Specially-abled people often face struggles and spatial barriers because the built environment is designed with an extreme focus on the visual element. This visual bias or ocular centrism is because, in a normal spatial perception process, people are more aware of visual information.

The sensory design promises a more inclusive future. Since the 2000s, architects have focused on designing inclusive environments by opting for devices that enhance the tactile, audible, or aromatic experiences for the user. Interestingly, the sensory design has also been used to seek out solutions for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Here’s a list of 4 examples that use sensory design to benefit users with special needs.

1. Hazelwood School – Glasgow

Designed by Alan Dunlop, Hazelwood school is a state school for teaching life skills to children with severe and highly complex needs. The school caters to 54 students, aged from 2 to 19, with at least dual disabilities. The disabilities range from acute visual impairment to hearing impairment to mobility and even cognitive impairment.

Owing to the complex clinical needs, Hazelwood was an extremely challenging project and involved detailed pre-build analysis with the stakeholders for over 14 months. The result was a building that incorporated visual, sound, and tactile clues. The concept of trail rail was developed to ease the navigation process and orientation through the building. The wall, cladded with cork, had warmth and tactile qualities that helped provide messages along the route to confirm the children’s location within the school. This freedom of movement instilled a feeling of independence within the children. Thus, the school building not only supported the senses but acted as an environment that stimulated the imagination.

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2. Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired – Mexico

Completed in 2001 by Taller de Arquitectura-Mauricio Rocha, The Center for the blind and visually impaired was created to provide services to the disadvantaged residents of Iztapalapa, a district with the largest visually impaired population in the Mexican capital.

The building unravels in a series of three filters that stretch out from the entrance in parallel strips. Different activities are assigned to each filter, namely:

First filter – administrative offices, cafeteria, and utility area

Second filter – Two parallel lines of buildings along a central plaza. The buildings contain a sound and touch gallery (tifloteca-sonoteca)

Third filter – Inner classrooms and private courtyards.

Each group explores a different spatial and structural relationship, such as light intensity, material, size, etc. Horizontal and vertical lines are provided at hand height in the concrete walls to offer tactile clues. Apart from this, a water channel runs through the center of the plaza helping the users reorient themselves using auditory clues. Six types of fragrant plants and flowers are planted throughout the space, which acts as constant sensors to help orientate users within the complex.

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3. The Friendship Park – Uruguay

Designed by architects Marcelo Roux and Gastón Cuña, the Friendship Park is a public space for recreational activities, where children and youth can participate regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities. It is the first park with fully accessible facilities in Uruguay.

The park consists of six sections, arranged as specific episodes, namely:

Labyrinth: the game that integrates touch and communication elements.

Amphitheater: meeting space for various events and development of group activities.

Technology: area covered with amenities and facilities for digital and virtual development.

Children’s corner: games for children from zero to three years old.

Turn and roll: various hammocks and carousels for psychomotor development.

Water: intended for contemplation, and programmed sounds and games.

To make the park an inclusive environment, the architects opted for devices that could enhance the tactile, audible, and aromatic experiences for the user. They used large textured surfaces to build abstract stories on topics related to astronomy, the universe, and the history of humans and animals. Along with this, the landscape architects incorporated diverse plant species to provide specific textures and aromas for the users to re-orient themselves within the space.

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4. MAC House – Italy

The MAC House was designed by So & So Studio for a blind woman in Thiene, Italy. For the woman, who wanted a change after living for 50 years in her old house, the architects elected a natural process of way-finding, which could help her navigate through her new space.

The concept of the house grew out of a simple glyphic language. The architects used a variety of material selection (ranging from stone to porcelain) to guide the end-user between program elements using an embedded map system. A glyphic alphabet of simple rules is encoded on the floor of the house, which creates a system of way-finding.

The spaces were oriented around a singular corridor spine, minimizing any potential maze effect and ensuring efficient movement throughout the house. Along with the three main points of the central path, the entrances are located, giving access from the garage, the front door, and the back patio.

The central hallway further connects the major spaces through the entire house, namely the bedroom and kitchen.

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Saumya Verma is an architecture student with a keen interest in research and psychology. Besides being on a perpetual lookout for interesting projects to work on, she loves discussing ideas and voicing her opinions. She believes that architecture can solve the major challenges that plague society.

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