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Colour Theory and Architecture

The science and art of color theory is divided by a wheel or chart into three main categories: primary, secondary and tertiary. Color is something we perceive through a combination of wavelengths produced by how light reflects off an object. So how does color in architecture affect us? While color is subjective, it is one of the oldest design elements of architecture and deeply affects how people respond to their surroundings.

Color can be used for more than just decorative purposes. It can also be an indicator of how a building will be used, the emotions it intends to invoke and how it can convey meaning. We see many examples of how influential color is in the world where architecture and sustainability meet.

The Springdale Library, a communal space near Toronto is a great example, incorporating a palette of soothing greens and yellows that reinforce a biophilic design intent. The relaxing green elements in its interior and outdoor surroundings convey its sustainability efforts to patrons.

On the cool side of the color wheel sits blue, blue-green, green and violet. These colors are usually associated with feelings of calm, nurture, freshness and sustainability. Our brains make the association with these colors and connect them to things in nature such as the sky, trees and the sea.

Color in the workplace and community

Biophilic design has been relying on color theory and the emotions it evokes by connecting people to their outside environment. Such design uses not only plant material but also green hues on the color chart. Green is the color most used in nature and why, in fact, we call it the Green Movement.

This practice of using green in the workplace has been shown to reduce the number of days missed and increase feelings of wellness. With less absenteeism, productivity naturally increases.

Further, Le Corbusier, a great pioneer of the Modernist movement, created a color chart with 63 colors that can be used in any combination. Each hue is relevant in both its human and spatial effects. Architects and designers have been referencing Le Corbusier’s Architectural Polychromy charts since their invention in 1931.

The Duke by EDGAR Development, which is located in Vancouver and LEED Gold certified, utilized Le Corbusier’s polychromy color palette to bring life to the doors in their otherwise all-white atrium. The atrium was designed as an open-air space to enhance a sense of community and its colorful doors bring a playfulness to this space.

The building offers affordable and sustainable housing to its renters, eschewing any references to low-income accommodations with its forward-thinking design and use of color.

Revered by architects and designers alike for this masterful color tool, Le Corbusier is quoted as saying, “Colour is an incredibly effective triggering tool. Colour is a factor of our existence.”

Beating the heat with a cool palette

With a planet that’s heating up, there are some colors we can look at for a cooling effect on our psyche. Think watery blues when trying to beat the heat, such as aquamarines, blue-green and teal. Also, avoid oranges and yellows — colors that actually make you think of heat and tropical places.

Whites are not only cooling to the eye but they are used to reflect heat away from buildings. A white or silver painted roof will decrease the temperature inside by up to 9% during the hottest hours of the day and reduce air conditioning costs by as much as 20%.

Conversely, a black building will harness the sun’s warmth and help a building to retain precious heat during the winter months. Depending on the zone the building is in, the use of color can reduce the building’s carbon footprint.

Buildings camouflaged by their surroundings

One trend in new builds is blending the building into its surroundings. This can be done by the exterior color, reflective material or by using rocks found on the land. The choice is often made by the architect and clients so as not to disrupt the feeling of the natural environment that the building sits on.

This is less disruptive to the wildlife that lives in the surrounding environment, while emphasis is placed on bringing the outside in for the building’s occupants. Thus, the design produces a feeling of harmony with the natural landscape.

Architecture that seeks harmony with its natural surroundings often places emphasis on tracking how the light changes throughout the day. Tracking helps to keep our inner clocks in order and to keep our circadian rhythms healthy. Residents who live in these spaces often report better sleeping habits as the building utilizes natural daylight.

Why should we care about the colors we put in a space? Science has proven that when an individual feels happy and relaxed, they will be more creatively inspired and more productive. Certainly, we could all benefit from some inspiration to help change the world that is to come.


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