“We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us” – an environmental psychology study of livestock buildings and how design impacts humans, animals and the human-animal relationship
The design of the buildings in which we work and live can profoundly affect our well-being, psychology, attitudes and behaviour. The discipline which studies human interaction with the built environment is called environmental psychology.
As humans, we evolved in natural surroundings. Although we now spend more of our time inside man-made buildings, our genetics and psyche retain a deep need to interact with nature. This means we should aim to design our buildings in a way which allows people inside to experience a connection with the natural world outside, with windows for views, natural light, and incorporating natural materials, shapes, patterns and colours in the structure itself. Designers of offices, hospitals, schools and prisons are increasingly recognising this connection and the resulting buildings are making significant improvements to the lives of users.
Farmers are fortunate to enjoy a lifestyle that involves more time in natural surroundings than most professions, but livestock farming increasingly involves full time indoor rearing of animals, in a way that separates farmers and animals from the fields, trees and wildlife which surround them.
Modern livestock buildings have evolved to a relatively standard design, developed as practical tools in which to run efficient, productive systems. This is understandable given the pressures on cost of production, but some livestock housing designs have become so focused on production that they compromise the well-being of farmers, their animals and the relationship between the two.
The place of animal farming in society is evolving and there are other topics running in parallel to this study which are inextricably linked to it. These include animal welfare, social licence, sustainability in construction, carbon footprint of farming operations, public health and changing diets, water quality, soil health, the need to mitigate the urgent threats of climate and biodiversity breakdown, whilst feeding a growing population. Which livestock rearing methods fit with the need to farm sustainably, building soils and providing environmental benefits, given the UK government’s imminent shift to paying farmers only for public goods?
As many farmers have been driven to specialise, intensify and scale up their livestock rearing operations, others are turning to a lower input, more agroecological way of farming, with animals rotated around land as part of a return to mixed farming principles, with soil health at its heart. At a time of financial incentives to plant trees and hedges, growing knowledge of agroforestry and silvopasture, can we successfully and viably rear animals on land with only natural shelter? If we do need man-made structures for livestock, should they be portable or permanently sited? What should they look like and how should we build them?
Whatever we choose to build, for farming to be sustainable long term, our buildings will need to be good spaces for people, animals and socially acceptable to our fellow citizens. They also need to tread more gently on our environment, in the construction process itself and once operational. With engagement with other architecture and construction sectors, we can learn from those already leading the way and change our farms for the better.