Peter Arkle

“Architects are afraid of color,” says Janine James, polymath designer and the founder of the New York multidisciplinary firm The Moderns. “And when architects fear something, they call it uncool.” Whether or not we all suffer from some form of chromophobia, it’s true that architects tend to avoid most of the visible spectrum, with their models of white foam board, gray chipboard, and pale wood, and buildings of concrete, steel … and pale wood. Few architecture curricula even offer, much less require, a course in color theory, a foundational subject of study in most other design disciplines.

Sustainability seeks to make design more compatible with nature—and nature without color is, well, virtually nonexistent. Most living things depend on a rich palette to navigate their worlds, and people are no different. Advertisements in color are read up to 42 percent more often than the same ads in black and white, and the human eye can distinguish more than 10 million hues, so it stands to reason that color perception serves a biological purpose. In the mid-1990s, researchers at Texas A&M University studied perceptions of scenic beauty in forest landscapes and found that people invariably were drawn to the green-yellow range of the spectrum. Apparently, we associate verdant colors with food-bearing vegetation—shades that literally nourish.

Color can be a subtle persuader or a powerful lure, influencing health, well-being, and mood. In Color and Human Response, Faber Birren notes that red can raise blood pressure, pulse rate, tension, respiration, and perspiration, while blue has the reverse effect. An experiment by interior designer Shashi Caan during a 2006 design show found that the color of a room can influence how much people socialize in it. Other research indicates that people’s perception of temperature can change with the color of a space: Blue-green can lower the comfort range, while red-orange can raise it, by as much as 10 degrees in either direction. Could a savvy color palette reduce reliance on air conditioning and save electricity?

But color can aid energy conservation more directly. On a summer day in the South, the surface temperature of a white roof can be 80 degrees lower than that of a black roof, and studies in Florida show that surface reflectivity alone can cut a building’s cooling costs by a quarter. U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu estimates that lightening up the colors of all the roofs and pavement in the U.S. would slash emissions by the same amount as banning all cars for 11 years, a staggering claim.

Color can benefit the entire triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. So why is color selection not normally considered pertinent to sustainable design?