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Architecture for Autism: Exterior Views

Netley Primary School Autistic Unit
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.  Rachael Kaplan found office workers reporting lower frustration, higher life satisfaction, and overall better health when given a window with a view of nature. 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 systematically higher in individuals living in greener surroundings; 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 measurable effect on its inhabitants’ functioning.” 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
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. 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. Young, Eleanor. “Special deeds.” RIBA Journal 111.7 (2004) 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. Kaplan, Rachel. “The Role of Nature in the Context of the Workplace.” Landscape and Urban Planning. 26:193-201. 1993. Taylor, Faber, Frances Kuo, and William Sullivan, “Growing up in the inner city: Green spaces as places to grow,” 24. 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.  

Netley Primary School Autistic Unit
Netley Primary School Autistic Unit

Cite:Christopher N. Henry. "Architecture for Autism: Exterior Views" 04 Apr 2012. ArchDaily. Accesed . <http://www.archdaily.com/223076/architecture-for-autism-exterior-views/>