by Jim W. Sealy, FAIA
Merriam-Webster Online defines human factors as “ergonomics,” and ergonomics as “an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that people and things interact most efficiently and safely—called also biotechnology, human engineering, human factors.”
If you are willing to accept that definition, the contents of this blog will be simple to understand. It is my opinion that the most plausible definition of human factors is simply “the profession of architecture.” It strikes me as funny that the art and profession of architecture is so misunderstood that an architect (like me!) has to write articles to defend what we have been educated and trained to do: to design complete buildings and their related facilities and accompaniments, such as fixtures and furnishings. In essence, the above definition of ergonomics is precisely what we do as architects: design and arrange things people use so that people and things interact most efficiently and safely.
What do architects know?
The above explanation seems very straightforward, but some attorneys (as well as some people on the street) continue to believe mistakenly that professionals other than architects are responsible for the design of most things that go into the making of a building. Attorneys must believe that, or they would not continually ask me questions such as: “What do architects know about the way people walk?”
My answer is simple: Everything! A seasoned architect must have all of the basic knowledge of human factors (ergonomics) that are necessary for them to design and arrange (i.e., detail) buildings.
I hear a lot of these types of questions when I am defending the design of some part of a building that has become the subject of a lawsuit, often in what attorneys call a “premises liability” case. These cases generally involve building elements such as treads and risers, ramps, handrails, floors, doors, windows, etc.—the elements that usually generate the same question of “What does an architect know about human factors?” Sometimes the lawyers slip into the “bio-mechanical engineering” ploy, but it’s all the same stuff. It’s about dimensions, size, scale, proportions, and the physical makeup of a building element, and whether those elements have been designed such that they are safe for people to use.
Stairs are an example
Stairways are a frequent target of attorneys when they go off on their uninformed tangents of touting human factors and/or biomechanics. Architects have been designing stairways, ramps, and other means of vertical transportation for literally centuries; well-preserved monumental pyramids of Mexico, Central America, and South America, as well as the monuments of the ancient Greeks and Romans stand as living proof. In fact, Vitruvius in the first century BC set down the earliest known design guidelines for the layout of stairs. Studies of those early stairways prove that the designers understood the importance of rhythm and consistent dimensions.
One of the most important recorded scientific researches on the way people walk is the work of Francois Blondel in AD 1670. Blondel’s work was important because his theories are based on the size of the human foot—they are functional as opposed to merely visually pleasing. His findings were translated into a mathematical formula that ultimately found its way into at least one of today’s building codes. Blondel’s formula was also the basis for the establishment of the tread and riser dimensions that were included in the other legacy building codes and ultimately what has been transposed in the current International Building Code (IBC).
Much of the credit for the content of today’s building codes goes to Jake Pauls, who was educated as an architect in Canada and researched the way people walk when he served on the staff of the National Research Council of Canada. Based primarily on his research, two of the legacy codes and ultimately the IBC and the National Fire Protection Agency’s 101 Life Safety Code adopted what is known as the “7/11 Rules” for treads and risers. It is unlikely that those dimensions will change in our lifetime.
“Safe, safety, and safely” are words that some attorneys overlook. Architects are bound by licensing laws to design buildings and facilities that will protect the health, safety, and welfare of the general public. If architects are found to have designed something that is unsafe, they have violated their licensing laws. However, this is extremely unlikely. I think it is folly for an attorney to claim that an architect should engage the services of an ergonomist to assist in the design of their buildings. After all, by education, training, and experience, architects are ergonomists, human factors experts, and trained in the art of biomechanics—all with respect to the design and arrangement of buildings and their elements.
That is precisely what we do—that is what we are licensed to do. Therefore, the next time someone asks, “What do architects know about human factors?” the answer should be “Everything!” That is what we are: human factors experts.
What do you think?