A week in Scotland
The trip into Scotland was memorable for many reasons. The snow and sleet on the drive from Cambridge (it’s spring, right?), castles around every corner, the tartan (I have added to my wardrobe) and Scottish Autism.
During my time in Scotland, I had the pleasure of meeting Andrew Lester, the Architect responsible for designing one of the first schools specifically designed for children with an Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Andrew’s background is a personal one as his daughter has ASD and, by his own words, has had very challenging behaviour from a young age. His wife and he wondered where she would fit in and be able to learn, as the existing school system was not suitable for her.
Andrew was commissioned to design the New Struan School, which was to replace the existing Struan School for children on the Autism spectrum. As he formulated the design, he was informed by his first-hand experience with his daughter and his involvement on the school board. Our conversation covered the design intent and challenges in both the design phase and construction. Challenges are common in any project that has multiple stakeholders. However, some of these challenges were amplified due to such specific design requirements for the target group intending on using the building. Sometimes the needs of the end users and costs to meet budget do not always line up!
Discussion around the complexities of designing for ASD while simultaneously meeting all the relevant building and safety codes were particularly lengthy. The issue of meeting the safety and fire alarm requirements, for example, was particularly testing during the School’s construction. It is one of the issues I have often contemplated and, as this instance reinforced, there is no simple answer or quick-fix. During this project, there was a lot of discussion with the non-ASD initiated (from all levels from management to contractors) to understand the reason “we’ve always done it this way” doesn’t always work, particularly for those who have unusual challenges. Perseverance, collaboration and creativity to find a solution proved to be crucial during planning, construction and beyond.
I also spent time with Colin Low from Scottish Autism, the national body responsible for maintaining and building all ASD related facilities in Scotland. Colin’s sole purpose in his workday is to provide and maintain suitable buildings for Scottish Autism’s clients. Colin joined the organisation with no knowledge of ASD but a whole lot of knowledge of design, construction and buildings. I admire how Colin undertakes his role and his empathy towards every individual that requires care. As a result of the building and construction knowledge he has, and his logical and empathetic approach to his role within Scotish Autism, he has such a positive influence on everyone using the buildings he is responsible for. This is definitely something to admire.
We delved into his box(es) of tricks and samples (my friends will tell you how much I love samples!) and had a hands-on discussion about why an element may look good in a specification but may not work at all for Autism-friendly environments. As Designers, we need to look past aesthetics and ‘normal’ specifications (for carpets, door handles, taps, switches etc.), and delve deeper into the “why’s” than perhaps we would have previously been. Asking questions specific to the individual client(s) using the space is key to making the building work for the client and the staff. Seeing the way the school has worn over time has made it clearer than ever the importance of mindful selection of all products used during the buildings construction and interior design phases.
It was an absolute pleasure to meet both Andrew and Colin, with their invaluable perspectives and experiences in this field. I look forward to following Scottish Autism’s projects and learning all that I am able to.
Until next time, Scotland!