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A specialist approach with the sensitivity to deliver the right environments for autistic children in mainstream schools

Mark Ellerby, Architect | July 18, 2014

World Autism Awareness Week was held recently and the National Autistic Society for whom we have recently designed three schools is promoting it heavily, not only raising awareness not only of autism itself but of the educational needs around it. Pupils with autism have a very specific set of needs for learning environments to support their learning, and delivering them requires sensitive and collaborative design approaches.

This need was highlighted by a pioneering project by the NAS to integrate education provision for autistic within four mainstream schools in Surrey. Many children can benefit greatly from ‘normal’ school environment but also often find such environments overwhelming and distressing, if they are overloaded with excessive noise, light and activity. The Cullum Centre projects, run by the Cullum Trust, saw the schools refurbished to a high standard to provide areas where pupils can have a refuge from the often hectic clamour of a primary school and then return when they feel able.

I will soon be giving a talk at the National Autistic Society in Edinburgh which will report back on the three of four schools we have so far completed together with specialist contractor Richardson & Peat. This will look at what has worked as well as what hasn’t because as this is a new idea it is important to learn the lessons quickly and input them into new schemes.
Each of the schools we have developed has a slightly different approach to spatial requirements, which is why our bespoke design and construction approach was a key benefit to them. One (Hinchley Wood primary) was very keen to have a greater quantity of small spaces offering one to one tuition but also a large open plan social and gathering space. Their idea was ideally that pupils will not necessarily be in the quiet smaller spaces at all and will be in the main school, but they have all the options if they need them. Another school at Rodborough went for four similarly sized classrooms, because they have the approach of bringing fully able children into the new area to learn alongside the autistic pupils.

One of the very interesting parts about designing spaces for autistic children is that, similarly to disability design for Part N, you end up just creating better environments for everybody, and this is particularly true with acoustics. You are looking for low reverberation times and a lack of sound transference through the building fabric to comply with BB93, which has specific provisions for autistic children, but the result is simply a better performing acoustic environment for learning. In addition we are trying to cut out unwanted views, excessive sunlight, contrasts and avoid sharp and hidden corners and this ends up creating a more pleasant interior.

One of the key benefits to partnering with Richardson & Peat on these projects has been the contractor’s expertise in creating off-site timber frame modules which can create very good curves which are not expensive to construct. They not only help us to express architectural spaces in a different way but also prove essential to create a supportive environment for the pupils.

The highly collaborative working relationship we have developed with Richardson & Peat working together over the past 10 years means that we can second-guess any buildability issues on either the design or client side before they arrive, and it is almost counter-intuitively innovative in being an old fashioned approach. An architect and contractor actually talking to each other a lot before they get onto site, imagine that!
Using timber frame combined with good engineering has meant that we can provide affordable as well as low energy and innovative solutions, for example using timber’s lightweight properties to build over an existing building at Hinchley Wood. In addition, because we take ownership of good practice on site, we will make sure that trades take responsibility for installing fixtures and fittings without doing any damage to the building fabric and if they do, they remedy it. This helped us reach an air-tightness rating over just over 5 at Hinchley Wood, which was also assisted by being completely separated from the old building.

The more you work as a team with the same designer, contractor and subbies on a range of projects, the more you are able to speak openly with each other to maintain that focus on quality. This extends to the open book, accountable approach that Richardson & Peat operates, which helps in showing cost benefits to clients.

In any organisation, if you work with people you trust you don’t constrain them and instead let them do what they do best, whether it is designing with construction in mind or constructing with minute attention to detail. In our case this has led to delivering some new environments for a new educational requirement effectively and collaboratively, which were precisely what the client was looking for.

The result is that while the Cullum Centres will provide challenges for autistic children in terms of fully integrating into mainstream school life, with the key support which is facilitated by not only by the school but by the environment itself, they have a far greater chance of success.