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News archive - January 2014

Creating a benchmark for autism services

Creating a benchmark for autism services

When the City of Edinburgh Council decided to invest £4m in improving adult autism services in the city, architects assigned to the project had little precedent to follow and soon realised they were creating the benchmark for future services across the UK and further afield.

Bringing together previously-separate day and respite functions, the new building, Castle Crags, is set to open in October 2014 and will be the culmination of several years of research and design innovation.

Speaking to hdm, Colin Gordon, one of the council’s architects, who is leading the project, said: “What we have tried to create from the beginning of this process is a building that brings together both services in a setting that promotes a sense of calm and that is appealing for a group of people who, by the very nature of their condition, can sometimes find interaction difficult and can become anxious in certain environments.”

Work on the project started in late 2011 with a series of stakeholder workshops, during which Gordon and his team spoke to staff and carers about the current facilities and what they wanted from the new building.

Across the spectrum

“It was hugely beneficial to be given adequate time within the project programme to properly consult with the many stakeholders who will use the new building,” Gordon said.

“Through this iterative process, the brief gradually evolved into a design solution which incorporated the wisdom and experience of all key parties. This was particularly vital given the low level of published research in the field of design for autism.

“With no real precedent for this type of facility, we think what we have designed for Edinburgh will provide a benchmark for the future delivery of services for this very specialist group of people.”

The new resource is situated on the site of Pefferbank Day Service in Duddingston Road West, replacing two existing services in Deanbank and Glenallan. It is faces public parkland, and this natural environment is echoed within the project. The Scottish Government sponsored a landscape design competition which has resulted in specialised landscaped gardens to compliment the building and offer an autistic-friendly environment.

“Because autism is a spectrum condition, people who are affected by this disability can have a range of needs, some of which could be incompatible with fellow users of the building,” said Gordon.

“For example, some may be highly socialised, preferring lots of stimulation and noise, while others could be noise sensitive or introverted. What we had to do was to create a resource that could comfortably accommodate all these different needs. We wanted to create an environment that would reduce the triggers for challenging behaviour where possible and be welcoming and pleasant for all.”

As well as extensive consultation with user groups, the team also researched other examples of autistic-friendly design. The principle of activity and social spaces organised around a communal landscaped courtyard was a generator for the design, which has been used successfully on other projects. This provides a secure and attractive focal point for the building to which all users have free access.

Struan School was another inspiration, where the use of curved walls and transitional spaces between rooms and circulation spaces has worked well and so this principle was also adopted. Gordon said: “Moving from one space to another is a challenge for some users, which if not addressed can cause potential bottlenecks around the building. The challenge of moving through a main entrance was an issue strongly highlighted through the consultation process.

“With our design, users of the building arrive under a large canopy space which serves as a transitional arrival space, providing shelter should service users require a bit of time before they move into the building.

“As they approach the main entrance, there are clear views through the building into the courtyard area and beyond, which enables people to understand the layout before they enter.

“If they still find it too difficult, there are also other entrances on the west elevation by way of smaller courtyards that are more domestic and private in feel.”

Designing out anxiety

He added: “We have tried to minimise hidden corners where possible and have widened the circulation spaces, moving away from traditional corridors to create places where people can sit and watch the world go by. It is all about making it less institutional and using the building to promote desired behaviours.

“Social areas are also broken down into smaller spaces. You want to offer a choice so people can do what they want, but ensure that appropriate staffing and monitoring is also possible.”

Unpredictable events can be a trigger for challenging behaviour with autism. This has impacted on the layout of the six en-suite respite bedrooms, where the designers have taken the unusual step of placing the bathroom facilities on the external walls. This provides clear sightlines, so that from the moment a service user steps into the bedroom, they can see everywhere, reducing potential anxiety.

And where colour may be used within architecture to create relaxing, sensory environments, within this project it has an even greater significance.

Gordon said: “Colour is a sensitive consideration for people with autism as certain colours are triggers that can cause challenging behaviours. Greens and blues seem to be less of a problem than reds, for example. This is an area we are still investigating”

This attention to detail in terms of the use of colour extends to some of the fixtures and fittings, with the architects working within building regulations to position the red fire alarm call points.

“Things like fire alarms and extinguishers can generate fascination,” says Gordon. “Also they are red, which can cause anxiety. Alarms themselves can also be problematic, so we are looking at some innovative ways of phasing alarm tests and using hand-held devices for monitoring.”

On the technical side, the team worked with acoustics and lighting experts to minimise any problems. ‘Green’ features will include combined heat and power, natural ventilation and thermal mass and solar shading.

Work on the development has started and is being led by GRAHAM Construction. Once open, the new building will accommodate 20 people in the day service and the respite area will provide support for around 55 families over the year.

Regional director at GRAHAM Construction, Neil McFarlane, said: "There is currently nothing else like this in Scotland and we are looking forward to delivering such a unique and worthwhile facility for Edinburgh.”

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