After showing two groups of schoolteachers a videotape of an eight-year-old boy, psychologists John Santrock and Russel Tracy found that the teachers’ judgment of the child ultimately depended on whether they had been told the child came from a divorced home or an intact home. The child was rated as less well-adjusted if the teachers thought he came from a home where the parents were divorced. This finding might seem inconsequential to the field of architecture, but for a profession that often relies on observational studies to evaluate a design’s effect on its users I argue that Santrock and Tracy’s study is one among many architects need to pay attention to.
An observational study*, like post-occupancy surveys, is a common method architects use to evaluate a design’s effect on its users. If done well observational studies can provide a wealth of valuable and reliable information. They do, however, have their pitfalls, most notably controlling for cognitive and selection biases. At the risk of limiting readership, I will illustrate these challenges by reviewing a specific observational study dealing with autism design. Although specific, the following example wrestles with the same difficulties that other observational studies in architecture wrestle with.
Post-occupancy surveys and/or interviews are a common tool used in architecture to evaluate the success of buildings. They can be very useful and should be implemented as long as architects do not expect or claim too much from them. Much has been said of their benefits, but it is concerning to see some architects present them as some kind of scientific proof of a design’s success or failure. Although I am a strong advocate for post-occupancy surveys, I think a little pushback is necessary. A brief review of their methodological weaknesses should make any architect pause before claiming a survey has vindicated their ideas.
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. 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.
April is Autism Awareness Month, and ArchDaily would like to draw your attention to the architectural coverage we have done on the topic. Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are developmental disorders that affect 1 in 88 children. The spectrum is large and diverse. It ranges from individuals who can be socially withdrawn, have extreme learning difficulties and little to no communication to individuals who can be highly intelligent but socially awkward. Each individual, however, exhibits, to varying degrees, impairments in social interaction and communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior. ArchDaily’s coverage looks at the various approaches architects have taken when designing for individuals with autism. We hope to get your feedback on the articles and your help in spreading autism awareness.
No other profession can make the proverbial male measuring contest more visual and dramatic than architecture. Whether it is about being the tallest, most lavish, most modernist, most minimalist, most post-modernist, or most deconstructed, too many, but not all, of history’s celebrated architects come across like a bunch of juvenile boys standing on a stream bank trying to project their urine further than the next. Even with noble ambitions, their narcissistic “fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love,” have often put them out of touch with the plight of their fellow human beings. I will offer a simple and very unoriginal solution to this problem; hire more female architects.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently gave the National Park Service 30 days to revise a truncated and controversial quote inscribed on the newly built Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The inscription, paraphrased by architect Ed Jackson Jr. and artist Lei Yixin, turns a speech about humility into a quote that makes MLK look like, in the words of Maya Angelou, an “arrogant twit.” Thankfully this will be corrected, but it remains unclear to me how the design team will satisfyingly right this wrong.
In 2007 I presented a conceptual (unbuilt) design for the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic. During that presentation I argued for a calming environment, in part because of high divorce rates among families with individuals with autism. There is one catch; I couldn’t have known what the divorce rates were. No study prior to 2010 had seriously looked at divorce rates among families with autism, more on that later. My irresponsible and inexcusable blunder reflects the depressingly common urge we have to jump to conclusions about the why and how of a situation before we analyze the reality of it.  For centuries, countless scholars built elaborate models to explain why and how the sun went around the earth without ever asking “does it?” This kind of cognitive blindness makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; it is better to assume a hungry lion is making the grass rustle than to ponder if it is nothing at all. Not surprisingly we tend to make more Type I errors (false positives) than Type II errors (false negatives). Although advantageous on the African savannah, this type of thinking can be disastrous when making design decisions.
How do we know that sulfuric acid does not cure scurvy? Is it our wonderful intuitive sense about sulfuric acid’s properties? That can’t be it. Vitriol (sulfuric acid) used to be the Royal College of Physicians’ favored choice. The British Admiralty preferred vinegar. Still others favored a variety of remedies including the seemingly ridiculous notion of fresh fruit. This mess wasn’t sorted out until a young Scottish naval surgeon named James Lind did something revolutionary. In 1747 Lind conducted world’s first controlled clinical trial. Fresh fruit won, sulfuric acid and vinegar lost.
Similarly, there are various untested claims about which architectural interventions are beneficial for individuals with autism (see: here, here, here, and here). For the most part, these claims are mired in anecdote and conjecture. This makes it impossible to decipher which ones are sulfuric acid, vinegar or fresh fruit. Fortunately there are a few architects that have started to embrace the Lind spirit. This is the most important and necessary step architects need to take. If architects do not try to verify their claims through fair tests then they run the risk of undermining the public’s trust or worse, unintentionally doing harm to a vulnerable population.
How often do you hear phrases with the following general undertones: “architecture isn’t a profession it is a calling,” “architecture isn’t a career it is a way of life,” or “architecture doesn’t make life possible it makes it worth living”? Perhaps not that often, but enough that many architects see themselves as uniquely sacrificing aspects of their life for a higher cause. Some claim that architects have high divorce rates, suffer from depression, and endure a special degree of stress that causes early mortality from cancer and heart disease. Yikes! But what evidence is there for these serious claims? Admittedly, the evidence for or against such claims is not very robust. The first and best answer, except in the case of divorce, is to say, “I don’t know.” Sorting out the muddled statistics takes a fair degree of interpretation and guesswork. However, after reviewing the data that are available, it is more reasonable to believe that architects are, on average, happily married and healthy people.
Imagine meeting with a client and writing down only their limitations and dislikes. Now, return to your office and base your design on that criterion alone. How can any architect create an inspiring and meaningful design out of that? Yet, this is how many architects design for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). The focus is on what individuals with autism cannot do rather than what they can. Such a negative approach seems misguided and unnecessary. Architects should make people more able not less disabled. It is a subtle distinction, but an important one.
In 1958, Harry Harlow famously demonstrated, in a still controversial and haunting study, that tactile stimulation can be more desirable than food. Harlow raised infant rhesus monkeys without mothers and gave them a choice between two artificial surrogate mothers. Both were constructed of wood and wire mesh.The difference was that one had a bottle of milk while the other one was covered with cloth. To most psychologists’ surprise, the monkeys bonded with the cloth mother that lacked a source of nutrition. Since then numerous studies from baby rodents to neonates have shown the importance of tactile stimulation. Yet, 50 years on, few architects have studied how a design’s tactile experience might affect its users. In all likelihood, the effects of a design’s tactile properties are probably minuscule when compared to the studies mentioned above; they are categorically different in terms of tactile engagement. Still, the effects could be meaningful and measurable when it comes to a person’s social behavior, self-perception, enjoyment of, and comfort in a building.
Have you ever rushed across your house to get something from another room, but by the time you got there you completely forgot why you were there? This might seem like a trivial question for architects, but it might have more to do with architecture than you might think. Your memory appears to be affected by how many doorways and rooms you go through. This sounds absurd, but a recent study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology has been able to measure this effect at several different levels of environmental immersion. The study comes out of Norte Dame Psychology Professor Gabriel Radvansky’s lab. Much of Professor Radvansky’s work explores how spatial organization can influence the mental narratives we construct to learn, retain and apply information. Radvansky believes, “many architects already intuitively grasp many of the concepts [his] work examines, but [his] research could further improve their understanding of how spatial design affects a building’s users.”
The rise in human population continues to exert enormous strain on earth’s ecosystems and finite resources. Scientific American recently devoted an issue to one solution among many needed to solve this worrisome situation. The cover reads, “We have seen a brighter future, and it is urban.” People living in dense urban environments “typically have smaller energy footprints, require less infrastructure and consume less of the world’s resources per capita.” But, what is the cost? There are always tradeoffs. Alla Katsnelson, from Scientific American, notes that city dwellers suffer “higher rates of mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders and schizophrenia” than their rural counterparts. All the factors underlying this difference are not known or well understood, but some of the possible causes appear to stem from the fact that urban environments are nothing like the ancestral environments from which our sensory systems evolved. As our hunter-gather ancestors learned during the Agriculture Revolution, our biology does not take kindly to rapid upheavals in cultural evolution. In a way, their experience somewhat parallels the one we face today. Put simply, the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent urbanization has been to our sensory systems what the agriculture revolution was to our digestive system.
Similar to a mainstream school setting, Celebrate the Children, a school for children with autism, lines its hallways with colorful banners, photographs, and student artwork. Parents concerned with some of their children’s hypersensitivities often ask Monica Osgood, the school’s director, if there is too much stimulation. Monica responds that her students need to learn in ‘real’ world settings if they will ever have a chance to use their acquired skills outside of the classroom. This logic for replicating ‘neuro-typical’ environments, argues directly against the sensory sensitive approach, and, with reasons worth exploring. Individuals with autism often have very poor generalization skills. Therefore proponents of ‘neuro-typical’ simulated environments claim that sensory sensitive environments actually cause less, not more, universal access and integration into the larger population. Whether or not there is any truth to this claim is unknown. There are strong arguments for and against the ‘neuro-typical’ approach, but there are no definitive studies comparing the sensory sensitive approach to the ‘neuro-typical’ approach.
Last week we looked at the different sensory sensitive approaches to lighting design for autism. We saw how contradictory recommendations have arisen from a lack of reliable research specific to autism and lighting. Conflicting recommendations are not limited to lighting. They can be found among nearly every aspect of autism design, including but not limited to acoustics, tactile and olfactory design. Today we will look at spatial considerations before we turn to the “neuro-typical” approach that contradicts the sensory sensitive approach altogether.
What do we know about designing for individuals with autism? Those concerned with sensory issues are split on some issues. Some say we should limit daylight and exterior views, keep ceiling heights low and spatial volumes small, use restrained details, subdued colors, and reduce acoustical levels. Others advocate for high ceiling heights, large spatial volumes, and high levels of daylight with plenty of views to the outside. Still others disagree with catering to sensory needs altogether. They point out that individuals with autism struggle generalizing skills, and designing sensory heavens can do more harm than good. Thus they argue for autism classrooms, schools, and homes that mimic all the colors, sounds, lighting, and spatial volumes of “neuro-typical” environments. So who is right?
The idea that a diverse population needs a diverse environment to succeed seems easy enough to grasp. Certainly, it is easier to comprehend than a one-size-fits-all design philosophy. Why then, in the name of universal design and equality, do architects continue to design uniform one-size-fits-all environments? Answering that is not so simple. Some may suggest that construction methods, costs, and site restrictions make diverse environments economically and physically infeasible. Others may fault the lack of courses architects take in human biology and psychology. This might make it impossible for them to understand the diverse range of people their buildings affect. Even more may fault the ever increasingly abstract design process. This may hinder architects’ ability to identify with real future occupants. All of these conceivably play a role, but the most likely culprit is Plato’s philosophy of essentialism for the same reason biologist Ernst Mayr felt it caused evolution’s insufferably late discovery; essentialism has and continues to fundamentally shape how we see and deal with diversity.
A recent issue of Volume titled “Architecture of Peace” asks what role architects can play in promoting peace. This fearless issue makes the squabbling over Steven Holl’s extension to Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art seem rather trivial. Trying to promote peace in war torn areas like Israel, Palestine, Sudan, and South Eastern Europe takes far more courage or hubris than building onto an architectural treasure. The stakes are far higher and the critics far louder. That, however, did not prevent Volume from diving headlong into politically and emotionally charged issues. No single reader will agree with every article in this issue, but Volume’s willingness to openly discuss such volatile and critical topics is what makes this issue so intriguing and captivating to read. Failing to recognize the merit of this work because of disagreements would be an unfortunate error in judgment. At the same time, restraining personal dissent out of respect would be a disservice to this unshrinking issue. This issue begs for dialogue and respectful disagreement. I highly recommend our readers to pick up this issue and continue the dialogue on this very important topic. You might not agree with every article, but keep the dialogue going.
My personal challenge following the break.