Patterns and the natural environment
Throughout my research project, one trend that had been particularly strong is the impact the natural environment has on the design and conceptual centre of buildings and spaces for people on the Autism spectrum. When I say the ‘natural environment’, I refer to the colours, shapes, textures, lighting and patterns that all, in one way or another, can be found as an occurrence in nature.
A few weeks ago now, I got the opportunity to meet with Dr Ute Leonards, a researcher in the School of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol. One of the particularly interesting perspectives to come out of this meeting is the effects that patterns can have on a person and the way they can be settling or disruptive to a person, particularly if they’re vulnerable. This vulnerable group can include the elderly, the injured, the ill and those with a disability or medical condition, including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
As Dr Leonards explained, natural patterns, or ones that occur in nature, are more easily processed by the brain as they are something we expect to see in the world, whereas unnatural ones are more difficult to process. Waves from the ocean or circles on trees would be natural patterns and are, therefore, processed by the brain with little difficulty.
Most of the time, a perfectly able-bodied, neurotypical and generally healthy person wouldn’t even notice the difficulties that patterns can create. However, it was pointed out that even the healthiest of people can be negatively affected by some patterns and contrasts and certain frequencies.
Since the human mind tends to agree with natural patterns, perhaps that’s why so many of the buildings I’ve visited incorporate elements of the natural.
The natural environment has also impacted on some building’s designs themselves. While in France, I visited L’éveil du Scarabée (meaning “beetle awakening”), a residential complex developed around the concept of the beetle. The central pod of the complex is elongated and round, housing the community-driven services of the residence such as the teaching rooms, the nurses quarters, the cafe and teaching kitchen. The five ‘legs’ stemming from the central pod have four bedrooms, each with a large ensuite. During the building’s development, the legs were created to try to alleviate the tension and anxiety often brought on by long corridors and dispel any semblance of a hospital or institution.
Lighting is another natural element utilised for the benefit of the residents. The staff at L’éveil du Scarabée utilise coloured LED lights to no only light the internal areas but also indicate the time of day and meals by strategically using different tones of light. This is designed as a technique to assist the residents to identify what time of day it is and what is going to happen at different points in the day. The housing complex opened in late 2014 and these techniques have worked well with the 20 people occupying the space.
Plants and the colour green have been common themes throughout the trip. One particularly striking example is Specialist Area Denmark’s Senior’s House. This elderly residential facility features deep green external and strategic internal walls at different shades of green to signify different internal spaces. Plants also form an important role on the inside for the citizen’s as they are used both as privacy barriers and path-making tools for easier wayfinding around the building. All these factors contribute to the feeling that the external woodlands surrounding flows through to the inside as well, creating a peaceful and nurturing environment (to read more on Specialist Area Denmark, go to this post).
On the other end of the scale, is the unnatural. While sometimes referred to as modern and artistic, certain shapes, patterns and contrasts at particular frequencies can create problems for some people. During the meeting with Dr Leonards, she used the example of the newly refurbished Bristol Royal Infirmary which, for a multitude of reasons, has been observed to cause unrest for some of the more vulnerable people in the community. One end of the building is clearly older and made of a warm-toned brick in a 70s style, compared to the newer end which has metal facade panelling. Despite being in a completely foreign city to me, I remembered the building she was referring to, as it struck me as being quite cold and institution-like with no visible windows from the outside. Dr Leonards explained to me the metallic panelling at certain distances and at certain angles, creates lines in a way that is disruptive to the brain.
So while it is not the material itself that creates problems for some people, it is the way the material, pattern, colour etc. is used in the buildings we create. It is interesting that not only are natural patterns being incorporated into designs but other aspects of the natural environment as well, like colour, light and shapes. While there is no scientific proof, that I’m aware of, that these elements are beneficial to not only people on the spectrum (and neurotypical and able-bodied people as well), however, social and anecdotal evidence suggests the natural environment has a positive influence on people who use the spaces, so it’s definitely something to consider when designing for people with ASD.