One of the many human traits inhibiting sustainable behaviour is our tendency to forget.

For instance, we often forget to carry reusable shopping bag while we’re out, switch off lights while leaving the room, turn off taps while brushing or washing utensils and drop blinds while leaving the office to reduce heat loss during winter.

How do we get around this human trait to instigate and foster sustainable behaviour? “Prompts” can be one of the effective solutions in promoting sustainable behaviour. A prompt is a visual and auditory aid which reminds us to carry out an activity that we might otherwise forget.

To make the prompts effective, it should be delivered close in time and space to the target behaviour. For example, you could look at placing “carry your reusable shopping bag” stickers on your car windows as well as in supermarket parking, putting “turn off” sign next to the light switch or a water tap, leaving written reminders on office desks or windows to drop blinds while vacating the space, conveniently located receptacles with noticeable graphics and signs for proper disposal of garbage and recyclable material, or attaching “use only when full” decals on dishwasher and washing machines to encourage water conservation.

Architectonic prompts hold a lot of potential to nudge people’s behaviour and decision-making. The well-established field of behavioural science provides interesting insights about how people make choices. It studies the choices people actually make, rather than the choices they ideally would have made if they realized what was good for them. These insights can also be applied to the design of built environments for sustainable behaviour changes. Planners, architects and designers have the opportunity to shape our physical environments that encourage people to make choices that are good for the planet and for their well-being.

One of the common challenges for building owners and tenants is an energy efficient use of their buildings. Ironically, designing an ultra efficient building does not mean it would be used efficiently. According to research, more than 50 per cent of a building’s energy consumption is directly influenced by its users. Occupants’ behaviour is fundamental to the energy consumption of a building.

Designers often struggle with energy efficient vertical movement in buildings as people tend to resist stairs and prefer to be transported by elevators and escalators. Architectonic prompts such as a well-designed and placed staircase can encourage people to move around more. It is the cost effective way to reduce energy consumption, cut emissions and promote health.

Stair Prompt Distributed by New York Centre for Active Design

Stair prompt distributed by New York Centre for Active Design

A good staircase should be clear and suggestive of where you came from and where you are going. Placing staircases directly in the visual corridor and tucking elevators to the side as well as making landings with interesting viewpoints will encourage people to opt for the stairs. This will also promote interactivity between people and make them feel good while moving about. People, like moths, are naturally drawn to light, so a light-filled staircase can attract people to use it more.

Yellow stairs in North Carolina University Library is placed right along the main sight & circulation line to encourage users.

Yellow stairs in the North Carolina University Library are placed along the main sight and circulation lines.

Physical inactivity is a significant contributor to worldwide mortality and morbidity associated with non-communicable diseases such as obesity and diabetes. An excellent avenue to incorporate physical activity into regular routine is to encourage the use of stairs during daily commutes. The design of the stairs with colourful “I want to climb the stair to fitness” sign at Bugis MRT station in Singapore prompts people to take the stairs rather than the escalator. It captures their attention and instigates reflection on individual and collective benefits alike.

Bugis MRT station, Singapore

Bugis MRT station, Singapore

One of the key findings in behavioural science is to make it easy for people to choose the preferred option rather than to force it. Hotel Svendborg’s conference centre in Denmark cleverly employs this behavioural insight to nudge people toward healthier choices. The interior designer of the conference facility installed shelves with apple displays and a decal with the old saying “an apple a day keeps a doctor away” in the hallway leading guests from the conference room to the snack buffet area offering fruits, cake and coffee. The apples are the first and the last snack item guests see when walking to and returning from the buffet area, making them stand out as an easy choice.

Shelves with apples at Hotel Svendborg

Shelves with apples at Hotel Svendborg

Hotel Svendborg observed an immediate impact of this architectonic prompt. After installing the shelves, the restaurant manager had to order two more crates of apples per week!

These cases illustrate effective use of behavioural insights in built environments. While architecture has always been concerned with how design can influence action, observing and addressing sustainability issues through the lens of behavioural science leads to a new design paradigm that offers huge potential to nudge people towards sustainable behaviour.