Ten years ago Norman T. Gilroy was the head of a prosperous architectural firm here, designing the kind of angular, glassy, high-rise buildings that have given cities the world over a familiar look to strangers.
But an idea that had been growing in the thought of Mr. Gilroy, a native of England who found his way to San Francisco by way of Switzerland, suddenly blossomed into a mission: ''to influence the decision-making process that shapes our built environment so that human concerns are placed firmly in balance with the other factors that preoccpy designers and builders today - economics, style, technology, and function.''
Today the Institute for the Human Environment, a nonprofit corporation, has a worldwide membership and works at many levels to ''provide leadership at the heart of a growing movement on behalf of more human places in which to work and live.'' A staff of eight, headed by Mr. Gilroy as president, directs the organization's activities from a small, comfortably disheveled suite of offices in the World Affairs Center here.
Besides a five-member board of directors, the IHE has an advisory International Council and an Inner Circle - a smaller group of ''key design shapers . . . who are open to, and committed to, creating more human places for people to live and work.''
IHE is involved in many facets of the ''built environment'': architecture and the interior environment, large-scale environments, self-reliant communities, and environments for people with special needs.
Besides membership fees, IHE obtains funds where it can. Sources have included private corporations, US government agencies, United Nations agencies, and architectural and other professional groups.
Two examples of projects besides the one described elsewhere on this page:
When California began work on its coastal zone management plan, the IHE brought individuals from European nations with experience in the field to the state. They shared their knowledge with the state and community officials who were drafting regulations to preserve the California coastline. Later, says Gilroy, a coastal management problem came up in the Netherlands, and through the connection formed earlier, Californians were able to help officials in that country.
In March, a team of Swedish policy makers visited North America to meet with US and Canadian experts working on the Alaska natural gas transportation system. Sweden is considering construction of a natural gas pipeline from new fields in northern Norway. In visits to Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, Alaska; Calgary, Alberta; San Francisco; and Washington, D.C., the Swedes were able to benefit from the Americans' knowledge and thus ''avoid re-inventing the wheel'' in regards to arctic pipeline building.
Eventually, some 75 percent of the natural gas from Norway would be piped to other European countries, diminishing their possible dependence on gas from the USSR.