Today is World Autism Awareness Day. A day set out to help spread awareness and increase acceptance. Here, Victoria Savage - Project Architect for Churchward School - discusses our key insights for designing for neurodiversity.
Approximately 10% of the UK population is said to be Neurodiverse. Often confused with mental health, Neurodiversity refers instead to the infinite diversity of the human brain and mind…the term is used to refer to people with genetic differences such as Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, ADHD, Tourettes and various forms of Autism such as Aspergers.
“Neurodivergent people aren’t ill, nor do they have a syndrome, it is a difference. But it is a difference that can leave people more susceptible to mental ill-health, which can be created or exacerbated by unsuitable working environments.”
As architects we have a duty of care to the patrons of our schools, workplaces and homes to showcase that design for neurodiversity can be of fundamental importance in improving how Neurodivergent people experience their school or workspace.
Here at Scott Brownrigg, we have learnt this first-hand working on inclusive design projects in the Education sector. The Venturers’ Academy Autistic Spectrum Condition School is the first state-funded school in Bristol for students with a primary diagnosis of autism. Sitting in the grounds of the secondary school, Merchants’ Academy, Venturers’ will host a purpose built sound-proof lecture room, together with sound-proof observation galleries, a sensory room and an outdoor play area which will enable close focus on pedagogy and therapeutic techniques in an unobtrusive way.
Despite having worked on several secondary schools before, it was not until I took on the role of Project Architect for Churchward School in Swindon in November 2018 that I entered the world of inclusive design in full force. Churchward is a new single-storey educational facility that will accommodate 75 secondary school students, aged 11-19 years, with Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC), and/or Social Communication Interaction Difficulties (SCID).
The Head Teacher and Trust CEO are committed to giving their students the very best learning environment, catering not just for their practical, mental and emotional needs with every single decision, but striving to create a platform where the young learners could thrive, push boundaries and smash all expectations out of the park. This was a key driving force in delivering top quality design in line with the client’s vision.
The initial Client Engagement Meetings were held at a sister school and this proved invaluable in giving a glimpse into the unique world of a special needs schools. The topics we were discussing in the meeting could be seen playing out before our eyes in the corridors and classrooms around us.
Looking at our experience from Churchward School, key considerations that presented themselves include:
Warm tones of red and orange are classified as the ‘angry’ tones as they can increase students’ frustration, angst or violence. In contrast, a cool palette of blue hues are proven to create calming effects and reduce episodes of anger and rage. Churchward’s own branding is blues and greys and so these provided an obvious choice for colour selection across the project.
Similarly to designing for dementia sufferers, patterns and ‘busy’ styles should be avoided as flecks, dots and other ranging divergences can cause alarm, concern and distraction for students. To this end, even the carpet tiles and vinyl sheets have been heavily vetted to ensure that the flecks in the flooring products are not significant enough to classify as distracting for the learners who will be standing and walking over them.
The school specific brief was particular on several aspects, with the widths of the corridors being one of them. Corridors of minimum 2.5m wide were essential in order to ensure that a learner with particularly increased physical needs could be supported either side by a staff member and all three of them move around the school unhindered. It was a clear stipulation from the beginning that a single storey mass was required to enable the staff to quickly reach students in need and this line of action was a contributing factor in positioning the staff related rooms centrally at the core of the building, leading onto the quartet of specialist teaching classrooms (DT, Food Technology, Science and Drama) in close proximity to Dining & Main Hall, then with each Key Stage breaking off from this core route to form three distinct wings.
The ratio of students to staff will be up to 75:55 at full capacity as many classes will have staff support for individuals or pairs in order to allow the learners to participate and be fully supported through their lessons. To this end, ease of access from the staff areas remained key; Churchward was designed so that the staff and administration block was in easy reach of the main circulation route and the overall corridor layout simple and easy to follow should staff need to rush from one end of the building to another in short notice. The layout of rooms was also carefully considered so that should the school be opened out-of-hours for weekend fundraising events or after-school evening community projects, the security phasing would not impede the accessibility of toilet and changing facilities for the users. A hygiene room is located at either end of the school and accessible toilets and changing rooms well distributed.
As many neurodiverse individuals thrive best with predictability and routine, Churchward’s building layout of division via key stage presents an easy-to-navigate hierarchy through the school; an open-plan learning space forms the heart of each wing, creating clusters of general teaching classrooms around the breakout space, with modules of calm room, storage, WCs and staff work rooms also incorporated within each Key Stage wing. This familiarity provides consistency for the students across the school and allows for learners to gain confidence at each Key Stage they reach, because they aren’t having to adjust to new layouts and spatial differences on top of typical day-to-day encounters.
The trio of key stage cluster wings concept also seeks to aid the learners’ progression through the school; each wing is of similar but not identical layout design. This intentionality has been taken even into the interior design; working with the FF&E suppliers, each wing was designed to be comparatively progressive. KS3 features bean bags for seating and no study desks, KS4 has a combination of informal seating and study areas and KS5 has tables and chairs set up for group working as a breakout study space from the classes.
With the same levels of commitment, enthusiasm and vision captured across the whole of the design team, the clients’ aspirations for a fully inclusive space to nurture and grow the dreams of their students, these conversations are not hard to transform into reality.
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