Autism and Building Design

A young girl is wide-eyed with a drooping mouth as is she is about to be unhappy.If designers are not already thinking about people with autism, they soon will be, or should be. People with autism have the same rights to functional and accessible spaces as everyone else. In his article on Branch Pattern website, Stuart Shell gives an overview of ASD (autism spectrum disorder). He explains why building owners and designers need to include this group, and how it will create great architecture at the same time. 

One in one hundred and fifty children were diagnosed with ASD in 2000. ASD can take the form of extra sensory awareness, and higher levels of anxiety or involuntary responses. However, most autistic people say they have their own way of experiencing the world – it’s not a “disorder”. He concludes with a list of design options and different guidelines. It is a lengthy but very useful article that includes acoustics, lighting, thermal comfort and material finishes and furniture. There is a list of references at the end for further reading. What Autism Teaches Us About Design is an easy and comprehensive read on an important topic. 

There’s also the easy to read FastCo article, How to Design for Autism. As with most thoughtful design that aims to be inclusive, convenient and welcoming, designing interiors for children with autism makes for good interiors for children generally. Close attention was paid to texture, acoustics, and lighting conditions—features just as applicable to the rest of the world when it comes to designing autism-friendly spaces. The architect behind the design of the Center of Autism and the Developing Brain says the key is to be sensitive to light, sight, textures, and sounds. The article can be downloaded from the website.

Interior design for better hearing

Interior of a room showing a white sofa with right angled sections.Sooner or later most of us will lose a portion of our hearing – some to the point where it affects our everyday life. How to design inclusively for people who are hard of hearing is the topic of an article in ArchDaily. It lists six design tips and outlines features that can assist people to work and socialise more easily:

      • Interior layout and visibility
      • Brightness, light and reflections
      • Multisensory spaces
      • Acoustic optimisation
      • Materials, objects and new technologies

The article, Architecture for People with Hearing Loss: 6 Design Tipsconcludes with: “In short, a truly inclusive design does not always necessitate hyper-awareness of special considerations, but can simply mean incorporating needs that tend to be basic for everyone, regardless of their physical conditions.” There are links in the article to other resources.

Deafness is a major cause of social isolation and inability to work effectively. Hearing aids are only a partial solution – that’s because they amplify all sounds including background noise. Being able to see the face of someone talking is a great help. Captioning of live events and videos is a must for taking in information and enjoying the plot of a movie. 


Draft Urban Design Guidelines for Regional NSW

Street scene showing level footpath, shade treas, shade umbrella and lots of seatingRegional and rural areas of NSW have a higher percentage of older people, particularly in areas popular with older tree-changers and sea-changers. So the draft Urban Design Guidelines for Regional NSW should take this into account. The seven objectives in the draft guidelines are: Better Fit, Better Performance, Better for Community, Better for People, Better working, Better value, and Better look and feel. They are explained in detail and will typically apply to the public realm, town centres, infill developments, and greenfield developments. This 90 page guide also includes a useful profile of each region. The website has a FAQ sheet and a webinar on good urban design in the regions.  

Each of the design objectives would benefit from an overlay of universal design concepts. The document explains that “Design draws together many fields of expertise … [with] often competing requirements … that meets the needs of many and diverse groups”.  A universal design approach automatically draws these groups together. However, such an approach is left up to individual councils.

Note: These draft guidelines were open for public comment during 2018-2019, but they are still in draft form. 

Universal Design the Singapore way

Front cover of the UD guide.The Singapore Government is committed to universal design throughout its building code. The Building and Construction Authority has produced a Universal Design Guide for Public Places which was developed under Singapore’s Successful Ageing project. You can download each chapter separately from the website:

    1. Introduction to user needs
    2. Arriving at the building
    3. Access around and within the building
    4. Sanitary facilities
    5. Wayfinding and information systems
    6. Facilities and elements within the building
    7. Family-friendly facilities

There are further chapters covering public transport buildings, eating outlets, supermarkets and retail outlets, parks and open spaces, and community clubs. There is also the Code on Accessibility in the Built Environment.

The Universal Design Guidelines for commercial buildings is presented clearly with many illustrations and drawings. This is a comprehensive guide that goes beyond basic accessibility requirements of previous guidelines. Access consultants might wish to compare this document with the Australian Access to Premises Standard, and the guidelines which can be downloaded from the Human Rights Commission website.

Singapore is keen to progress universal design, and the Building and Construction Authority heads up their webpage with an encouraging title – “Friendly Built Environment”. 


Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning

Front cover of the Handbook. Blue background and white text.Why does gender inclusive urban design and planning matter? The World Bank’s new Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design gives some answers. A city that works well for women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities of all ages and differing levels of capability supports economic and social inclusion. Gender inclusive planning and design is:

    • Participatory: actively including the voices of women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities
    • Integrated: adopting a holistic, cross-cutting approach that centres gender throughout and promotes citizen-city relationship building
    • Universal: meeting the needs of women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities of all ages and abilities
    • Knowledge-building: seeking out and sharing robust, meaningful new data on gender equity
    • Power-building: growing the capacity and influence of under-represented groups in key decisions
    • Invested-in: committing the necessary finances and expertise to follow through on intentional gender equity goals

“Meeting these goals requires a fundamental shift in thinking and approach, and in particular a commitment to participatory processes, integrated approaches, Universal Design, building knowledge and power among under-represented groups; and financial investment.” Chapters cover the rationale for gender inclusion, foundations of planning and design, processes and project guidelines, case studies and further resources.

Urban planning and design shape the environment around us — and that shapes how we live, work, play, move, and rest. This handbook highlights the relationships between gender inequality, the built environment, and urban planning and design. Best practices for urban planning are included.

Available via institutional access from The World Bank library website.   

The 18MB file can be downloaded directly or purchase as an e-book from Amazon.  

An article in the Latin American Post summarises some of the content. 


Accessible and smart cities

A street in medieval Chester, UK.Medieval cities with cobblestones, castles and Roman city walls are not the most disability-friendly places. And they are not easy to make accessible either. However, heritage hasn’t prevented smaller cities from overcoming barriers. Five cities in Europe have made accessibility a top priority thanks to technology, design and engineering. Five examples discussed in a Vontobel article are: the Dutch towns of Breda and Rotterdam, Lyon in France, Slovenia’s Ljubljana, and Chester in the UK. Some of the solutions are:

    • lifting cobblestones, slicing them and re-laying them upside down
    • an app that lets you tell the council about paving issues and follows progress until the remedial work is completed
    • sound beacons that tell blind people when and what bus or tram is pulling into the stop
    • an app for the most accessible restaurants, hotels and hotspots
    • building cascading ramps to the upper walkways of ancient city walls 

Part of the motivation is of course the tourist trade, both nationally and internationally. However, the EU also takes inclusion seriously and gives access awards to cities that prioritise accessibility in urban planning. See the article for more detail on each of the cities. Heritage is no longer an excuse for exclusion.


Cross cultural hospital design

Entrance to the emergency section of a hospital.Designing with Indigenous Australians in mind is good for everyone. We know that having level access into a building is essential for some but good for all. It’s the same for many types of design. For example, smartphone apps designed for people who are blind have advantages for everyone. When it comes to designing hospitals, Indigenous Australians are often left out of the picture. 

An article in The Conversation draws our attention to the need to have separate waiting rooms, specifically designed for indigenous patients. This is because they often leave emergency rooms without receiving treatment. But does that mean non-indigenous patients feel comfortable in waiting rooms? Probably not – we all feel uncomfortable and anxious in hospitals. And that’s not good for our health! The article explains design features to improve hospital design. The research is by Timothy O’Rourke and Daphne Nash from University of Queensland. 

The title of the article is, Making space: how designing hospitals for Indigenous people might benefit everyone. Although this article doesn’t mention universal design per se, cross cultural awareness to create inclusive spaces and places is synonymous with UD. 

There are more links in The Conversation article on designing hospitals too, This topic has been covered a few times on this website, but it is good to see it reaching the media.  

Health and wellbeing by design

A young man is in the middle of a residential street. He looks like he is jumping or dancing.We shape our building and thereon, they shape us is an oft quoted Churchill saying. I wonder if he knew how much they also shape our health and well-being. Koen Steemers’ article on this topic outlines the definition of wellbeing and health and the implications for architecture. He also provides “rules of thumb” for design based on extensive research. Steemers acknowledges there is no one-size-fits all for healthy design. So the aim is to optimise every aspect wherever possible. It is interesting to note that he puts accessible housing into the list as a must. Architecture for well-being and health is a very comprehensive and readable guide for the built environment professions. 

Sydney Ideas Festival also covered this topic, Room for improvement:cities housing and health

“Whether people are healthy or not, is determined by their circumstances and environment. To a large extent, factors such as where we live, the state of our environment, genetics, our income and education level, and our relationships with friends and family all have considerable impacts on health …” World Health Organization: The determinants of health.


DeafSpace Architecture

Two men are walking on a path between two buildings. People with reduced mobility and vision are considered most often in articles related to articles on inclusive design. More recently people with neurodiverse conditions are taking headlines. But what about people who are deaf? Including captioning and Auslan interpreters at events and on screens is more commonplace, so what else do they need? The Washington Post has an interesting feature on Deaf Architecture.  Here is an excerpt from the article:

“Dougherty gave me an example of spatial awareness differences between the hearing and the deaf. He mentioned how, to him, a hearing dinner seems so formal, with people firmly stationed at square tables. By contrast, during a deaf dinner, people are continually in motion, switching seats to touch one another or communicate directly with someone across the table. “For me,” Dougherty signed, “a deaf space is a multisensory experience. It’s not just what does it look like at face value. What is the experience of being deaf once I go through the door? What is the experience of me getting through the foyer? To the staircase? What’s the lighting like? What’s the material being used in the building?”  An interesting a readable article with nice pics.

Articles on the same topic:

Placemaking Toolkit

Children play with bubbles in urban area.Designing public space is seen as something for trained professionals. But the Placemaking Toolkit shows how community groups and residents can do their own place make-over. The Guide is for community-driven, low-cost public space transformation. With the support of local government anyone can change a neglected space in their neighbourhood into a clean and safe play area or park. This Guide is especially relevant for developing countries and remote communities in any country. The Guide is from the Public Space Network.