Steve Orfield thinks a building design suitable for children with autism could be good for everyone.
His company, Orfield Laboratories, based in Minneapolis, designs buildings to provide a sense of calm for anyone with the autism spectrum. Through years of consultation, he has discovered that the streamlined design has the same effect on anyone in schools, clinics and offices.
âI want the spaces to be perceptually silent,â Orfield said. By this he means spaces that do not excite the senses, but calm them – all.
He presented his ideas in Woodbury, at the Fraser Clinic for autistic children. From the car park to the treatment rooms, its building smooths out potential sensory roughness.
“This is the role model we’re looking for,” said AJ Paron, mother of 26-year-old autistic son and long-time Fraser customer. âWe can create an environment that doesn’t add to chaos. “
QUIETER WASHING MACHINES, MORE PLEASANT LIGHTING
Orfield Laboratories studies how consumer products make people feel. Orfield calls it “the world’s premier multisensory research and design company.”
For 50 years, the company has made offices more user-friendly, washing machines quieter, lighting more pleasant. The company even analyzed the noise of motorcycle exhaust pipes, trying to find what type of rumble was the most rewarding for the bikers.
Orfield then turned his sensory approach to designing spaces for children with autism, who can be traumatized by stimuli that seem harmless to others.
Architects, he said, don’t focus on how the users of a building will feel.
âThere is nothing about human perception in architecture lessons,â he said.
This is because architects design buildings that excite the senses, instead of calming them.
âThey want you to be excited about everything you see,â Orfield said.
This is most evident in the exteriors, he said. The architects strive to make them distinctive – a bold corporate signature statement.
âIt’s the design of the branding,â Orfield said.
Then, he says, they design the fireplace. These are usually showy, creating a strong impression on anyone entering. The latter are the interior rooms, which receive the least attention.
That approach is backwards, Orfield said.
Rooms deserve the most attention, where occupants spend most of their time. Building users don’t spend a lot of time staring outside or lounging in the lobby.
Business owners and architects may favor a flashy design, but their autistic clients often won’t like it.
Paron, the mother of client Fraser and vice president of the Florida-based Sandow Design Group, said the calming designs are good for everyone, as most people feel uncomfortable when they undergo a sensory overload.
âIt’s like when you’re driving and reading road signs, and you have to turn off the radio to concentrate,â she said.
NOT AN INSTITUTION, NOT AN HPITAL
That’s why she says everyone is on the autism spectrum – from the manageable micro-sensitivity to the extreme sensitivity that can terrify children.
âThe difference is whether they learn or not. The difference is whether or not they go to the hospital, âParon said.
She said the exterior of the Fraser Clinic is designed not to appear threatening.
âA clinic should look like a fun place, not an institution, not a hospital. “
Indoors, children can be anxious when exposed to splash patterns on rugs or wallpaper. The corridors are therefore relatively simple and without decoration.
The clinic does not have flickering fluorescent bulbs to cause a reaction.
âJust try to read something that strikes you. You can’t do it, âParon said.
Windows are generally useful, but not if someone can see something distressing outside, such as passing cars.
SOUNDS, COLORS, ODORS
Anyone in a dentist’s office, she said, squirms when they hear screams of pain from other rooms. Likewise, overflows in an examination room can cause anxiety in children with autism. This is why Orfield separates the examination rooms from the treatment rooms.
The clinic uses muted tones, as some colors traumatize clients. Paron recalled the treatment of a hypersensitive patient:
“We painted everything gray, and she stopped screaming all day.”
The smells can be difficult. Peron knows an autistic patient who chokes on the smell of popcorn. In the clinic, deodorants and perfumes can cause anxiety, so Orfield makes sure that the air continues to circulate.
Inside and out, the Fraser Clinic is best described by what it lacks – excessive sensory stimuli of all kinds. Compared to other clinics, it seems simple, almost bland.
âYou can’t see the lack of things,â Orfield said. âWe don’t call it trivial. We call it strengthening.
Orfield said that up to half of humanity has some degree of cognitive or sensory impairment – and could benefit from buildings constructed with their calm in mind.
âWe should never have a building anywhere that doesn’t house half the world,â Orfield said. âWe want the buildings to be discreet. We don’t want to require a lot of brain function.