Effect of a Microalgae Facade on Design Behaviors: A Pilot Study with Architecture Students
by Kathryn Warren, Julie Milovanovic and Kyoung Hee Kim
School of Architecture, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC 28223, USA
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Buildings 2023, 13(3), 611; https://doi.org/10.3390/buildings13030611
Received: 10 January 2023 /Revised: 16 February 2023 /Accepted: 21 February 2023 /Published: 25 February 2023
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Advanced Materials and Systems for Energy Efficient Buildings)
Keywords: nature, positive, design and microalgae facade; indoor environment quality; architecture design creativity; health and wellbeing; alternative use test (AUT) and remote association test (RAT)
Designing healthy indoor environments is crucial for architects as people today spend the majority of their time indoors. The quality of indoor environments affects humans’ physical and mental health (i.e., sick building syndrome). Sick building syndrome can lead to decreases in performance and productivity through symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, muddled thinking, mental fatigue, and drowsiness . Healthy buildings that incorporate sustainable design principles and materials tend to have a positive effect on occupants’ well-being, satisfaction, and productivity . To that extent, microalgae facades as a design solution address environmental concerns as well as occupants’ health and well-being. Numerous studies have investigated the environmental and technical performance of microalgae facades [3,4]. Microalgae facades can improve indoor and outdoor air quality, which has been documented in previous research .
Moreover, microalgae facades provide biophilic design elements by offering a stronger biological connection compared to traditional facades. Biophilic design aims at connecting people and nature within the built environment [5,6]. Previous studies showed accrued cognitive performance and more positive emotions while experiencing biophilic indoor spaces [7,8,9]. Hence, microalgae facades have the potential to enhance occupants’ experience of indoor spaces by improving air quality and providing a stronger connection to nature. To our knowledge, no studies have yet investigated the impact of this emerging building technology on cognitive performance and emotion. In this paper, we focused on assessing the effects of a microalgae façade on architecture students’ cognitive performance and emotions. For architects, performance equates to approaching design through innovation and creativity .
In the following section, we present the context of the study by describing the potential effects of microalgae facades on cognitive performance and emotions. In Section 3, we present the research questions that this paper addresses. Section 4 describes the pilot study and the metrics used to assess participants’ creativity and emotions. Section 5 presents the main findings from this study, while the discussion emphasizes the implications of our findings for future research and potential applications of algae facades.
2.1. Microalgae Facades Increase Indoor Air Quality, Improving Cognitive Performance
2.2. Importance of Biophilic Design to Support Cognitive Performance and Well-Being
2.3. The Green Color of Microalgae Facades Can Affect Emotions
2.4. Effect of the Built Environment on Design Creativity and Sustainable Design
3. Research Questions
- What is the effect of a microalgae façade on architecture students’ emotions?
- What is the effect of a microalgae facade on architecture students’ creativity?
- What is the effect of a microalgae façade on architecture students’ ability to brainstorm sustainable ideas?
4.1. Experiment Design
4.1.1. Participants and Setting
4.1.2. Measuring Mood
4.1.3. Measuring Creativity with AUT, RAT, and Brainstorming for Sustainable Design
4.2. Data Analysis
5.1. Effect of the Microalgae Facade on Mood
5.2. Effect of the Microalgae Facade on Divergent Thinking
5.3. Effect of the Algae Facade on Convergent Thinking
5.4. Effect of the Microalgae Facade on Concepts Included in a Design Solution for a Sustainable City
The last task of the experiment was for students to brainstorm ideas for a future sustainable city. This task offers a more naturalistic setting for a creative design task. Architecture students that conducted the task in the environment with the microalgae facade put more focus on environmental sustainability than students in the control environment. From the transcripts, the frequency of concepts was analyzed (see Figure 7). Results show that the concept ‘plant’ occurred almost twice as many times during the brainstorming task within the environment with the microalgae façade (Figure 7). For participants in the control environment, the design solution focused relatively more on space and transportation (Figure 7). For both conditions, the prevailing concepts were buildings and people.
We produced word clouds to provide a qualitative representation of important topics in architecture students’ solutions for a sustainable city in the future (Figure 8). For participants that brainstormed in the microalgae environment (Figure 8a), their concept centered on buildings, people, plants, and cars. On the other hand, recurring topics for architecture students that performed the brainstorming in the control environment are building, people, transportation, and space (Figure 8b).
The aim of this study was to evaluate the impact of a microalgae façade on cognitive performance in design and emotion of architecture students. This research is relevant as microalgae facades have significant environmental and sustainable implications. Still, little is known about the impact microalgae facades may have on occupants of the spaces where they are installed. We investigated the impact of the microalgae facade on architecture students’ emotions, creativity, and ability to brainstorm sustainable ideas.
Our pilot study indicated that the microalgae façade did not have an impact on architecture students’ moods. Previous research on biophilia and exposure to the color green suggests that a microalgae façade could impact emotion by augmenting human connection to nature through its materiality (natural) and aspect (color green). For example, biophilic office space tends to reduce stress and improve occupants’ satisfaction and cognitive performance . Another study suggests an association between green spaces on campus and student quality of life . The research highlighted that biophilic design could reduce stress  and provide psychological restoration [9,29,30]. In other studies, exposure to the color green increased self-reported participant enjoyment in cyclists , reduced fear of failure , and did not increase stress levels . Our findings do not align with previous research on the effect of biophilic design and the color green on emotions.
The analysis of the results for the two creativity tests, AUT and RAT, suggests that the microalgae façade did not have an impact on creative performance. The color green has been demonstrated to enhance creative performance , and biophilic design can reduce stress and improve occupants’ satisfaction and cognitive performance  as well as productivity, concentration, and memory [8,35]. Our findings do not align with previous results that studied the impact of biophilic design and the color green on cognitive performance. Overall, the weak biophilic value of the microalgae façade can be attributed to the limitations of our research design, such as small sample sizes, short interaction durations with the microalgae façade, and the presence of the view window in the room setting.
On the other hand, the microalgae façade had a qualitative impact on students’ ability to brainstorm sustainable solutions. Designing for sustainability requires innovation and creativity to go beyond traditional approaches [44,45]. Exposure to sustainable buildings or systems can positively influence students’ willingness to implement the sustainable design . Our result showed that participants who brainstormed solutions for a sustainable city mentioned ‘plant’ almost twice as many times than participants in the control environment. It suggests that being immersed in an environment with microalgae nudged participants to include plants as part of their design solution for a sustainable city.
In summary, our experimental results do not align with previous work regarding the effect of biophilic design or the color green on emotion or creative performance. Several explanations are plausible to interpret these results. First, we made the assumption that the microalgae façade is a biophilic design element. The extent to which a microalgae façade may have a biophilic impact on occupants is unknown. It is unclear whether algae-filled tubes can evoke a similar biophilia response as leafy foliage. However, the brainstorming task highlights that seeing the microalgae façade prototype evoked ‘plant’ when generating solutions for a sustainable city, suggesting that occupants might perceive the façade as a biophilic element. Second, participants in the control group had a window view outside greenery. Views on greenery positively affect emotion, well-being, and cognitive performance . The control room setting possibly had a positive effect on participants’ emotions and tasks, which can explain that no differences were found between the two settings. This suggests that despite reducing natural light in the room, the microalgae façade had a similar effect on participant emotion and cognitive performance compared to views on greenery.
Limitations of the Study and Future Work
One limitation of the study is that the control and experiment spaces had similar biophilic elements from view windows. Setting the experiment, we intended to provide a naturalistic environment and provide the exact same space with and without the algae prototype. In future work, we will add a third setting adding a curtain on the window to cut the view on the outside. Future research will compare performance with the microalgae façade against a control group with a non-nature view.
The microalgae façade prototype houses algae that grow and multiply. Hence, the color of the facade mock-up became a much deeper/denser green over the course of the study. Although it is beyond the scope of this study, future research might investigate whether algae density can impact mood or creativity. The increase in color density in our study parallels how a full-scale facade would behave after it was installed on a building. The color gradually changes over time as algae populations grow, are removed, and re-grow. In future studies, we intend to investigate the impact of the changing color of the microalgae façade on emotion and creative performance.
Our control and test groups were in the same large space and were separated by hanging curtains. Thus, the impact of the algae facade on occupants was only visual. This study did not investigate the microalgae facade impact on participants through improving indoor air quality. To assess the impact of indoor air quality on occupants, our future research will perform similar tests with fully separated control and experiment spaces.
The microalgae façade did not have a direct impact on convergent or divergent creativity or mood compared to a glazed façade with views on greenery. Participants in those environments performed similarly to generate ideas (AUT task average score with the algae façade was 3.7 ideas [SD = 1.4]; average control group score was 4.0 ideas [SD = 1.3] for the same task.) and to synthesize concepts (RAT task average score with the microalgae facade was 5.3 concepts [SD = 4.2]; average control group score was 6.0 concepts [SD = 6.8]). There were qualitative differences between the control and test groups when participants were asked to brainstorm their ideas for a sustainable future. Participants in the space with the microalgae façade developed more design solutions that included greenery than students in the control space. It suggests that biophilic design can nudge designers to include biophilic elements in their designs. This research is a preliminary investigation into the human impact of a microalgae façade and represents a new focus for scientific research. The results suggest that this microalgae façade will not have any detrimental impact on building occupants. More work is needed to better grasp to what extent implementing a microalgae façade will impact human behavior in space. There are numerous ways that microalgae facades might impact occupants, including by improving indoor air quality, increasing exposure to plant life and the color green, and increasing occupant awareness of sustainability efforts. Our future work will have a more holistic approach to explore relationships between microalgae facades, indoor quality, and human behaviors.
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
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