Hue Knew? Why Building Color Matters

TUESDAY, MAY 27, 2014

CINCINNATI—Staring down a battalion of beiges, buffs and browns for the next project, architects, builders and specifiers may wonder: What (*$!@&% difference does it make?

The answer, says Jill Pilaroscia: More than you would ever guess.

In architecture, color holds power and value that most building professionals do not realize, says the noted color expert.

For better and for worse, color in the built environment shapes physiological, economic and behavioral responses that transcend conscious color preferences.

Thus, its power to influence—not merely decorate—is why color matters in architecture, Pilaroscia told building professionals last week at the D+D 2014 conference, which closed Thursday in Cincinnati, OH.

"Color can be a volatile topic," said Pilaroscia, a well-known color expert whose "Life in Color" blog appears regularly in D+D News. (She also recently wrote "Architecting Color" for D+D Magazine.)

"Color matters, and it really provides clients with a positive return on investment."

Color in the built environment can calm or stress; stimulate or numb body and mind; lift or darken spirits; open or close wallets; enhance or diminish market value; and even speed or impede project approvals, says Pilaroscia.

Design Tool

Most architects and builders are not schooled in color, says Pilaroscia, owner of San Francisco-based Colour Studio Inc.

That's unfortunate, she adds. Like light, angles, textures and buliding materials, she says, color should be employed as an integral design tool, not a decorative afterthought.

Its importance also makes color decisions more complicated, Pilaroscia notes. Successful color schemes must consider the age, gender and culture of the occupants and community, among many factors.

Rikard Kuller study

A 1976 study of the effects of color in two commercial environments found higher heart rates and more boredom by occupants of the gray waiting room (bottom). Such findings have implications for medical and educational building design, says Pilaroscia.

Different occupations have different color preferences (visual stimulation junkies like tech workers favor bright, saturated color), and designers must also be mindful of the space's purpose, Pilaroscia said. (Note to employers: Avoid neutrals, which are likely to put your staff to sleep.)

Color Influences

Perceptions of color are affected by lighting, of course, but Pilaroscia notes that they are also influenced by climate, regional light, and even age.

"The amount of moisture in a particular region’s air molecules influences how color and light bounce," she said.

Color perceptions also shift and dim with age, she adds. "The over-65 market will be best served with cleaner colors like yellows, clear blues and warm whites," said Pilaroscia. "Muddy colors like khaki can be hard for the aging eye to discriminate."

SF building before SF building after

This beige box in San Francisco donned a fresh, four-color face before going on the market. The change created a "dynamic street presence," and the building sold quickly, at a $30 million profit, says Pilaroscia.

Boomers, on the other hand, "seek self-expression and spirituality in their color choices," she says. Think soothing blues, greens, pastels and "complex neutrals" like "greige" and taupes.

Geographic location also makes a difference, said Pilaroscia. One multinational that developed its global color scheme for interiors in New York found out that the naturals and neutrals "looked sad in London and culturally foreign in Mexico."

Conversely, the ubiquitous urban-chic black tones in the United States would evoke feelings of death and bad luck if used in many areas of Asia, she said.

Evidence-Based Design

There is science behind all of this theory, Pilaroscia advises.

Green ketchup

Color holds purchasing power. Heinz's experiment with green and purple ketchup did not last long.

In a 1976 study of two waiting areas—one gray and dim; one colorful and airy—researchers monitored pulses and heart rates of the occupants. Occupants in the colorful environment showed lower heart rates and reported far less boredom, she said. Such findings have implications for security, health care and other environments, she adds.

Another study of possible color schemes for a school renovation project showed higher IQ scores and fewer behavioral disruptions in the winning design, she reported.

"I think it’s important for color designers to stress the science" behind architectural color, "and then begin to sell it as a positive return of investment," she told the audience.

"Paint is cheap and cheerful as far as a return on investment for a building owner."


Tagged categories: Architectural coatings; Architecture; Color + Design; Color selection; Colour Studio Inc.; D+D 2014; Design

Join the Conversation:

Sign in to our community to add your comments.