IDEC Report: Privacy-Challenged Projects

Sept. 27, 2006
By Julie Stewart-Pollack
The role design plays in salvaging a bit of public solitude.

How many times in a single day is the average working person's privacy violated? How many phone conversations and e-mails are monitored, reading and buying habits recorded, physical movements observed, conversations overheard and computer activities tracked? Technologies to perform these and other privacy-violating activities exist and are used in many public venues. How do we function in a world where we are continuously observed, and how is this significant to design professionals?

To begin to answer these questions, it is necessary to understand the relevance of privacy in relation to quality of life. An often overlooked and under-appreciated complex human need, privacy serves many purposes … from maintaining physical and psychological health to fostering intellectual development and creativity. Also contributing to stress relief, the concept of privacy is a universal need shared by all humans regardless of gender, age, social, cultural, racial, economic, or educational background.

But while we may need privacy for a variety of physical and emotional benefits, we live in a world that is increasingly privacy- challenged. According to a recent survey reported by CNN, a majority of employers observe their employees' activities on the Internet and increasingly install hidden surveillance cameras in the workplace. The ACLU reports that not only can employers read employees' e-mail, access their personal computer files and listen to phone calls; they can use surveillance cameras to film employees throughout the workplace—even in locker rooms and restrooms.

Increasing population density in the world's cities poses another challenge to privacy. Half of the more than 6.5 billion people in the world today live in cities and the migration from rural to urban areas increases daily. Higher density designs, such as those emphasized by the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program, are becoming important sustainability strategies to minimize urban sprawl, encourage use of mass transportation, optimize access to services and reduce loss of prime agricultural land. But the ability to achieve desired levels of privacy for concentration, conversation, or to relieve stress is challenging and requires integrated, multilayered design solutions.

Designing for privacy requires planning environments to support both choice and control. Choice involves the ability to decide how much interaction we have with others and under what circumstances. Control involves the ability to adjust the physical environment or regulate exposure to surroundings. Although both are essential for privacy, choice without control is meaningless.

Research has shown that certain characteristics of the physical environment can be used to enhance privacy opportunities in most environments. Some of these characteristics are discussed here and are examined in greater scope in a book I co-authored with Rosemary Menconi entitled Designing for Privacy and Related Needs.

Spatial Hierarchy
The sequence of spaces through environments should progress from less private to more private. This technique is similar to the design methods used by ancient monument builders and medieval architects whose structures draw people deep into the setting while the spaces become more and more sacred and increasingly private until one reaches the center—the place of ultimate sanctity. Spatial hierarchy provides choices for a range of possible interactions between individuals and groups, and between people and the environment.

We move from one space into another through barriers both implied and literal. Each time we move from one space to another, we cross a threshold—a place of transition. The ancient Greek saying, "A threshold is a sacred thing," speaks to the strong symbolism associated with crossing barriers from one space to another. Doorways, bridges, arches, level and surface changes, lowered ceilings, even a draped bed are all examples of real or implied thresholds. When used as part of a spatial hierarchy, thresholds can reinforce the sequence of spaces from less to more private. Thresholds are also powerful symbols of territory that can be used to define levels of privacy. When used subtly, they connect; when used boldly, they distinguish.

Circulation Paths
Circulation paths bring us to a setting, guide us through the setting, and lead us to our goal within that setting. We can pass through a sequence of spaces or around them. When designing for privacy, circulation paths should not be thought of as roads that connect spaces; instead they should be designed to complement the spatial hierarchy while utilizing thresholds of differing shapes and sizes to clearly mark the passing from less to more private areas.

Prospect and Refuge
English geographer Jay Appleton defined prospect and refuge as environmental conditions that provide the ability to "see without being seen." Prospect is the ability to see what is around us—a vantage point. Refuge is the presence of a shelter or backup element. It is standing at the mouth of the cave or climbing the broad canopied tree. From these vantage points we can survey our surroundings, observe those who approach long before they reach us, watch activities without having to participate, and experience a connection to the larger world. Variations on prospect and refuge for privacy include properly designed decks, terraces, porches, balconies, lofts, level changes and stimulus shelters (described next).

Stimulus Shelters
Stimulus shelters, places where we can pause and get away from stressful situations, provide effective settings for temporary privacy and create a buffer between ourselves and the over-stimulation of some environments. One example is the alcove. Alcoves are as effective in public spaces as they are in homes. In both cases they provide spaces where one person can retreat or a small group can interact comfortably within the larger environment. In a world that increasingly invades our privacy in ways we cannot always control, adding design elements to environments that provide a degree of choice and control over how and where we interact with others may help to relieve some of the stress of "living in a fishbowl."

  • Julie Stewart-Pollack, ASID, is a member of the interior design faculty and coordinator of the Green Design Area of Emphasis at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design in Lakewood, CO. As a consultant specializing in sustainable design and education, she works with architects, designers, educators, and institutions to increase awareness and understanding of sustainable design issues, principles and practices. A member of the USGBC and the IDEC Sustaining Design Task Force, she is a frequent guest lecturer and speaker on sustainable design and built environment issues.

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