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The ergonomics of interiors

Now a lot of times, when we say the word ergonomics, we might think of funky looking desk chairs or computer equipment belonging to someone who takes their job very seriously.  But for an interior designer, ergonomics needs to mean so much more than that. 

At its core, ergonomics simply means the study of how a human being interacts with something else. For interior designers, this means how a human being interacts with their surroundings, spatially. 

Ergonomics are certainly important for office work, which is why it is such a buzzword for office furnishings and equipment that gets used in offices. However, ergonomics applies to any space that a human being might occupy as well as the other objects within that space. 

Let’s start at home. 

When you are home, a successful consideration of ergonomics will likely go completely unnoticed, but an unsuccessful consideration of ergonomics will give you a list of grievances you’ll share with anyone who asks what’s wrong with the place. 

I’ll start. We rent our house at the moment, so I’m definitely constrained by the existing set up. But here are my grievances that all have to do with poorly considered ergonomics. 

  1. My desk where I work is in the basement. The ceilings are so low that I hit my head nearly daily on the smoke detector that just happens to be in the middle of the room.
Figure 1 Section sketch by Audrey Bardwell

2. The tiny spiral staircase that takes me up to the ground level has a few treads that even a child would have a hard time finding their footing on.

Figure 2 Plan sketch by Audrey Bardwell

3. I can’t cross my legs if I’m sitting at our dining table. There’s a bar at the edge that gets in the way every time.

Figure 3 Section sketch by Audrey Bardwell

4. If I’m loading the dishwasher, my dog has no means of either getting to her water bowl or getting away from it. Both she and I find this very frustrating.

Figure 4 Section sketch by Audrey Bardwell

5. The extractor fan above the hob has a nice little decorative surround. Its sharp corner has rudely introduced itself to my temple about 3 times, just in the past week.

Figure 5 Section sketch by Audrey Bardwell

Now how could these grievances be re-considered in view of ergonomics? 

By considering anthropometrics. Anthropometrics is a word that often is mentioned along with ergonomics. Anthropometrics simply means the measurements of a human body. 

General anthropometric measurements fall within a somewhat typical range for most humans. This is why most chairs fall within a certain height off the ground, why most kitchen counters are at a particular height, and why most bathtubs are the width that they are. These dimensions are based on the dimensions that work best with a human being.*

Let’s go back to my list of grievances: 

  1. The Basement Ceiling height minus the thickness of the smoke detector is equal to less than my own height. Without a major renovation or relocating the smoke detector to a less effective location, there’s really only one solution. Move my desk directly beneath the smoke detector. If I physically can’t stand there, I won’t be able to bump my head.              


2. This is just a poorly designed staircase. Those tiny ones in old houses built purely for function, maybe not even for everyday use. The ideal solution in this case is giving more area to the staircase, where the treads can be deeper to accommodate approximately 24cm or the length of an average foot.

Figure 7 Plan sketch by Audrey Bardwell

3. Our dining chairs are a normal height with a seat roughly 44cm off the floor. This is handy because it aligns well with the distance between the floor and the back of the average person’s knee. The problem here is that there isn’t enough space between the seat and the underside of the table. It’s an old table, so it’s probably just encouraging my better posture. However, the obvious solution where I still get to cross my legs is to have a table that allows a greater clearance between the top of the seat and the underside of the table.

Figure 8 Section sketch by Audrey Bardwell

4. For the dishwasher, if there’s about 70cm between the cabinet and the cabinet across and the dishwasher takes up 60cm when the door is folded down, that leaves us with just 10cm of a pathway. Even if we squeeze, neither my dog nor I can fit through that distance. Ideally, the kitchen would be rearranged where the dishwasher isn’t in this tight spot, or there is a greater distance between the cabinet and the one across. Approximately 45cm will be a good distance for the average person to squeeze by.

Figure 9 Section sketch by Audrey Bardwell

5. Now the extractor hood corner is about 160cm high off the floor. Unfortunately, 160cm is also about average eye height. The solution here would be to change the extractor hood to not have a sharp corner here or exchange it for a slimmer profile model.

Figure 10 Section sketch by Audrey Bardwell

With just these 5 examples, you can see that a more thoughtful consideration of how a human being interacts with these objects would allow the design to work better and give less frustration to the end user, who is in this case me. 

It’s this extra level of thought that a good interior designer will apply to their own design. 

The good news is you don’t have to become an expert in ergonomics or a know-it-all when it comes to anthropometrics. The key is to just think logically and to become observant. 

Basic anthropometric data is available in books like the Architect’s Pocket Book or the Metric Handbook, which are both available online to OCA students via the UCA library. 

However, you’re also a living, breathing reference of this information. How much room do you need to move between pieces of furniture? What height seat is most comfortable for you? What’s your eye height when sitting down that makes a tv or computer screen not strain your neck? 

List your own grievances from around your home. What kind of ergonomics or anthropometrics consideration could have made these situations better?

*In history, there are some examples of where the anthropometrics data has been used in a limiting way. See this article in The Atlantic for an interesting read. 

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Posted by author: Audrey Bardwell
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3 thoughts on “The ergonomics of interiors

  • Cool article. There is plenty of non-ergonomic places in my house. Although the moment I speak of moving doors as a first step to improvement my other half looses interest!

  • My main irk is with doors, they open into a room the wrong way, instead of opening towards the wall they open towards the room so if left open they take up space.

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