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Architecture For Autism: Exterior Views

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By Christopher N. Henry
(click here for original article)

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Netley Primary School Autistic Unit

In 2007 I visited one of the most talked about autism buildings at the time, the Netley Primary School Autistic Unit in London, England. To my surprise, the building did not look or function in the way the publication material had depicted it.[1] The teachers I interviewed said the views from the nearly wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows were too distracting for the students. Their solution was to cover ¾ of the windows with paper. On top of making the building look somewhat rundown, this solution appeared to hinder the lighting design that originally depended on more daylight. The lesson for future projects seemed obvious; limit views and adjust the lighting accordingly. That is the conclusion I drew, and apparently so did Haverstock Associates, the firm that designed Netley.

After Netley, Haverstock Associates adjusted their approach for the recently finished Kentish Town School Autistic Resource Base. At Kentish Town, Haverstock scaled back the amount of exterior views by employing opaque walls that allow light in but limit views out. There are still a few large views to the outside, and the opaque walls are punctuated every so often with small clear glass windows, mostly above eye-level, but the approach is noticeably different from the one used at Netley (for Kentish Town project images see here). But is the conclusion about limiting views correct? Perhaps, but it might be something else. Maybe what is viewed matters more than how much is viewed.

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Netley Primary School Autistic Unit

Roger Ulrich tells us that views onto “spaces dominated by hardscape or starkly built content (such as concrete); roof tops and parking lots lacking vegetation; walls of other buildings; and abstract or ambiguous sculpture,” can elevate stress levels and hinder the recovery process for some patients in healthcare facilities.[2] Rachael Kaplan found office workers reporting lower frustration, higher life satisfaction, and overall better health when given a window with a view of nature.[3]

In another study psychologist Frances Kuo and Professor William Sullivan discovered that the differences in the surrounding vegetation markedly impacted a resident’s well-being. Kuo and Sullivan compared the health of residents at two architecturally identical 16-story Chicago public housing buildings. For maintenance purposes one building removed all the vegetation while the other building retained sparsely situated trees, shrubs, and grass. The residents living in the vegetated housing project more effectively coped with stress, better managed conflicts, and had higher cognitive functioning. The researchers noted, “attentional performance [was] systematically higher in individuals living in greener surroundings; [and] management of major issues [was] systematically more effective for individuals…living in greener surroundings…It is striking that the presence of a few trees and some grass outside a 16-story apartment building could have [such a] measurable effect on its inhabitants’ functioning.” [4]

Evidently, what we view can be as or more important than the amount that is viewed. The expansive views at Netley are possibly less of a problem than what the students with autism and teachers view. At Netley they look onto a barren hardscaped courtyard with a few small rectangular concessions for vegetation that are grossly inadequate to foster healthy plant growth in a schoolyard setting. And as we saw, some research seems to suggest that a bleak picture like this can raise stress levels, lower performance, increase aggressive behavior, and deteriorate interpersonal relationships. Perhaps the teachers wouldn’t have had to cover the windows if the view held more restorative and positive qualities. There is a difference between a distraction and a needed restorative break.

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Netley Primary School Autistic Unit

Still, the evidence for restorative views is not specific to autism, perhaps pleasant views are still too disruptive. Also, creating such views has specific tradeoffs that must be considered for each individual project. For argument’s sake, let’s say that what is viewed really does matter as much or more than how much is viewed. How much would it cost to create a restorative landscape view at places like Netley or Kentish Town? Is it even possible with the site constraints at Netley? As I mentioned in a previous article, design interventions can be statistically significant, but come with price tags that negatively influence other budget items, like teacher salaries, additional training, or specialists. By implementing such cost intensive interventions, architects could be lowering satisfaction and driving up attrition rates in a field that does need any help accomplishing that.[5] In the broader context of a client’s goals it might be more beneficial to limit views than splurge on the landscape. If these hypotheticals are true of Kentish Town then one might say the design aesthetic is less than ideal, but overall it is architecturally more valuable and responsible.

The problem is that we don’t know if any of the above hypotheticals have any validity. One would hope that a restorative landscape outweighs the costs, but the current research methodology used to assess autism facilities makes a mess of causation and correlation. With more and more autism schools and classrooms popping up each year it is becoming possible to conduct comparative studies between classrooms that have good views, bad views, and limited views. Until then, as with the issues surrounding lighting, the debate continues.

If you enjoyed this article check out more by Christopher N. Henry here.

[1] Young, Eleanor. “Special deeds.” RIBA Journal 111.7 (2004)

[2] Ulrich, Roger. “Biophilic Theory and Research for Healthcare Design.” In Biophilic Design, edited by Stephen R. Kellert, Judith H. Heerwagen, and Martin L. Mador,. Hoboken, New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons, 2008 p. 102.

[3] Kaplan, Rachel. “The Role of Nature in the Context of the Workplace.” Landscape and Urban Planning. 26:193-201. 1993.

[4] Taylor, Faber, Frances Kuo, and William Sullivan, “Growing up in the inner city: Green spaces as places to grow,” 24.

[5] Billingsley, Bonnie S. “Special Education Teacher Retention and Attrition: A Critical Analysis of the Research Literature,” The Journal of Special Education Vol. 38/No. 1, 2004, p. 39–55.

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