that lapses of cooperation can be easily detected (Ostrom’s design features will be discussed further below under the Cooperation category). However, it’s misaligned with Ostrom’s design feature 1 – Strong group identity, in that the view up people’s skirts from the lower level exacerbates potential occurrences of sexual harassment and other conflicts surrounding gender and bullying, adding a divisive element within the larger school. The addition of an applique or film on the lower portion of the upper-level glazing would have brought the proximate environment into alignment with this ultimate design feature. This demonstrates the need to address a wide range of ultimate design features having varying impacts at the individual and group level (and to assess a facility post occupancy to uncover such unintended consequences).

Individual Comfort / Wellbeing

Maintaining our comfort and well-being is a basic need that impacts individuals physiologically and psychologically (e.g. Brunia and Hartjes-Gosselink 2009:177-178). The actual and perceived comfort of an organization’s members impacts their health and resolve, and even the quality and level of coordination among an organization’s members. As I pointed out in the second essay, just as the condition of being comfortable and the associated behaviors of seeking comfort increased the fitness levels of our hunter-gather ancestors, their nuclear family groups and larger kinship structures, so do they increase the fitness levels of modern humans and the groups that they’re a part of, such as communities, school districts, or business organizations.

Decades of multi-disciplinary research have demonstrated that comfort relative to different aspects of indoor environmental quality (IEQ), such as temperature, lighting, air quality and sound, impact occupant productivity and health. Below are several examples of these impacts from various studies.

  • Discomfort represented by non-optimal temperature ranges have been shown to decrease occupant performance/productivity on either side of the optimal temperature range (68OF – 72OF) by up to 9% (Seppänen et al. 2006; Wargocki and Seppänen 2006).
  • However, other research has shown humans have an affinity for a limited degree of thermal variability, or thermal alliesthesia (Brager and Baker 2009; Brager et al. 2015; Elzeyadi 2012; Wigö 2005), and that providing opportunities to experience this variability increases both productivity and the temperature range we find comfortable. These findings are more in line with the concept of biophilia.
  • Compared to little or no daylighting, classrooms with appropriate daylighting may increase the rate of student learning by a) 20% in math and b) 26% in reading (Heschong Mahone Group 1999).
  • Office workers were found to perform 10% to 25% better on tests of mental function and memory recall when they had the best possible exterior view versus those with no exterior view (Heschong Mahone Group, Inc. 2003b).
  • An analysis by Milton et al. (2000) showed that workers with half as much outdoor air were 1.5 times as likely to take sick leave. This result was based on 3700 employees in 40 different buildings, all at the same company.
  • Research by Allen et al. (2015) found that cognitive performance was 101% better on average under a higher ventilation rate (40 cfm/person – approximately 550 ppm CO2) compared to conventional building conditions (20 cfm/person – approximately 945 ppm CO2). Generalizing this finding to other contexts, MacNaughton et al. (2015) found that a $40 per year increase in ventilation is associated with $6,000 per year increase in cognitive outputs from employees.
  • When conversational noise was reduced, and speech privacy increased, a) the ability of office workers to focus on tasks improved by 48%, b) the performance of tasks relating to accuracy and memory improved by 10% and c) the physical symptoms of stress such as high blood pressure and increased heart rate were reduced by 27% (Sykes 2004).

Therefore, the core design features of Thermal comfort, Visual comfort, Air quality and Sound quality impact the fitness levels of both individual occupants and the organizations they’re a part of. Specific targets within each of these design features will often vary by such things as occupant tasks, building type, and demographic factors, the details of which are beyond the scope of this essay. In a competitive economic environment, how well the proximate physical and social/cultural environments are aligned with these core design features, and meet the intended targets, impact organizational and individual occupant success.

Referring again to the thermal comfort discussion from the previous essay, one of the design targets from the schools examined was for a minimum of 80% of the occupants to rate their building’s thermal environmental conditions as acceptable (which comes from ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 55). One could argue that this percentage is too low for a target, but that’s a subject for another essay. For the most problematic schools, acceptability rates fell far below this 80% minimum for many of the reasons discussed in the previous essay. The Thermal comfort design feature wasn’t met for most of these building occupants. And as previously discussed, this inability to adequately meet the Thermal comfort design feature, along with the associated temperature control conflicts that occurred, undermined Ostrom’s design feature 1 – Strong group identity among the teachers and staff at these schools.

The reader at this point may have noticed a connection between these Individual Comfort / Wellbeing design features, commonly discussed as different aspects of indoor environmental quality (IEQ), and some of the Connection to Nature design features. For example, Thermal comfort is dependent in part on successfully implementing Thermal & airflow variability. While one could potentially subsume these Individual Comfort / Wellbeing design features under relevant Connection to Nature design features (or vice versa), these categorizations reflect different potential project focuses, different intellectual traditions or approaches within the building/construction industry, and potentially different values of building owners, organizations or communities.

For example, people within and outside the building/construction industry are generally more familiar with IEQ than biophilia. Organizations and building owners are more likely to grasp the quantitative productivity and health benefits to building occupants from achieving good quality IEQ – benefits that also positively impact their bottom lines. While the research also exists demonstrating biophilia’s quantitative benefits to health and productivity (often the same research), many decision makers or other key stakeholders still view biophilic approaches as less tangible or evidence-based than approaches focused on improving IEQ. Under such circumstances, by framing the ultimate design features using the Individual Comfort / Wellbeing categorization as opposed to the Connection to Nature categorization, we may be more likely to incorporate proximate design solutions aligned with both IEQ and biophilic ultimate design features. Regardless of the framing category used, the primary goal is to determine the most relevant ultimate design features for a given project and occupant demographic. Depending on the project, there may be other Individual Comfort / Wellness design features to consider, such as different aspects of proxemics, like personal space (which could also fall under the next framing category used, Control).


How well individuals can maintain control over their local environment, physical comfort, personal space boundaries, privacy needs, territoriality needs, day-to-day workflows, professional development, etc., impacts them physiologically and psychologically (Brown 2009; Lee and Brand 2005; Kats et al. 2003; Nishihara et al. 2006; Wohlers and Herter 2016). The actual and perceived level of control that members of an organization have impact their health and resolve, and even the quality and level of coordination among an organization’s members. Below are several Control design features we’ve found are important for the proximate environment to be aligned with.

Personal environmental control refers to the degree to which occupants perceive they can alter their personal environment to meet their needs (Lee and Brand 2005). This includes modifying their environment’s square footage, layout, furniture, technology (and other tools), and IEQ conditions. Lee and Brand (2005:330) found that perceived environmental control (enhanced by the availability of flexible space or a variety of space types) had a significant, positive influence on job satisfaction and group cohesiveness. This suggested to them that providing employees more individual control over their individual work environments could address “… individual, interpersonal, and group needs for flexibility; this, in turn, may contribute to group cohesiveness.” And studies have shown that increasing one’s degree of personal IEQ control provides average measured workforce productivity gains of 7.1% for lighting control, 1.8% for ventilation control and 1.2% for temperature control (Kats et al. 2003). So, achieving an acceptable level of personal environmental control not only improves satisfaction and productivity but also increases the degree of alignment with Ostrom’s design feature 1 – Strong group identity.

In the free address environment example from the last essay, the relocation from previous cubicles and individual offices represented varying degrees of loss of personal environmental control for these employees. Ideally, the free address environment’s proximate manifestation should be designed to offset that loss of Personal environmental control by providing the right type and quantity of alternate work environments to meet varying employee needs (that include the avoidance of distractions). As demonstrated by this free address environment example, this is easier said than done as there was a large percentage of employees who felt an inadequate number of alternate work environments was provided.

Privacy is another important Control core design feature to consider. Altman (1975) defined privacy as the ability to regulate or control the level of desired or appropriate interaction with others. Excessive interaction results in a sense of crowding while insufficient interaction results in a sense of isolation. The definition’s focus is on creating an environment conducive to concentration and resulting satisfaction with one’s workplace (Inamizu 2013). Though the control of information access or sharing also fits within this basic definition. Research has shown that perceptions of privacy are also influenced by status and type of occupation, space density (number of people per unit of area), where one is on the introvert/extrovert spectrum, and one’s ability to adapt to new environments.

The concept of territoriality refers to a suite of behaviors that individuals and groups use to signal to others the boundaries of a territory as well as prevent others from accessing the territory if necessary (Brown 2009). In this case, territory may refer to a physically defined location, objects, or even ideas and concepts. Brown (2009:48-51) identifies four types of territorial behavior that are appropriate to consider as Control core design features.

  • Control-orientated marking: this involves marking an object or area with symbols that communicate the territory’s boundaries, and who has psychological ownership of the territory.
  • Identity-oriented marking: this is also known as personalization, and refers to the decoration, labeling, modification, etc., of an object or area by the owner to reflect the owner’s identity (to themselves or to other individuals or groups).
  • Anticipatory defending: this involves taking actions to prevent others from using your territory – your objects or areas.
  • Reactionary defending: this involves taking actions to reclaim territory – objects or areas – that others have already started using, taken or infringed upon in some manner.

All four are interrelated with one another, as well as with Personal environmental control and Privacy to a degree. For example, Wohlers and Herter (2016) argued that in free address (non-territorial) environments, where Personal environmental control, actual workstation ownership (defined territory), and Control-orientated marking of that territory are greatly limited or non-existent, allowing a level of Identity-orientated marking will increase feelings of ownership and personal control. It can help alleviate negative psychological reactions and associated actions of Anticipatory defending and Reactionary defending that can negatively impact collaboration and general working relationships – negatively impact Ostrom’s design feature 1 – Strong group identity.

In the free address example from the last essay, Identity-orientated marking of workspaces was limited primarily to personalized cups and bottles – there’s little room at the workstations to accommodate forms of personalization that must be removed at the end of each day. Employees can use the writeable surface on their lockers for personalization, but that is essentially it. Based on feedback from employees, these limited forms of Identity-orientated marking are insufficient to offset the loss of the other Control design features. As with Individual Comfort / Wellbeing, all the above Control related core design features impact the fitness levels of both individual employees and the business organizations they’re a part of. Misalignment of the core design features with the proximate physical and social/cultural environments will negatively impact business and employee success.


According to Royal and Agnew (2011), employee Enablement is a key human need in the workplace. Employees require a supportive work environment to be successful, one with adequate resources to complete their daily tasks. These consists of the right types of physical spaces, tools, equipment, supplies, information, organizational policies/procedures, and supportive actions from co-workers and management (the other group members). The wrong types of any of these (or lack of) can function as barriers to employees in effectively completing their daily tasks. An effective workplace enables employees, increasing their fitness levels and the groups they’re part of, including business organizations.

Workplace effectiveness, as an Enablement design feature, can impact the resolve and health of an organization’s members, as well as the quality and level of coordination among those members. In an office environment, it’s measured in part through self-reports of effectiveness and satisfaction, utilization rates, observations, cost savings/avoidance (including estimated productivity/health impacts) and self-reports of workplace attachment and engagement. Other types of environments, like healthcare settings, warehouses, factories, retail settings, etc., will have additional or alternative metrics to track the effectiveness of the “workplace.”

In the free address environment example from the previous essay, a large percentage of employees reported an inadequate number of enclosed spaces for small group collaboration or video conference calls. The resulting increase in frequency of these activities in the free address workstation spaces led to increased distractions, decreasing the effectiveness of the workplace. And it’s important to point out that employee perceptions of Workplace effectiveness are also impacted by how well the proximate environments are aligned with other relevant design features. An employee who is consistently thermally uncomfortable with little means of controlling their Thermal comfort will tend to rate their workplaces as less effective, even if they have access to the resources needed to successfully complete their daily tasks.


Intragroup cooperation increases the fitness level of business organizations by increasing the level of cooperation in pursuit of common goals. Cooperation among members of an organization impacts the quality and level of coordination among the organization’s members, and their health and resolve to a lesser degree. In my third essay, I introduced Elinor Ostrom’s eight design features (listed below) that are the hallmarks of groups able to successfully cooperate in pursuit of shared objectives (Ostrom 1990). The specific wording is taken directly from Wilson et al. (2011) but see Wilson et al. (2013) for a more thorough discussion.

  1. Strong group identity: A strong group identity, including understanding and agreeing with the group’s purpose.
  2. Benefits proportional to costs: Benefits proportional to costs, so that the work does not fall unfairly on some individuals and unearned benefits on others.
  3. Consensus decision-making: Consensus decision-making, since most people dislike being told what to do but will work hard to achieve their own goals.
  4. Low-cost monitoring: Low-cost monitoring, so that lapses of cooperation can be easily detected.
  5. Graduated sanctions: Graduated sanctions to correct misbehaviors, which begin with friendly reminders and escalate only as needed.
  6. Conflict resolution: Conflict resolution that is fast and perceived as fair by group members.
  7. Sufficient autonomy: Sufficient autonomy for the group to make its own decisions without interference from other groups.
  8. Scalable Relations: Relations among groups that embody the same features as the relations among individuals within the group.

I’ll reiterate that these design features solidified as adaptive in the smaller scale human societies that dominated most of human history, but they’re still functional in our modern, larger societies, with a bit of tweaking relative to a multi-level selection framework (Wilson et al. 2013). Throughout the third, fourth, and even in this essay, I’ve provided examples of various degrees of alignment or misalignment of the physical and social/cultural environments with these design features.


Intergroup competition can increase the fitness level of a business organization when the organization responds by increasing its Functional integration and Uniformity among the organization’s members. The organization’s fitness levels may further increase if done in a manner that maximizes both intragroup unity and intergroup differentiation (e.g. Turchin et al. 2012:281; Stoelhorst and Richerson 2013:S47-S48). Functional integration and Uniformity certainly improve the quality and level of coordination among an organization’s members and can positively impact their resolve. More specifically, each of these core design features consist of the following.

Functional integration: To increase a group’s ability to successfully compete with other groups, it must be composed of functionally differentiated individuals, or individuals performing the different functions required for the group to operate, and even survive (Lipo and Madsen 1995:14). In the case of a mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) engineering design firm, the organization obviously requires mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers and designers to provide the core services of the firm, but also Building Information Modeling (BIM) individuals, energy modelers, marketing professionals, business development professionals, accountants, HR professionals, and other administrative support staff. If these functions aren’t accounted for in some manner within the firm (or sub-contracted out externally), or if they’re not handled effectively, this impacts the firms’ ability to successfully compete against other MEP design firms for work.

Uniformity: Functional integration is enhanced within a group by imposing uniformity upon the members of the group in terms of their behavior relative to the successful operations and survival of the group (e.g. Michod 1999:81-132; Wilson 1998:77). Proximate means for imposing this uniformity include such things as laws, social/cultural norms and organizational policies (Boehm 1996, 1997a, 1997b; Sober and Wilson 1998:132-194; Wilson 1998:94, 2002:22). These proximate means for imposing uniformity are capable of constraining organizational member behaviors that may be immediately advantageous for the individuals themselves at the expense of the group or organization they’re a part of. Again, looking at the example of the MEP firm, uniformity is facilitated through such things as firm-specific design standards, onboarding procedures for new employees, standards of conduct, and internal marketing/education efforts and celebrations aimed at promoting the firm’s mission, vision, and values. Internal means for tracking uniformity include such things as engagement surveys, client surveys, and quality control procedures.

In the free address environment example from the previous essay, Uniformity, particularly relative to following the free address protocols (both explicit and implicit), was negatively impacted by the organization’s use of contractors, many of whom were from another country. Contractors, by their very nature, do not have the same ties, loyalties, etc. to the contracting organization that the organization’s actual employees do. They don’t necessarily feel the same sense of urgency or need to comply with “peer pressure” to follow the contracting organization’s office protocols (related to Ostrom’s design features 4 and 5). This is further complicated if the contractors are from a different culture with office norms that vary from what we find in the United States. For example, what constitutes an acceptable level of body odor can vary by culture, as it did in this case between many of these contractors and their western, permanent employee counterparts. An implicit part of the office protocols was to come to the office with a western defined acceptable level of body odor. There was a lack of uniformity in body odor expectations between the contractors and permanent employees that negatively impacted working relationships and organizational performance.

Uniformity is also a component of ensuring Ostrom’s first design feature – Strong group identity. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to the reader, as the framing categories of Cooperation and Competition are closely intertwined. The most successful groups in a competitive environment are able to effectively cooperate internally. In general, these framing categories are artificial constructs used to organize the ultimate design features for a given community, facility type, occupant demographic group, and organizational mission/values. Other framing categories (and additional design features) may make more sense to use, depending on the specific project in question. For example, Wilson et al. (2009)’s ten simple truths important for education environments are likely candidates for education-focused design features.

As pointed out above and in previous essays, the successful implementations of these core design features – their proximate manifestations – will look different in different social/cultural and physical environmental contexts. And there must be the right mix of proximate manifestations of all the above core design features to ensure that individual self-interests driving within-group competition don’t override our social drive for unity and cooperation at the organizational level. The proximate manifestations must minimize the potential for selfish behaviors that negatively impact the organization, as well as make the best use of our pro-social tribal instincts (e.g. Stoelhorst and Richerson 2013:S48-S50, S51). A post-apocalyptic, dystopian office environment forcing individuals and groups to compete for comfort, control and resources isn’t what we’re after.

A future essay will discuss how the planning, design, construction, and operations process can better account for the relevant ultimate design features and determine their most appropriate proximate manifestations. But before that, the next essay will discuss this ultimate/proximate relationship relative to the guidelines, standards, and codes used within the building/construction industry.


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Marcel J. Harmon

Marcel J. Harmon

Marcel J. Harmon, a licensed professional engineer, anthropologist and public education advocate, received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of New Mexico (2005). He currently leads the Research & Analytics services of the Forte Building Science division of M.E. GROUP, a high performance building consulting firm dedicated to improving life through a better built environment. Over the years his academic and professional focus have included applications of evolutionary theory to understanding past and contemporary societies and the reciprocal relationships between people and their built environments. In his current role, Marcel engages building occupants, gathering their stories and personal narratives, to ensure that projects better account for occupant’s wants and needs. He also quantifies the built environment’s impact on occupant productivity/performance and health, as well as the occupant’s impact on building performance. Marcel uses this understanding to inform on the process from early programming through post occupancy evaluations. He is a current school board member and past member of the Kansas Review Committee for the Next Generation Science Standards.

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