Psychosocial influences in design for sustainability: values and frames in the built environment

Richard Kulczak-Dawkins, Poorang Piroozfar, Marie K. Harder

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Design as a human endeavour is inherently imbued with social implications and outcomes. In the built environment good design is a proven mechanism for positive change on many levels. Despite the positive benefits of good built environment design, research indicates that cities continue to contribute 70% of global CO2 emissions and 75% of energy consumption—many new projects achieve only minimum standards despite decades of research, policy, and practice initiatives in sustainable building design. This comes at the expense of longer-term environmental, social, and economic impacts in favour of shorter-term outcomes and profits. A more holistically-informed approach is required to address the inextricably interrelated large-scale issues of urbanization, population, planetary limits, and global environmental change. Micro-scale human interactions and influences in design decision-making processes can be leveraged consistently toward a new and more thoroughly humanised approach to sustainability at macro-scales. Pivotally important but previously neglected opportunities for improving sustainability outcomes reside in a combination of values-based stakeholder engagement and problem framing to inform and advance design for sustainability in the built environment. New research has begun to expose subtle but powerful, overlooked, and critically important fundamental psychosocial influences affecting design decision processes.

This paper examines how lessons learnt from recent stakeholder interviews and values workshops translate affective human interactions in early design processes into sustainable, and unsustainable, outcomes in the built environment. Through critical interpretive synthesis of an extensive literature review, key informant interviews, and values workshops, the regard—or disregard—for larger scale phenomena and impacts are shown to be visible and accessible in these fundamental social psychological processes.

Data analysis has revealed complex psychosocial influences, heuristics, and interactions relating design practitioners and key decision-makers to design outcomes. Results provide support for a reciprocal link between communication frames, human values, and decision-making outcomes with both positive and negative wider impacts. Emphasis is made on the new, subtle and nuanced influences found between human values and communication frames—particularly the ways in which the problem of sustainability is framed and progressed more or less successfully through stakeholder interactions and dialogues—and the implications these influences suggest in sustainability outcomes and long-term built environment impacts. Most importantly, the roles of affective human interactions justify the need for change in existing practice and demand modifications to the existing understanding of sustainability that account for inter- and intra-personal psychosocial variables. New connections to literatures in organisational behaviour, design management, cross-cultural psychology, communication theory, and sustainability science are identified. Further work is planned to triangulate findings through new data gathered from participant observations, additional interviews, and values elicitations with clients, project teams, and design practitioners.


ConferenceGlobal Cleaner Production and Sustainable Consumption: Accelerating Transitions to Equitable and Sustainable Societies
Abbreviated titleGCPC2015
Internet address


  • sustainability
  • Design decisions
  • values
  • communication frames
  • psychosocial influences


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