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While on my way to visit an out-of-town project, I listened to a recent episode of Freakonomics Radio, a podcast that claims to “explore the hidden side of everything.” I find the podcast to be regularly intriguing as the topics vary widely and often provide new ideas. In this episode, the subject was a book called Nudge, written by Nobel Prize winning economist Richard Thaler (with co-author Cass Sunstein) in 2008. Thaler is one of the founders of behavioral economics and used Nudge to shed light on what he calls Choice Architecture. Of course, it was the “architecture” that caught my ear.  

Thaler says our everyday lives are full of choices and the Choice Architect decides how the choices are presented and can “nudge” us in a certain direction by design. One such choice is the “impulse buy” shelf in the checkout line of the grocery store. The merchandise at eye-level are the products we are being nudged to buy. To be sure, you will not find fresh produce there because apples do not have much of a marketing budget. It sounds simple, but well-designed nudges are known to have altered our behavior in significant ways. 

I think this is true for our buildings as well. Small details in buildings do this. A well-placed window nudges us to admire the view. A handcrafted detail may nudge us to appreciate the skill of the maker. A beautiful building nudges us to slow down or pause, to take a deep breath, maybe ponder something deeper. Even where a building is located can nudge us to healthier choices such as using alternate transportation or getting a little exercise because the walk is worth it. 

Community Table at Park Gables

One of the best examples of “nudge” architecture I can think of is called the Community Table. Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community renovated their café at Park Gables and among the various seating options is a large table that can easily seat 12 diners. The idea is to “nudge” people to eat together, hopefully having a conversation that would not happen at a table for two, thus enriching the meal, the day and therefore the life of the people that enjoyed each other’s company. There are other options. You have a choice. There are small tables and stools at a high counter. But this extra-large table is designed to nudge us into community, into interaction.  

The concept of Choice Architecture reminds me of a quote from Winston Churchill. Speaking of England’s parliamentary chamber, he said, “We make our buildings and then our buildings make us.” Good design will affect the people that interact with it. Do you want your space to be a place where people choose to stay? Good design can nudge them to stick around. If you want your guests to feel welcome, good design can nudge them to be comfortable in a new place and realize you anticipated their arrival. Let us help you design a space that gives everyone a gentle nudge toward something better. 

Welby Lehman
Senior Project Leader | Architect

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