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RNIB's new HQ becomes exemplar in designing for blind and neurodiverse people

Words:
Andrew Pearson

How Kay Elliott Architects and Buro Happold reworked the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s Grimaldi Building in King's Cross for inclusive access

The Grimaldi Building was a 1990s office built in the form of the church that formerly occupied the site.
The Grimaldi Building was a 1990s office built in the form of the church that formerly occupied the site. Credit: Buro Happold

Jean Hewitt accessibility and inclusive design consultant at Buro Happold and technical author of PAS 6493 Design for the Mind – Neurodiversity and the Built Environment
Yuli Cadney-Toh project architect, Kay Elliott Architects 
Chris Kenny associate, Kay Elliott Architects

How did this office refurbishment become the first to incorporate the standard for design for people with neurodiversity, BSI PAS 6493?

Jean Hewitt I was already working with the RNIB on a project at Moorfields Eye Hospital. After buying this building, the RNIB asked me to do a light-touch access audit to highlight the big ticket items. 

Tricia Smikle, RNIB senior project manager, wanted the building to be exemplary in terms of accessibility, and I was just finishing writing a new standard about designing for neurodivergence, so we included that. 

The project was fast-track. Buro Happold’s lighting, acoustics and asset consulting teams were quickly on board. The RNIB needed an architect; we were working with Kay Elliott on a project for Guide Dogs for the Blind, so we knew they understood about designing for sight loss and they teamed up with us. 

What was the architect’s role?

Yuli Cadney-Toh The RNIB’s headline for our appointment was: ‘We want to create a beacon of accessibility’. 

We began by engaging with stakeholders, taking on board lived experiences, and looking at how people would like things improved when downsizing and moving to the Grimaldi Building.

Built as an office in 1990s, it is a replica of a church that originally stood on the site. It has five floors, an existing lift and staircases front and back. We already knew from Jean’s accessibility audit which elements didn’t work, and being tired, the building needed remodelling generally. Our role in designing for accessibility started at the front gate and continued throughout the interior levels, to create the diverse environments identified by Jean, from a designated quiet floor and collaborative spaces to a serenity room.

I found working for the Institute a joy, the architecture and detailing of spaces were always inspired by inclusion, never about constraints or just meeting building regulations. It is by holding fast to ‘no compromise’ on the accessibility brief that got the RNIB this result.

Contrasting trims on stair nosings and ramps consider accessibility from the get-go.
Contrasting trims on stair nosings and ramps consider accessibility from the get-go. Credit: Buro Happold

Are there conflicts between adapting a building for differing access needs?

JH Designing for blind and partially sighted people is mostly compatible with designing for neurodivergent people. Most neurodivergent people have information sensory processing differences, around 70% of which will be people who experience hypersensitivity to the environment they are in, often in response to lighting and noise. 

However, lighting glare can also adversely affect people with certain types of sight loss. When we did user trials, we found that most people with sight loss wanted a bluer light while people with hypersensitivity generally favoured a warmer light.

What RNIB has done is provide fully adaptable, adjustable lighting for both Lux level and colour temperature for every cluster of desks on the three office floors; people sit based on their lighting preference, which works well. The same adjustability is provided in the shop, boardroom and Serenity (quiet) Room.

There is a designated quieter office floor and a collaborative office floor.

How do you reconcile having visually contrasting surfaces with providing a calming environment for neurodiverse occupants?

JH The building has a calming colour scheme based on mixed monochromatic backgrounds of greys and whites, which gives good visual contrast with splashes of colour added to differentiate the floors. It is a legal requirement under Building Regulations to have visual contrast between adjacent surfaces, so we always maintained a minimum contrast of 30 points difference in Light Reflectance Value – as is required in the UK.

  • The reception and waiting area at ground level. RNIB has employed wayfinding software as well as spatial considerations to help users navigate the building.
    The reception and waiting area at ground level. RNIB has employed wayfinding software as well as spatial considerations to help users navigate the building. Credit: Buro Happold
  • Flare paths guide users along circulation routes and make tactile distinctions between this and office areas.
    Flare paths guide users along circulation routes and make tactile distinctions between this and office areas. Credit: Buro Happold
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How do the blind and partially sighted people navigate the building?

JH There is beautiful tactile signage that incorporates braille, and raised lettering so that non-braille readers can feel the words. There are also tactile additions to the staircase handrails with embossed bars to count down steps from the landing, with three, two and then one.

The main circulation route on each floor is indicated by an embossed vinyl path – the flare path. Normally for the RNIB this would be bright yellow, which I thought would create a conflict between user needs because often neurodivergent people with visual hypersensitivity are sensitive to bright colours. Happily, testing with visually impaired users showed the flare path could be a similar colour to the adjacent surface if it felt different underfoot and could be detected by the long cane used by blind people. 

The building also uses NaviLens wayfinding software. This has a code, similar to a QR code, that can easily be picked up by the camera on a mobile phone. It gives an audio description of the immediate area. For example, if I point my phone in one direction it might say, ‘Three metres to store cupboard’; then if I continue to move my phone it might say ‘10 metres to reception’. Staff also have the code on their lanyards so people know the name of those approaching.

NaviLens codes have been installed along Pentonville Road too, to direct people from King’s Cross to the building.

What other adaptations are there for blind people? 

JH There are integrated tea points on the office floors. Because all the cupboards look the same each has a tactile sign in charcoal grey that says what it contains.

Also, the cupboards are fitted with two 300mm doors rather than the usual 600mm single door, so that if the door is left open it will not project beyond the worktop. The signage manufacturer MK Designs has added a highlight colour to the leading edge of each door that matches the theme colour for the floor to make them visually apparent.

Also, some worktops have a lipped marine edge to help contain any spills.

There are a lot of publicly accessible spaces – a big success was being able to plan them to feel welcoming

  • In the kitchen, wall units have double 300mm doors so as not to project beyond lipped worktops.
    In the kitchen, wall units have double 300mm doors so as not to project beyond lipped worktops. Credit: Buro Happold
  • The serenity room provides fully adjustable artificial lighting to allow for multiple user need.
    The serenity room provides fully adjustable artificial lighting to allow for multiple user need. Credit: Buro Happold
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How did the design process work?

Chris Kenny First we’d have a workshop with Jean and representatives of the different functions of the RNIB. Then we’d present our designs in a workshop, for feedback. Presenting was very different, we had to put a lot more thought into describing the layout to help people visualise our proposals. Jean would follow with a more detailed mark-up of plans. This happened on an iterative basis as the design was refined.

There are a lot of publicly accessible spaces: the low vision clinic, Products for Life store and recording studios. A big success was being able to plan these to feel welcoming on the public floors, which are the ground and lower ground. Spaces are designed to share functions. For example, the Products for Life store is adjacent to a living room space that can be used as a lounge or to demonstrate products. There is also a kitchenette for staff use where members of the public with sight loss can try out kitchen aids.

How easy was it to incorporate PAS 6493 into the design?

JH I thought this would be an interesting test for the standard because of the potential conflicts of designing for sight loss, but it was surprisingly easy. What we’ve shown with this project, which isn’t even a new building, is that it’s possible to design for inclusivity and neurodiversity. If it can be done here, on a charity’s budget, anybody can do it. 

 

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