Designing with and for empathy — Architecture that empowers

Heini Lehtinen
RWII by Raven & Wood Agency
9 min readApr 12, 2020


Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects / Ukumbi NGO, KWIECO Shelter House, Moshi, Tanzania, 2015. Photo Juha Ilonen

Entering into a dialogue and listening with respect open up a path to deep understanding. Architect Helena Sandman develops empathy as a design method both in her architectural practice in low-resource regions and in her PhD research.

Text Heini Lehtinen Images Hollmén Reuter Sandman, Lab.our Ward

In 2016, architect Helena Sandman was conducting field research for developing new approaches for maternity wards in low-resource settings. She was working in a multidisciplinary team lead by a Helsinki-based social impact design agency Scope, then known as M4ID. The team included product and industrial designers, interior designers and architects, service and user experience designers, and a nurse-midwife.

One day, she entered a small village in northern Zanzibar to meet and to talk to women who had chosen traditional birth instead of giving birth at a hospital nearby. She was curious to find out about the reasons why they had chosen to give birth at the village.

Hours went by. The design team members and the women from the village talked through the process of giving birth; what happens, who is with the woman delivering, and many other aspects of childbirth.

Helena Sandman. Photo Arto Wiikari

During the conversation, they were all sitting on low and simple wooden stools. Pointing to the stools, the local women told that most of the women use the same stools when giving birth. Having small handles underneath the seat, it is possible to stick one’s fingers under the legs of the stool, lean against a wall, push one’s heels onto the floor and have a good position for birthing.

“In the North, such as in Finland, it is possible to use a birthing stool in delivery,” Helena Sandman says. “In all Africa or India, where I’ve been visiting delivery facilities, this option hasn’t existed. Women have had to deliver on a bed made of stainless steel, where they can mostly just lay flat.”

In the village, women preferred to deliver as they had used to, using the stool, instead of going to the hospital where they would have been forced to lay down on a bed.

Based on the conversation in the village, Sandman and the team introduced the stool to the Lab.our Ward project, which grew into an open library of ideas and design proposals that can be implemented in the design of labour wards and childbirth practices in low-resource situations.

“Because of the effort of going to the village and talking to the women, it was really easy to introduce the stool into the project we were doing. It was simple to take in,” Sandman recalls.

“In the end, things will fall out more easily, if we just want to go deep with people.”

Wooden stool used for delivery and everyday tasks and referenced for delivery tools for Lab.our Ward project. Zanzibar, Tanzania, 2011. Photo Helena Sandman

Need for new approaches

Helena Sandman is an architect living and working in Helsinki in Finland. She is known for her work in co-design projects in low-resource settings. Working both independently and through architecture office Hollmén Reuter Sandman, she has constructed affordable housing as well as hostels and safety houses for girls in Tanzania, a women’s house in Senegal, and a learning centre in Egypt. Their work has been exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale, among others.

After all this, it wasn’t a long shot that she was proposed to work on a PhD in the New Global research group at Aalto University. The starting point of Sandman’s PhD research was a hypothesis that by designing with users, the users will also have the capacity and the will to live more sustainably and support their own living environments. The research is planned to be published later in 2020.

In design research, this dialogical and engaging approach is often called empathic design. Whereas this field of research is relatively established in the design sector, it has been applied to architecture a lot less often.

According to the Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy, empathy can be understood as experiencing the world from another person’s point of view, positioning oneself in the place of another to sense how one could feel. It is a quality of social encounters that allows for an experiential grasp of another person’s psychological life.

“Because of the speed of the world and how things are changing, we need to be much more flexible in general, and also with how we work as architects,” Sandman states. “We need to be open for collaborations and look for new forms.”

“I think that the attitude of empathy can support us to reach this flexibility and change.”

Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects, Women’s Centre, Rufisque, Senegal, 2001. Photo Juha Ilonen

Dealing with challenging dynamics

Empathic design usually means studying users and their behaviour. It means meeting the users where they are, discussing and co-creating with them to understand their needs and to respond to their needs with a design outcome.

At best, design for empathy can support people in claiming their possibilities to influence, ask questions and stand up for their rights. When based on an open dialogue, mutual respect, and a mutual need to understand the other party, the empathic approach opens up a highway of understanding that can lead to new approaches and innovations that neither party would have come up with alone.

In architecture, that means designing spaces, buildings, urban spaces and cities that respect the needs and wishes of the occupants, provides the occupants control in designing their own environments, and respects the occupants’ perspectives on their own surroundings.

However, the rhetoric and practice of user engaging design are often considered challenging. Avoiding othering — considering we, as designers, to include them, the users — is a serious question.

“The way how I work with the users is based on how the users live and what are their ways of collaborating,” Helena Sandman says. “I’m trying not to force my methods on the users, but form them being aware of how they are used to do and work and talk.”

“In the beginning, the outcome is unknown, and hopefully the result is more genuine and rooted than using any of those more traditional ways of doing it.”

Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects, Women’s Centre, Rufisque, Senegal, 2001. Photo Helena Sandman.

Towards dialogical deep understanding

In her research, Helena Sandman defines three levels of empathy in architecture: the distant register, the connecting register and the deep register.

The distant approach is primarily architect-oriented based on architect and theorist Juhani Pallasmaa’s theory [1]. The architect imagines her or himself as being the user, acting in the space. Additionally, she or he observes the user from a distance — how he or she behaves, goes to work or does his or her tasks — and then designs based on the imagination and the observations. This imagination and observation can bring about new solutions, but it doesn’t much involve the user in the process.

In the connecting register, the emphasis lies on the users and in their activities, emotions and aspirations. In the design discipline, the point of view of empathic design includes a variety of methods to include ‘the other’ in the design process. In a way, designers are doing exercises for the users and engage with them in that asking and then basing the design on what the users want and do.

“The whole focus lies on the user. We do it together, but there is more focus on what the user wants,” Sandman explains. “This originates in product design and marketing and in wanting to make a product that people would want to buy.”

The third option, the deep register, focuses on collective understanding and a balance between the architect and the users. This approach is also the one that Sandman is developing.

In an academic article about intimacy and integrity in designing for social innovation, researchers Yoko Akama and Joyce Lee describe [2] the process of deep understanding beautifully inspired by cultural philosopher Thomas Kasulis’ illustration [3]:

“In regular collaborative and participatory design the relationship between users and designers could be seen as seawater and sand. The waves of the sea form the sand and the beach forms the waves, but the sand remains sand, and the sea remains water. Regarding intimacy in design is as the relationship between water and salt that merge to become seawater.”

“In deep understanding,” Sandman concludes, “I become a part of the other’s world and the others also include me in their world.”

Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects, Women’s Centre, Rufisque, Senegal, 2001. Photo Juha Ilonen

Learning to trust the unknown

In practice, the empathic approach to architecture is not very common — at least not yet.

In architecture, it is usual to say that people have been included in the process, but the dialogue is rarely in-depth. In the Nordic countries, the tradition of participatory design reaches back decades. In the developing country settings, NGOs usually have been using different forms of participation in projects.

“But, in general, when governments build in the developing countries, there is basically no participation included,” Helena Sandman states. “In Finland, most of the projects are really not inclusive either in a sense that people actually would take part in the design process. As neighbours or future occupants, it’s always possible to complain after the design already exists, but it’s not the same than being a part of the design process.”

Is there a difference in the outcome, then, if the process has been a traditional one or whether it has relied on co-design?

That depends on the process. When the design team includes the occupants or future occupants, no one really knows what the outcome will be.

“That’s the architect’s conflict,” Sandman ponders. “The whole educational system of architects is that we are trying to find the ultimate beautiful design of a building. We learn how light should come in and learn the knowledge of creating a space. Then, when we take in the dreams and thoughts, or whatever input, from the occupants, we don’t know what the outcome will be.”

“If people come up with totally different ideas, which don’t seem to fit into our ideas or image of the project, it’s kind of uncomfortable. We need to learn a way to adapt to this unknown, because we might need to compromise our vision without knowing if the result will be better or worse.”

Learning to listen is important for anyone working with people.

“Psychologist Carl Rogers describes this in an interesting way,” Helena Sandman says. “He states that to be able to really listen, you have to be ready to change. If you let go of your own perceptions and thoughts, you might actually take in what the other person says and be prepared for the consequences.”

“You also have to be actually ready to change yourself accordingly. This is scary because it can be dangerous, as how we will change is unknown. •


Helena Sandman was speaker at Spaces of Peace — Architecture as Contextual Diplomacy talks in Brussels, Belgium, in November 2019 along with architect Esa Laaksonen, architect and urban designer Bengin Dawod and conflict resolution professional Miriam Bensky. The conference was organised by design and research office Raven & Wood Agency, The Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux, Embassy of Finland in Belgium and Archinfo Finland. The conference was part of the official programme of Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the EU.

The interview is a part of ‘Spaces of Peace — Architecture as Contextual Diplomacy,’ a project and a series of talks, articles and interviews by Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Spaces of Peace’ looks into crossovers of design, architecture and conflict resolution in order to find synergy between the sectors.



[1] PALLASMAA, Juhani. 2015. “Empathic and Embodied Imagination: Intuiting Experience and Life in Architecture.” In Architecture and Empathy, edited by P. Tidwell, 4–18. Helsinki: Tapio Wirkkala Rut Bryk Foundation.

[2] AKAMA, Yoko, and LEE, Joyce. 2016. “Seeking Stronger Plurality: Intimacy and Integrity in Designing for Social Innovation.” In Proceedings of Cumulus Hong Kong 2016, edited by C. Kung, A., Lam, and Y. Lee, 173–180. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Design Institute.

[3] KASULIS, Thomas. 2002. Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophical and Cultural Difference. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.



Heini Lehtinen
RWII by Raven & Wood Agency

Specialist of societal impact of architecture. Co-editor of book ‘Studio Time: Future Thinking in Art and Design’ (2018).