The built environment and child care work (2)

Hy Resnick

In last month’s column (see here) I identified purpose, interactivity, potential, control, physical movement and language ( e.g. bedroom, kitchen, recreation area, office, etc ) as dimensions (E. Hutchison, 2003) of the built environment*. In this month’s column I will discuss five more dimensions of the built environment and how those dimensions can be used as a means of influence in human service/child care work. These dimensions are location, comfort potential, aesthetic appeal, adaptability potential and crowding.

1. Location
Any space can be located in a facility related to its purpose. For example a waiting room is usually located close to the outside of a facility and its purpose is to act as an introduction to the facility. But it also serves the function of “protecting “the major players of that facility , i.e. management, from too many intrusions to their work and from too easy contact with the clients, the public and perhaps irrelevant or burdensome others. Managements” offices thus tend to be located in the middle of a facility or, the top floor of a facility “a better view? Rarely if ever were managers located in the basement of a facility. The lower reaches of a facility are typically used to store “stuff”, heating and plumbing machinery and occasionally new staff.

2. Comfort potential
Perhaps the most important aspect of the built environment is the extent to which it has or facilitates appropriate mobility, heating, lighting, sound barriers, and even smells. I did a consultation with a nursing home a number of years ago and found myself repelled by the odors of over or undercooked food that permeated everywhere in the facility. In another example when I was a child protective service worker making a visit to a problematic family the smell of a urine soaked mattress in one of the children's bedrooms made me quite uncomfortable thereby limiting my ability to focus on helping the family deal with their many problems.
Without these considerations a built environment for troubled youth and staff can hardly be considered a liveable or productive work space especially for at-risk young people

3. Aesthetic appeal
This dimension of the built environment has to do with the attractiveness implicit or explicit in the design or construction of that environment. Even though most built environments throughout our species history were “designed “to protect us from the elements and enemies they usually “if not always “had aesthetic elements in their construction. Witness the intrinsic beauty of the Eskimos igloo, the neatness of the roundhouses of our northwest native Americans and the attractiveness of the plains Indians tepees. So it is in our current structure. We humans whether we live in preliterate cultures or in the information age today, seem to have a strong need to beautify our built environments ( not to mention our bodies via face paint, lipstick, tattoos, etc ) and by so doing increase our connection to them. “People have attachments to places as well as to people”.

4. Adaptability potential
A key dimension in a facility is the extent to which its space can be adapted to the needs of its users. Can spaces within a facility be modified to better fit the residents who live there? For example in a facility serving physically handicapped residents, can a door opening be enlarged or a three foot ramp added for wheelchair use? Or can a bathroom be modified to help handicapped or elderly residents make easy use of that space? Or can a wall be relocated to accommodate the changing needs of a child care facility when staff/management decides to give each child their own room instead of sharing a room with one or more other children?

5. Crowding
This dimension deals with the extent to which a space has too many people (feels crowded) or objects for its size and height (feels cluttered). A famous study (J. Calhoun, 1962) describes the powerful negative affect of crowding on a group of rats confined to a cage.

* The built environment brought humans indoors with at least one implication i.e. that dawn no longer wakes us and darkness no longer gets us to sleep. Society now measures time by its own doings rather than natures doings.

Most of the dimensions discussed this month and last are taken from:

Hutchinson, E. in her book Human Behavior and The Social Environment. 2003.
Calhoun, J. in Population Density and Social Pathology (1962). Scientific American, 206, Feb.

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