Illustration by Caroline Attia
When we talk about the world of construction, we often focus on what buildings look like. Other considerations, like the way a building sounds, are considered less important.
But the way that a room actually feels to use is based around a complex matrix of interlocking factors—noise, temperature and even the smells given off by building materials or wafting in from the world outside.
Scent is actually one of the senses most closely connected with memory and the creation of positive emotions. Scent shapes human behavior, and it can have a dramatic impact on the way we experience a built environment. By using smell in built spaces, architects are able to increase user satisfaction and even encourage certain types of behavior or emotional experiences.
How bad smells shaped modern cities
For architect Christian Stayner, engaging with the world of multi-sensory building design means considering all these aspects of how our senses shape the way we experience a space. He explains that his interest in smell came from “being interested in what other techniques and tools we had as architects beyond just making visualizations of spaces.”
The connection between smell and architecture goes back to the early days of urban planning. As cities expanded, questions of smell reduction were often at the forefront of urban planners’ minds.
“If you look at the history of urbanism and smell over the last 100 years or so, it’s been about how urban planning could be used to remove the negative smells of industry, such as burning coal, of open waste, or sewers,” Stayner said. “At the turn of the last century, in Brooklyn, there was a smell committee that would go about the borough, sniffing out for bad smells and then reporting it to the authorities. There’s a lot of engineering controls that have been put in place in order to manage smells within an urban environment.”
Many of these same techniques of smell reduction are used in individual buildings, Stayner said. Buildings such as restaurants—where a cacophony of smells from the kitchen as well as unfortunate bathroom scents compete for diner attention—use complex smell eradication techniques to create a neutral experience. “Building designers can work with the molecular size of the smell particles to override undesirable scents,” Stayner said.
Using smell to create a sense of place
But for some structures, creating a neutral scent palette isn’t enough. Stayner said that many commercial structures will actually be constructed to promote the circulation of specific smells that promote desirable user behavior.
“There’s actually a lot of major brands that do pretty sophisticated manipulation of you with smell,” Stayner said. “One of the more famous ones is the Westin Hotel. The smell of any Westin Hotel is consistent throughout the world,” a scent the chain describes as a blend of white tea with cedar and vanilla.
“The moment you walk into the lobby, whether you notice it coming in, or it just mixes with the various smells of the airport or downtown business district that you’re walking in from, there’s a brand consistency that works as a subtle way of producing an experience that maybe makes people feel welcomed back or comfortable and in a place that they’ve been before, even if it’s in a different city or country,” Stayner said.
These kind of scent experiences are common across many hotel and hospitality chains, including Las Vegas’ most famous casinos, which have been using scent manipulation to encourage customers to behave in certain ways since the early 1990s.
“There’s certain smells that are released within casinos to encourage different responses from people,” Stayner said, “either to be more sedentary and keep gambling, or to eat, or move on from certain spaces to others.” Artfully manipulated smells within a consumer environment have a profound effect on user behavior.
Building smell into a structure
While the world of commercial scent marketing is well established, using smell in the construction of domestic spaces is less common. But science says that creating an intentional olfactory environment in your home can have positive psychological effects, a concept Stayner experimented with in a recent restoration project.
“About a year ago, we completed our first restoration of a structure on the National Register of Historic Places,” Stayner said. “Historic preservation itself usually focuses on the visual components of a structure, as well as the accuracy of the materials you use. We were more interested in the complete sensory experience of the structure. Buildings start to release smells as they age. Buildings smell regardless of whether you want them to or not.”
Stayner and his team used scent to introduce a feeling of connection to the history of the structure, evoking some of the scents that might have been present at the time it was first built. “We used some commercially available scents that connected with the past of the house,” Stayner said.
For Stayner, scent in domestic spaces can create a particular emotional experience. “Smell can shape the experience of being in a space, as a design component that can’t necessarily be seen but can be sensed, and can very much change the experience of being in a physical designed space,” he said.
However, Stayner believes that the art of scented architecture is still very much in its infancy. “It’s a technique that can sometimes be limited because there’s not a vocabulary for smell that we’re brought up to be able to describe,” Stayner said. “Our noses are far more sophisticated in the amount of information and sensitivity that they can process, but we don’t have the vocabulary to speak about it.”