Designing buildings to be inclusive

by Paul Egan, B. Arch., Planning and Building Unit, Department of Education and Science

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Simple shelters are often the most democratic buildings, as access does not exclude anyone. Often it is when we design buildings for uses beyond mere comfort and shelter that we can experience exclusion; steps and narrow doorways, labyrinths of corridors, or poor layout can make some of us feel unwelcome. Poor design can handicap us, whereas good design facilitates us without causing offence. Our dignity and sense of equality are reinforced when our buildings make us feel included. That feeling of being welcome and of belonging is a positive force in our lives: the essence of civilisation. The statutory Building Regulations now make it a requirement that our homes and public facilities are universally accessible. This puts a spotlight on the notion of ‘inclusion’ in the design of buildings. Architects must be aware of the difficulties and exclusions that buildings might present for some people— especially those with disabilities, whether intellectual or physical. The issue is farther reaching than whether a wheelchair can fit through a door. An increased awareness will move building design and society closer to being more inclusive in thinking. All of us, at some stage in our lives, experience some form of disability; our progress can be frustrated by overly complicated building layouts, illegible signage, or poorly designed doors.

These challenges can be exacerbated if we are very young or old, or managing a physical or intellectual disability. To cater for diversity, design must be generous and embrace inclusive thinking. Everyone benefits from good design.

Building for intellectual disability

During our formative years, the most influential buildings that leave an impression are our homes and schools. The workplace and public buildings may play a bigger role in our adult life, but by then our attitudes and expectations have been already formed. Recognition of the part played by building design in schools for children with intellectual disability is a relatively recent phenomenon. In contrast to parents who seamlessly care for and educate without demarcation, it takes numerous government departments and bodies to cater for our children with special needs outside the home. The Department of Education and Science is restricted to its educational duty. Only when the caring and teaching bodies come together ‘seamlessly’ will we generate advances in inclusive design.

The increased numbers of Special Education Tuition teachers assigned to primary and post-primary schools testify to a recognition of the quest for inclusiveness within our school system. The trend in education, at present, is to integrate into mainstream schools as much special education as is practicable—and where that is not practicable, to develop special schools of excellence.

The analysis and definition of intellectual or learning disability has become very complex. For example, prior to 1998, children with autism were often identified by some other accompanying condition and enrolled in schools specialising in general learning disability, behavioural disorder, or speech and language impairment. Now Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is identified as requiring specific provision.

Designing specifically with intellectual disability in mind is applicable to all building types, but schools are a good study group. The impact that the built environment has on pupils’ well-being and progress can be measured and discussed by the experts in the fields of special education. The insight gained can inform architects of all buildings, not just schools.

Buildings that respond

Sensory and perceptual impairments can lead to an undersensitivity or oversensitivity to noise, smell, taste, light, touch, or movement, fine and gross motor difficulties, poor organisational skills, difficulties in managing the time and sequence of activities (Autism Working Group, 2002a: Jordan, 2001).

The architecture of a building can greatly help in modulating or calming such sensitivities. Design is for mental well-being as well as physical comfort. Architecture communicates. The language, style, and emphasis in a hospital building differ from that of sports and leisure centres. The traditional library exudes calmness and control, order and structure. Libraries are prominent buildings designed for intellectual activity. They have comfortable seating and working facilities with careful climate control. For certain intellectual disabilities, these criteria appear to be similar. We know that our intellectual performance is greatly affected by distraction—distraction of all forms, planned or accidental. Libraries are noted for their serenity. Noisy occupants and passing traffic are not the only threats to a distraction-free ambience; buildings themselves by their design can equally be distracting. The calmness of a room is derived not just from how it quietens sound, but also from the harmonious proportions of the space, the quality of the light, the texture and colour of the materials, smells, temperature, and even movement within the room, or outside a window. We can manage many of these with good design. One of the more tricky aspects to control in a room is the acoustics. The library will nurture a hushed atmosphere by having much sound-absorbing material to reduce reverberated sounds, and it will be a well-insulated building to protect from outside noise.

In complete contrast, other building types such as shopping centres encourage hustle and bustle with riotous colour, music, and movement. Such active stimulation from a lively building might also be appropriate for some forms of intellectual disability.

These two building types communicate their respective intended use in a language that is hopefully clear. That clarity about intended use is desirable in a building. For instance, some children with ASD feel secure where they have delineated individual workstations and clear physical boundaries in harmony with the predictability and routine of their day. The current thinking in the Department of Education and Science is to have personalised bases for students in ASD classrooms of four to six. Being sensitive to a child’s obsessive preoccupation with routine and order, we try to avoid using repeated patterns in flooring, ceiling grids, and anything that might highlight disturbances, or inconsistencies in furniture arrangements. A child might find it distracting if a bookcase were to be moved from its previous day’s position (where it lined up with an imaginary line, particularly floor tiles). So, materials like linoleum and plain plaster ceilings are the norm. Keeping all door handles, sockets, switches, window heads and radiators at consistent heights helps maintain a harmony. Eliminating radiators can help in achieving calmness and clutter-free simplicity. In some areas of the building vibrant colours might be used to provide stimulation. The same thinking about space applies to the external areas. The playground layouts have the added challenge of security. The detailing of gates and play equipment also requires careful analysis and imagination.

Whether we are adapting existing buildings, or building new, an in-depth awareness of our occupants’ needs is the key to the key to establishing the language of the building. Good inclusive design is the result of clarity and an understanding of needs, which ultimately benefit everyone.

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