Architecture for Autism: Exterior Views

Netley Primary School Autistic Unit

In 2007 I visited one of the most talked about 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.

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.

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.
Christopher Henry has been researching, writing, and consulting on autism design since 2005. He has conducted post-occupancy evaluations of autism schools, homes and clinics in Denmark, England, and the US. Christopher also spent 9-months working direct-care at Bittersweet Farms, a residential and vocational facility for adults with autism. He currently runs Autism Design Consultants, where you can find more information about autism design.

[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.


Cite: Henry, Christopher N.. "Architecture for Autism: Exterior Views" 04 Apr 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 29 May 2015. <>
  • Alan Wieskamp

    While I appreciate the hypothesis and questioning of views for Autism disorders, I can speak from experience with my oldest son who has multiple Autistic issues, but predominantly has been identified with Aspergers. In his case views are not the problem nor is vegetation or lack of vegetation. The issue is movement. He can be distracted by a bird that flies by. The shape of clouds as they change. If the purpose of the windows is to let light in, by all means let natural light in. If the view is of a blank wall, I don’t think my son could care less and I know his mood would not change.
    How you compare a study from general population living in apartments and if they have vegetation available in their views has little to no bearing on children, or adults with Autism. I’m sure they like trees and grass as much as the rest of us, but the “emotional” connection we have with it is not the same as the connection autistic people have with it.
    For my son to get through school, he must sit by the windows. He does not like the feeling of being by the door. He does not like unexpected movement or commotion. Everything must be planned and scheduled. The best classroom for him and those with similar issues, a classroom with no windows or transluscent glass. No views. or perhaps a large skylight. Keep all the walls orderly. Do not induce strange angles or shapes. Most prefer order and easily recongnizable concept of a design. There must be a reason for why something is the way it is. They will be distracted beyond comprehension of the outside world trying to figure it out. Do not complicate their lives.

    • Christopher Henry

      Thank you very much for sharing your perspective. I agree that the research on restorative views is not specific to autism, and what might be considered restorative can still be too disruptive for an individual with autism i.e. the bird flying by or the clouds changing shapes. At the same time, after working at Bittersweet Farms in Ohio, I observed many individuals responding positively to views of nature. It seemed to calm some down and I would feel terrible if I limited their views. (This, of course, could be cognitive bias.) I guess I am conflicted in what I think is an appropriate solution and would love to see comparative studies like the ones mentioned in the article, but specifically for individuals with autism.

      On a slightly different note, I would like to hear your feedback on the ‘neuro-typical’ approach that I write about in this article:

      It seems like there are roughly two approaches to autism design. The sensory sensitive approach which it seems like you would agree with and the ‘neuro-typical’ approach. I wrote about the sensory sensitive approach in these two articles:

      If you have time, I would appreciate your insight into these articles.

      The last article that might be of interest is my critique of the current methodology of studying autism homes, schools, and clinics:

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  • Bill Finnegan

    Dear Christopher,

    I see that you reference Roger Ulrich’s article about biophilic design in healthcare settings from the book Biophilic Design. You might be interested in the documentary I recently completed with Stephen Kellert which explores the impact of architecture that connects people and nature. See: