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Qualitative Research and the Built Environment

I almost guarantee that if you are reading this, you are in some form of built environment setting. This is quite a safe assumption as the buildings we work and live in, landscaped outdoor environments we spend our time in and even the methods of transport we use, all count as elements of the built environment. For many of us, on an average day, almost 100% of our time will be spent in surroundings influenced by human design (ONS, 2006).

However, how often do you stop and think about how these environments make you feel? How the technologies and products you use everyday influence your thoughts, feelings and motivations? How you yourself impact the environment for others? Consciously, it is probably not something which you consider often, nevertheless, it is widely recognised that cues in the environments we spend our time in have a psychological impact and an emotional influence on us (Butterworth, 2000).

With this in mind and if environments have the power to affect us on an emotional level then this is a factor which needs to be included in all work we do in construction, planning and design. At BRE, this is exactly the component the social research team adds to projects and a large part of this is through qualitative research.

But, what is qualitative research?

To anyone who is not versed in the language of research methods, qualitative research sounds complex; well, it’s certainly a difficult word to say! However, it is covers a spectrum of highly useful methods which can add valuable insight to your projects or business. These methods range from face-to-face interviews to focus groups and workshops.

In a nutshell, qualitative research is initial exploratory research. Less rigid than quantitative survey research it opens up discussions and encourages free speech around topics. This allows the early discovery and inclusion of emotions, opinions and trends.

Importantly, and why qualitative research is so exciting, is that it is not just about finding out what people think, but why they think it. Talking through opinions in a ‘free’ space allows true motivations and feelings to be drawn out. This gives more depth to answers than possible in a more rigid, quantitative survey response.

When should I opt for qualitative?

Qualitative methods can be extremely valuable to many situations including developing new products, designing new spaces or even coming up with marketing initiatives. However, it is important that you are using these methods at the right stage of the project and for the right reasons. As mentioned above, these research methods should, more often than not, be used at the early stages of a project as a free space for collecting feelings, values and opinions.

Additionally, to get the most out of your findings, it is essential that qualitative research is conducted well. It is surprisingly easy to influence your respondents by providing them with options or including your opinion through tone of voice or the phrasing of the questions. There is value in utilising the skills of trained researchers who have learnt to ask questions in an independent way.

BRE qualitative research

We often utilise qualitative research methods to get to the heart of consumer or user opinions with regard to the built environment. We have conducted a range of research into consumer lifestyle within the home and reactions to new technologies. The team have also developed mixed methodologies which work to use interviews and focus groups in dynamic ways to engage respondents and gain essential insights into aspects of the built environment. More detail about our recent work can be found here.

Through this work, BRE has helped many project teams collect and collate qualitative research to add value and insight to their projects. If you are interested in finding out more from the Social Research Team at BRE and how we could help you, you can contact us at [email protected].



Butterworth, I., 2000. The Relationship Between the Built Environment and Wellbeing: A literature Review. Prepared for the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, Australia.

ONS, 2006. The Time Use Survey, 2005. How we spend our time. Office of National Statistics, London.