Design for Neurodiversity

Brain Trust: Architects engage with users to create environments that support those with a multiplicity of neurocognitive abilities and needs
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Architectural Record
By Katharine Logan

As a broadcaster that is publicly funded through mandatory fees, the BBC has a responsibility to represent the diversity of society, both in its programs and in how those programs are made. The BBC Cymru Wales Broadcast Centre, a 280,000-square-foot facility that opened in 2019 in the country’s capital city of Cardiff, exemplifies the movement to make buildings more accessible and healthful for neurodiverse talent. “A lot of design for wellness focuses on super-fit people and outstanding performance in the workplace,” says Helen Berresford, the partner in Sheppard Robson’s London office who led the project’s interior-architecture team. “For the BBC, it’s got to do more.”


A CHILDREN’S hospital at the Medical University of South Carolina (top, right) has such autism-friendly features as cloudlike lobby light fixtures that create interest without adding distracting pattern (top, left), waiting-area nooks that encourage play (bottom, right), and display shelves that allow patients to make their rooms their own (bottom, left).

To help guide new design or evaluate an existing space, the broadcast corporation’s CAPE (Creating A Positive Environment) initiative has produced a Neuro-Inclusive Toolkit, which identifies visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile factors that can affect people with heightened sensitivity. To provide a more visceral understanding, BBC film crews have produced videos portraying typical workplace settings from a neurodivergent perspective. At pre-design workshops for the Wales HQ , design team members who viewed these videos through virtual reality headsets emerged converted. “It generated a physical and emotional response,” says Berresford. “After having experienced it, none of us could design the same way again.”

A key strategy in making the new BBC building more neuro-inclusive is clarity of wayfinding. A grand atrium is designed to welcome the broadcaster’s employees and visitors, “but if you’re somebody with a more rich and complex neuro scenario—that the BBC is now looking to include as normal—you could be intimidated,” says Berresford. So the design uses both spatial organization and sign­age to make finding a destination straightforward. A person entering the Centre can go directly to a building plan, view their objective on a simple graphic complete with landmarks, map out an “open” or “safe” path, and rediscover their route at signposts along the way. Meeting rooms, each with its own color, are stacked on bridges visible from the entrance, and immediately obvious staircases provide a clear path of travel.

To meet the needs and preferences of a neurodiverse workforce, the building offers more than two dozen different types of spaces from which employees can choose what will best support them and their work over the course of the day. For example, an employee recovering from a traumatic commute might start the day in a small booth with the door closed for a couple of hours of quiet work before migrating to a collaboration space, desk area, studio, or presentation zone. “In a sense, it’s given us an opportunity to design in a more human way,” says Berresford. “We’ve got scientific-medical backup to create spaces that are softer and more enclosed, and to provide that variety. It just backs up what we think as designers you should be doing in an office environment anyway.”

Helping to validate the team’s decision-making was a process of iterative consultation with neurodivergent BBC staff. Berresford describes testing a meeting room mockup in which a colored film on the room’s glass wall incorporated a thematic pattern. The pattern, an abstraction of the iconic cliffs of Wales, had been pulled from a competition-winning fabric by a Welsh design student and threaded throughout the building. For the test group, though, the pattern was too strong for them to sit comfortably in the room. Instead of eliminating it (an obvious response, which the test group rejected), the solution was to intensify the color, thereby softening the pattern, and to add layers of enclosure inside the glass, including soft veils that occupants could draw if they were starting to feel uneasy. “Instead of dumbing down the solution, we ended up heightening it,” says Berresford. “And we were able to do that because we were speaking with the people who were experiencing it.”

User group experience was similarly important in the design of a new children’s hospital that opened in 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. At the facility this project replaced, children with autism were sometimes too overwhelmed to get out of the car, and practitioners ended up treating them in the parking garage. Among the goals for the Medical University of South Carolina’s (MUSC) new 625,000-square-foot building was an aspiration to be the most autism-friendly hospital in the country.

“Truly listening to the challenges of families and caregivers enabled us to collaborate to solve for the complex needs of both,” says Carolyn BaRoss, health-care-interiors design director for Perkins&Will. “MUSC relinquishes traditional notions of what a children’s hospital should be and instead is designed with sensitivity to the specific needs of those who use the space.” So, rather than a chaotically colorful, patterned, and even cartoony environment, which is often an adult’s idea of what a children’s world should be, says Manuel Cadrecha, architecture design principal at Perkins&Will, “it was important that it be a place that not challenge patients but offer a level of balance, familiarity, and control.”

Attention to spatial composition and scale helps to make the environment feel manageable. On each floor, a theme wall at the elevator orients building users, and a color accent from the artwork links to the floor’s nursing stations and patient rooms. Waiting areas provide places where children can run around and nooks where they can tuck themselves in. Patient rooms support the child’s sense of control with a choice of places to sit, lighting they can adjust to their comfort, and opportunities to make the room their own: a write-on wall, shelves and display areas for their things, and even the possibility of decorating their door.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in January 2021