People do not need a reason to like feeling comfortable
Comfort is an elusive concept. Different people like different things and, even worse, what people find comfortable varies according to the situation they are involved in. Nonetheless, even if finetuning a definition for it is quite hard, Comfort tends to be relatively simple when defined in broad terms: We do not like it too cold or too hot, we prefer to have some daylight than none, we are annoyed by traffic noise, and we would rather breathe fresh and clean air than the opposite. Have you stopped to ask why we consider these conditions to be comfortable? This is when things get complicated. But do not let this stop you from designing comfortable homes! Understanding which situations are comfortable is different from understanding why those situations are comfortable. I will try to argue that mixing these two questions can unnecessarily delay the development of comfortable homes.
For instance, the argument of “people like it, therefore we might want to provide some” seems to have been absent from some important conversations about the value of Daylight in architecture. In the 1970s (due to lack of resources during the Oil crisis) as well as more recently (due to environmental concerns), the value of Daylight was mostly associated with its capacity to reduce the energy consumption of buildings. Of course, this was sabotaged by the invention of LED lighting and its low energy consumption, and thus we had to find a new excuse for incorporating daylight into buildings’ designs. Nowadays, the most commonly used argument is that daylight is an essential driver of human health, wellbeing, productivity. The evidence is compelling: doctors have shown that Daylight is not only for seeing but that it also has physiological effects on people’s bodies.
Did we really have to wait for the medical sciences to demonstrate that there is a physiological reason to like daylight? Don’t get me wrong, it is true that this is an incredible discovery with immense implications. However, it is also true that people did like daylight before this discovery. Therefore, simply asking them would have probably led us to the same conclusion: Incorporating daylight it into building’s designs seems to be a good idea… But our obsession with finding proof that people liked daylight and a reason why daylight is something worth liking clouded our view.
This is not exclusive to daylight, though. Some people appeal to proof when defending the value of other elements of comfort as well. “Evidence suggests that a pleasant temperature improves your performance”, some articles say, as if we all wanted to be productive when watching Netflix or Tweeting. “If you don’t ventilate enough, your concentration can drop up to X%”, they add, as if we wanted to be extremely focused when having our morning coffee. Can we accept that people just like feeling comfortable and that they need no reason for it? Knowing that people like pleasant temperatures and clean and fresh air is a good enough reason to deliver them. The fact that we do not know the exact mechanisms through which these environmental conditions interact with and affect our bodies is irrelevant.
So, I propose that we clearly distinguish between two different questions. One of them is “what is a comfortable situation?”, and the other is “why are comfortable situations comfortable?”. This separation is useful not only because answering the first question is much easier than answering the second one, but also because—as I have tried to argue in this article—answering the first question is very often all we need for designing homes. Just offer what people find comfortable, ask why later.