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Designing buildings for neurodiversity and sensory impact

Words:
Helen Castle

The launch of the first-ever BSI standard on neurodiversity and the built environment will expand conventional notions of inclusive design

As the understanding of neuroscience and neurodiversity has grown, it is apparent that everyone is affected by sensory elements in the built environment. Find out more at the forthcoming free webinar: RIBA Academy - Designing for Neurodiversity: making informed design decisions (see link below)
As the understanding of neuroscience and neurodiversity has grown, it is apparent that everyone is affected by sensory elements in the built environment. Find out more at the forthcoming free webinar: RIBA Academy - Designing for Neurodiversity: making informed design decisions (see link below)

An important milestone is now in sight for the designers of buildings and their users. The early summer of 2022 will see the launch of the first-ever BSI standard providing guidance on neurodiversity and the built environment: PAS 6463 Design for the mind. This will expand conventional notions of inclusive design to address sensory design considerations, such as lighting, acoustics, flooring and décor.  

Jean Hewitt, senior inclusive design consultant at Buro Happold and technical author of the new building standard writes: ‘In addition to designing places to accommodate our diversity in form, size and physical ability, there is also a profound need to design for neurological difference. Since my first involvement in this area in 2009, I have hoped for some progress for the many neurodivergent colleagues, friends and family whose lives are unnecessarily blighted by places that don’t work for them. Some have a formal diagnosis but many do not; there are also many neurotypical people more mildly but regularly affected, perhaps triggering unsteadiness, migraines or experiencing extra daily stress through elements that are not intuitive for them.’

The growing momentum behind inclusive design

During the past three decades, architect and access consultant Jane Simpson says she has witnessed a ‘huge advancement in the scope and definition of inclusive design’. She attributes this to a combination of ‘carrot and stick'. The carrot has come in the form of ‘research and knowledge and best practice guidance alongside social change’ which has helped ‘people understand the social and commercial benefits of an inclusive environment’. The stick comes in the guise of legislation: ‘The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act was an important watershed, followed by the 2010 Equality Legislation Act that introduced other significant elements, such as protected characteristics,’ Simpson says. She explains that this position has been further consolidated by ‘the amount of consultation that has taken place in recent years, which has really improved the understanding of designers about inclusivity’. Engaging with building users in the design involves and empowers people.

The onus is not so much on designing for disabilities but rather, as Helen Kane, director of Neuro by Design and expert on inclusive environment issues, puts it, on ‘people understanding the usefulness of designing for everyone'. She adds: 'Disabled people have taught us lots of things. The typewriter, for instance, was invented in 1808 for an Italian countess who was blind. Access ramps have also proved useful for deliveries. Making provision for a range of people helps everybody. Designing for inclusion is not intrusive if you specify features from the beginning of a project. Yes, retrofitting ramps can be expensive, but if you think about a building right from the outset, there is the possibility of improving circulation and helping us all to move more quickly.’

Increased understanding and awareness of neurodiversity

Scientific research coupled with growing awareness across society has led to a shifting perception of neurodiverse differences. As Kane explains: ‘Neurodiversity is a biological certainty. There’s no way that every one of us with the same sensory input will receive, perceive, process and store and then react to the same signals in the same way. It’s just not possible. If we did that, we’d only need one type of built form. Maybe not one building type – function dictates that a school varies from an office – but we wouldn’t have buildings that took into account differences in users’ reactions or processing.’

She elaborates on how more honest conversations have helped dissipate ‘the fear of the unknown, saying: ‘A lot of people have become so much more open about revealing their differences, attacking the stigma; for instance, Richard Branson talking about dyslexia and Stephen Fry discussing being bipolar. The list is endless. But every time someone who's prominent talks about it the stigma is attacked a little bit and the benefits increase.’

  • For the interior fit out for BBC Cymru Wales in Cardiff, ID:SR Sheppard Robson created colourful and collaborative spaces that are sensitive to neurodiversity. Inclusive design consultant Jean Hewitt advised on the impact of a typical office space on a neurodivergent individual.
    For the interior fit out for BBC Cymru Wales in Cardiff, ID:SR Sheppard Robson created colourful and collaborative spaces that are sensitive to neurodiversity. Inclusive design consultant Jean Hewitt advised on the impact of a typical office space on a neurodivergent individual. Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • For the interior fit out for BBC Cymru Wales in Cardiff, ID:SR Sheppard Robson created colourful and collaborative spaces that are sensitive to neurodiversity. Inclusive design consultant Jean Hewitt advised on the impact of a typical office space on a neurodivergent individual.
    For the interior fit out for BBC Cymru Wales in Cardiff, ID:SR Sheppard Robson created colourful and collaborative spaces that are sensitive to neurodiversity. Inclusive design consultant Jean Hewitt advised on the impact of a typical office space on a neurodivergent individual. Credit: Jack Hobhouse
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The increasing demand from business for neurodiverse environments

Client demand is driving tangible change in the built environment, as Kane outlines. ‘Organisations like the BBC, NHS, JPChase Morgan, Google and Nasa are all positively targeting people who are neurodivergent to work in their buildings because they see the positive benefits,' she says. 'They know that with a bit of change, mostly around their buildings and their HR practices, they can make people comfortable to be their authentic selves in a way that transforms both parties.’

This marks a sea change in the way that companies are viewing the opportunities that diversity brings to business. Popular thought leader Matthew Syed, in his book Rebel Ideas, argues that complex problems can only be solved through the power of cognitively diverse teams of knowledge workers rather than individual intelligence.

Employers are realising both the competitive and social advantage of employing a neurodiverse workforce with a shrinking pool of talent and a sharp increase in the number of workers recognised as neurodivergentin the labour market, particularly with autism. In 2005, for instance, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated the prevalence of autism was at 1 in 166 children; by 2021, this had leapt up to 1 in 44 children

This is manifesting itself in neurodiversity-focused recruitment initiatives, such as the one pioneered by Disability:IN’s  Neurodiversity@Work Employer Roundtable whose corporate partners include Microsoft, Google, Deloitte, Bank of America, HP and SAP.  In 2015, Microsoft set up its own in-house neurodiversity recruitment programme, which substitutes a conventional interview process with a four-day skills assessment, and provides successful candidates with an external expert job coach and internal mentor, while offering optional training for their line manager and team on neurodivergent conditions.

An accelerated landscape

A lot of the changes in the built environment that architects are going to be part of over the next few years were triggered by the acceleration of the adoption of digital technologies for remote working during the pandemic, and these are still to be played out. What exactly, for instance, will replace the hegemony of the open-plan office and the five-day week? What Simpson and Kane are clear on is that it provides an opportunity to rethink a building type, such as open-plan workplaces, in which ‘health is worse, mental health is worse and productivity is low’.

These shifts in change of use provide an important chance to also rethink not only a building’s function, but also how we view designing for users. When recently interviewed for a programme on BBC Radio 4, Simpson was asked ‘What if we were all disabled?’ She responded: ‘Well we all are.’ This is the degree of difference that designers need to be preparing themselves for when designing for the future.

Jean Hewitt, Helen Kane and Jane Simpson are talking at a free webinar Designing for Neurodiversity: making informed design decisions on 24 March 2022. The event is sponsored by the RIBA Enable Community Group.  Register via RIBA Academy.

Helen Castle is publishing director at the RIBA and chair of the RIBA Enable Community Group, which amplifies voices of RIBA staff on issues around disability and neurodiversity, seeking meaningful change in the workplace and across architecture.

 

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