Many people often wonder what an environmental psychologist does and why one would want to study the field. There is no easy answer to this question.
One way that a practicing environmental psychologist helps is in collaboration with prospective homebuyers and realtors to identify the best location and type of home to meet their needs. For example, some people are sensitive to noise and therefore close proximity to a freeway or industrial center could lead to physical, social, or psychological issues. A person with non-standard work hours would also call for a quiet home. For these people an important consideration would be the placement of the bedroom.
To assist a client in identifying the best purchase, an environmental psychologist employs many observation skills. For example, prospective buyers' words often indicate their psychological affiliation to a property. Terms such as property, house, condominium, and apartment suggest a detached pragmatic approach to the purchase. Once they cross a psychological line in the conceptualization of the property and begin to use words such as home, abode, cave, or cocoon, they have developed an emotional bond.
Other observation techniques involve a tour of the client's existing home and sometimes also place of work. In most situations the home gives an idea of how they live, what is important to them, and any future issues they will want to address. The workplace environment is also a good indicator of what a client's state of mind will be once they get home. For example, someone working in a very noisy environment will not want to be living with constant traffic noise.
While every purchaser has unique circumstances, the following is an example of how I was able to help buyers better understand their needs and purchase a home that best addressed those needs.
John and Nancy had been together for more than five years when they decided that it was time to leave their rented two-bedroom apartment and invest in real estate. When I first met with them certain behavioral patterns began to emerge. Nancy kept using the word "home" but John referred to the new home as a "property" or "house." The purchase of real estate is one of the topped-ranked stressors in relationships, so my first task was to help them realize that each viewed this purchase differently, and to prepare them for some of the discussions likely to ensue. For example, Nancy appeared a little irrational and frivolous when discussing various purchase options. John appeared insensitive and detached from her. How can you put a price tag on a place where a couple will possibly share the rest of their lives? By helping them understand each other's perspective, future arguments can be averted.
As part of my assessment, I took a tour of John and Nancy's current dwelling. Throughout the apartment I noticed many prominently displayed family photos, mostly from Nancy's side of the family. She told me that she is close to her parents and siblings, particularly one sister. When I inquired if she missed her family, she replied no, because they visited her often. This was a red flag for a couple of reasons.
First, Nancy and John lived in a two-bedroom apartment where she used one of the bedrooms for her home-based office.
People tend to view their homes and the rooms within them as primary, secondary or tertiary territories. In John and Nancy's case, the apartment was viewed as a secondary territory while the community was viewed as their home. In essence the community served as their primary territory. What is important to understand about how environments are viewed is that secondary and tertiary territories will have fewer controls by the inhabitant.
This means that John and Nancy probably tolerated behaviors from their guests that they might not have tolerated had they considered their apartment their primary territory. Given Nancy's continual references to the not-yet-acquired real estate as a home, it is likely that she would view it as primary territory.
My fear was that Nancy's guests (mostly the one sister) had established liberal behavior patterns while staying in their apartment. Those behaviors would carry over to the new home but be less tolerable because, once a home becomes the primary territory, it has more meaning to the owners.
The behavior they would now expect from their guests would likely become more restrictive. Because of this, and because Nancy works from home, I strongly encouraged the couple to pursue a three-bedroom home rather than their initial quest for a two-bedroom home.
As I continued to analyze more of John and Nancy's apartment, certain items led to questions and the discovery that Nancy is a morning person. She stated that she does her best work between the hours of 6:30 am and 11:00 am. Because of this, I suggested a home with one of the subordinate bedrooms facing southeast in order to maximize the morning sunlight. Nancy had noticed that she wasn't as productive in their current apartment as she had been in her previous one where her office faced east, but had not realized that sunlight influenced her so much. After I explained the relationship between morning sunlight and the body's melatonin levels, she decided to conduct her own experiment and work in their apartment's living room, which faced east. She found that she was not only more alert and focused, but also more productive.
Another example that I noticed was a number of cameras and prints scattered about the apartment. It turned out that John really needed a separate space for all this paraphernalia. But his use of so many surfaces to place his stuff suggested that he requires visual reminders to get things done. In essence he is one of those "out of sight -- out of mind" people. When selecting a new home, a space would be needed that allowed for open shelving so that John could put his stuff on the different shelves where it would be easily seen. By addressing John's behavioral patterns I could help him be more productive as well.
Through these and other techniques, I was able to develop a profile of neighborhoods and homes that would best serve John and Nancy's particular needs.
While it did take longer for the couple to find that right home, and not all of my recommendations were adopted, they were able to make informed choices about what they were willing tolerate. One year later John and Nancy claim that they love their new home (and John calls it his abode). Nancy has commented that she could have never lasted in a two-bedroom home, and that she is so thankful that they have the extra bedroom for her sister. She also decided to use a room with a south-eastern orientation for her office. And John has a converted garden shed for his photography equipment.