Architecture is the science of environment creation, the manipulation of spatial organizations to fit the needs of its users. Architects commonly use the sensory environment – i.e. the auditory, visual, tactile and air quality characteristics of space- to convey meaning and messages to users hence facilitating functions and activities within a space, particularly in the case of special needs users.

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Specialists in fields as varied as sociology, therapy, and architecture have repeatedly argued about how a place and the design of its spaces communicate with the human mind, affects people’s response to events in their lives, and their mental and physical health development. It is therefore important to note that architecture is not a treatment, but rather a part of the healing process and the creation of spaces can harmonize with the treatment to achieve mental and physical well-being.

Most people fail to understand that the aim of designing for the specially-abled is NOT to make a space specifically catered to their disabilities. The objective to create Flexible Spaces which give all persons a sense of comfort and belonging and a better sensory experience of a space, irrespective of their range of abilities.

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How Architecture and Design Can Help the Specially-Abled
use of different colour and materials to facilitate wayfinding. (Source: fabrikbrands.com)

Contrary to the arbitrary approach, there is a lot more to architecture for the specially-abled than just codes and space dimension guidelines. Planning and designing for the differently-abled can be a tough but rewarding experience. It can be a challenge to view the world from a different perspective and bring innovation to space in terms of its sensorial environment. Many people with disabilities are either over or under-sensitive to their surroundings. As architects, it is our duty to create a safe space for them to interact with elements around them that they would have missed in ordinary circumstances. Here is how architects can be more mindful and design with sensitivity:

 

Way Finding: A very important aspect of the design of spaces for the specially-abled is to facilitate wayfinding in a way as to provide ease of access to people ranging across all ages and degrees of disability. Very often, colour is an ideal style of differentiation because it has a versatile application and can elicit specific emotional and physical responses. Other practices include the use of signs or artwork on landmarks, graphic wall illustrations, mosaic tiles, tactile floor markers as reference points. Care should be taken to associate different zones with a specific colour scheme.

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How Architecture and Design Can Help the Specially-Abled
Privacy nooks are a useful provision (Source: Stock Images)

Privacy: When designing for the specially-abled especially medical and therapeutic spaces, special attention must be paid to provide nooks so that there no invasion of privacy. Individuals on the autism spectrum are sometimes very sensitive about their personal space and may need spaces that are away from the public eye for their comfort. One very efficient practice is to provide “nooks” in public areas, which act as spaces where anyone overwhelmed by negative stimuli can go to “disconnect” and regain their composure.

How Architecture and Design Can Help the Specially-Abled
Sensory Wall Panel by Southpaw.co.uk

Sensorial Dimensions: The human senses are active perceptual systems, which can function independently or in combination, interacting with the surrounding environment to extract information. The sensory experience can range from the senses of touch, smell, taste, vision and sound. Touch is one of the first senses to develop in a human and this sense helps to further identify proximity from objects and movements and explore materials and items around them. Vision and acoustic quality can be improved by facilitating daylight through versatile fenestration elements and flexible artificial lighting options. Creating rooms with proportions relatable to use is important so as to not cause claustrophobia or panic. Spaces that might be home to high-stress activities can have sensory panels for people to preoccupy themselves and use them to facilitate relaxation and well as teaching techniques.

Colour and Materials: Colour-mood associations exist at varying degrees between people but there is a general relationship between certain colours and specific emotion, for example, bright colours related with happiness and positive feelings, while dark colours are associated with negative feelings such as being sad or bored.  According to studies, the most preferred colour schemes are mid-blue-green colours. Single colour preferences tended to blue accent, pastel yellow and pastel orange. Paint colours can be used for emphasis on boundaries, an invitation for entrance, the suggestion of excitement, feeling of warmth and scope for individuality. Exterior elements should be coloured such as to blend in with the surroundings, while important areas can have accented colour doorframes, the restricted sections can be painted in neutral colours. A variety of materials can be used to break the monotony and provide tactile comfort.

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How Architecture and Design Can Help the Specially-Abled
Zoning in Randall Children’s Hospital in Portland USA. (Source: segd.org)

Nature: the natural landscape can be wondrously beneficial for sensory experience as well a useful tool in accents and direction. As a result of this, sensory gardens have been developed by various medical and therapeutic facilities all across the world to safely expose people with a wide range of abilities for comfortable sensory interaction with nature. It has also been concluded by various studies that providing such amenities with playful pathways, plants with varying degrees of sensory exposure and flexible shading significantly improve the level of quality physical activity.

How Architecture and Design Can Help the Specially-Abled
Sensory Garden (Source: Pinterest.com)

Architectural design can provide the corner-stone for facilitating ease of movement and healing with spaces built as an interactive process as opposed to ‘holding a disorder within’. Humanizing architecture means creating better architecture and also exploring functionalism in a larger scale rather than purely technical.

 

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Rethinking The Future Awards 2022