North Brother Island School for Autistic Children / Ian M. Ellis & Frances Peterson

North Brother Island School for Autistic Children / Ian M. Ellis & Frances Peterson
Courtesy of Ian M. Ellis & Frances Peterson

Designed by architecture students, Ian M. Ellis and Frances Peterson, their proposal for the North Brother Island School for Autistic Children in New York City aims to provide a necessary resource for the Bronx, which is heavily underserved in terms of school for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The project is also designed with the intention that it will dissolve the negative stigma of the island, stabilize its naturalized growth as habitat for the birds, and introduce research and education programs to provide a cutting edge learning environment for the public, parents, and children. More images and architects’ description after the break.

This project is a proposal for an inclusionary learning school for Autistic children on North Brother Island – an abandoned medical facility in New York’s East River. Since 1885, the a 20-acre island has been a quarantine zone, hospital for infectious disease, tuberculosis sanatorium, container of Typhoid Mary, site of a disastrous shipwreck, drug rehabilitation center, and housing for World War II soldiers. The Island’s functions ceased in 1963 – abandoned since. Due to its seclusion and over 50 years of natural decay and growth, North Brother became the home for many colonial water birds, notably the Black Crowned Night Heron. Vegetation has aggressively taken hold of the island and its buildings. However, the nesting habits of the birds have decreased, if not vanished entirely. The birds are, on the other hand, still nesting on the much smaller and adjacent South Brother Island.

Courtesy of Ian M. Ellis & Frances Peterson

This unusual mix of program, site, and clients (neuro-typical children, autistic children, researchers, educators, and birds) actually reinforce and enable the success and growth of each other, reacting to the various needs of hypersensitive or hyposensitive occupants – human or bird.


Arriving by ferry available several times throughout the day, the school is situated in the center of the island, taking advantage of the high ground and avoiding the historical nesting areas along the eastern and southern shores. As well as restoring 5 of the islands existing buildings for reuse by the school, the structures further south toward the habitat are reused as field offices for the New York City Parks Department, Cornell University Department of Ornithology, and the Audubon Society. Just as autism isn’t a predictable or similar disorder, the school and its designed landscapes are unique and crafted to be best suited for different types of users. Hypersensitive children need control, similarity, predictability and a safety. Hyposensitive children seek discovery, texture, sound, and sensory experience. The school responds to this with three clusters of classrooms looking out onto three unique courtyards. The West cluster is for children that are somewhere near the middle of the spectrum – hypo or hyper. This courtyard is strange yet safe, allowing for discovery and exploration near the safety of classrooms, the library, and break area.


An existing structure in the middle of the garden is stabilized and adapted as a play area. The central cluster is the most protected and designed for hypersensitive children. The garden here is symmetrical with surface materials and spaces geared towards safety, transition, ease of use, and of low sensory phenomena with the exception being the middle. The children are encouraged to plant vegetables and flowers and experience textures, sounds, smells, colors on their own terms. The eastern cluster is for hyposensitive children as it is the only group which is exposed to the outside world, the public realm of the island, and where vegetation and trees are allowed to grow as they have been since the island’s abandonment.

site plan

The classrooms are identical for ease of construction, yet the structural roof and gardens provide the variably systematic environment that benefits educators as well as students. Isolated and group learning spaces are provided, as well as escape spaces for when a child becomes overwhelmed or just needs to step away from everything for a minute. The roof is an upside-down scissor truss, with members and dimensions fabricated to maximize the capture and redirection of natural light throughout the year. When natural light isn’t appropriate (too much, too little, or detrimental to the particular type of hyper/hypo classroom), electrochromic glass which can be electrically switched from clear to opaque is used in conjunction with field induced electroluminescent film to generate and control light and views out.

plan and elevation

This lighting strategy is intense, but reduces glare and dispels the irritating hum and flicker or fluorescent lights. The roof reaches upward on the exterior of the school to the scale of the existing structures and eases downward towards the interior gardens for a more private and comforting learning space. The exterior of the island sees many changes as well in its overgrown vegetation. Winding paths entice visitors to explore the island without disturbing the habitat for children – the school – or the habitat for birds. Open park spaces create meeting areas between public, school, and research functions.

garden plans

The previous decay of the island is taken as a design guide as the existing hard edged sea wall is broken down by groynes and living cribs (timber grids that collect plant material and sediment over time, decaying and stabilizing themselves) to establish tidal flats – a necessity for the Island’s bird population to forage and nest in. Just as the school prepares students to establish themselves on their own back in the city, the groynes and cribs establish habitat by maintaining sediment and developing micro-refuge area for wildlife. Some of the groynes are accessible to people, allowing a glimpse into the extraordinary habitat and fostering an appreciation of wildlife and stewardship of the land.

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Design: Ian M. Ellis and Frances Peterson Location: North Brother Island, New York City Site Photos: Ian Ference Interior Area: 116,000sqft Garden Area: 34,000sqft Year: 2012

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Cite: Alison Furuto. "North Brother Island School for Autistic Children / Ian M. Ellis & Frances Peterson" 04 Jan 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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