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Inclusive Design for Complex Buildings

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Convene Office Interiors 6 1900

Neurodiversity: The New Inclusivity

Design has the power to include or exclude people based on their abilities and limitations. As the famous designer Dieter Rams said, “Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is the one and only cardinal sin of design.”   

An estimated 15% of the global population has some form of neurodevelopmental disorder. These can include neurodivergent conditions such as:   

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) 
  • Tourette Syndrome 
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) 
  • Dyslexia 
  • Parkinson’s disease  

Neurodivergent people may have differing sensory needs. Some may be hypersensitive and easily overwhelmed by excessive stimuli such as bright lights, crowds, unfamiliar scents, textures or temperature fluctuations. Others may be hyposensitive and require more sensory input to process information. 

When space does not meet these needs, neurodivergent individuals can experience physical, cognitive and social exclusion. Designers can play a crucial role in addressing these misalignments and creating more inclusive spaces that accommodate the sensory needs of a broader range of individuals. 

Hyper And Hypo Sensitive Space Types 1900

Over the past several years, HOK’s WorkPlace designers have formalized an approach to creating environments that allow all employees to thrive, regardless of their neurodivergent conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic made this more critical. When people eventually returned to the office, many brought a heightened sensitivity to their surroundings. HOK’s existing research on neurodiversity positioned us to quickly scale up efforts to address how all people process sensory challenges, including: 

  • Auditory 
  • Visual 
  • Tactile 
  • Smell and taste 
  • Body position and balance  

HOK’s designers consider all aspects of the office environment—spatial character and organization, acoustic quality, thermal comfort, lighting and degree of stimulation—to create a sensory experience that caters to everyone. But how can designers also create more inclusive environments outside the office?

Those same stressors experienced by neurodivergent individuals in the workplace can be as bad or worse when they make their way through a bustling airport terminal, rush into a busy hospital, participate in stress-inducing court proceedings, do complex research in a lab or attend a crowded game. Consider, for example, a highly sensitive individual with autism spectrum disorder who visits an airport terminal and feels great physical distress from the overwhelming sensory stimuli of the crowds, bright lights and announcements. Or the person with ADHD who has difficulty focusing on the proceedings and processing information in a quiet courtroom environment.  

Designers must also consider the needs of the millions of people who work in these spaces.  

This issue of HOK Forward shows how our designers are building on the research of our WorkPlace group to create inclusive environments for:  

  • Aviation 
  • Healthcare 
  • Justice 
  • Science + Technology 
  • Sports 
Hok Forward Neurodiversity News Collage 2


Creating inclusive environments is essential in all types of buildings and spaces. Six universal strategies for doing this include providing the following:

1. Accessible and informative design:

  • Access to maps and critical information about accessible entries and protocols before arrival.
  • Clear and intuitive wayfinding through methods such as signage, lighting, color and memorable moments.

2. Sensory-responsive environments:

  • Options for choice and control of the level of interaction with different sensory stimulation.
  • Both calming and stimulating settings, with varied or adjustable lighting and acoustic levels.
  • A calming palette with areas for increased stimulation based on the activity.

3. Flexible and comfortable spaces:

  • Options to move around and occupy spaces where one feels most comfortable.
  • Clear, organized spaces with relief from clutter and chaotic settings.
  • Variety or adjustable, ergonomic furniture.

4. Biophilia:

  • Access to natural elements and daylight.

5. Quiet and private retreats:

  • Dedicated quiet spaces and areas for private retreat.

6. Movement and engagement:

  • Areas designed to enable movement and options to engage with the space physically.

These universal strategies are critical to creating an inclusive environment that accommodates various abilities and preferences. Even minor adjustments to the environment can significantly affect the experience of individuals with neurodivergent conditions. Staff awareness training and individual adjustments by neurodivergent individuals are also necessary.

Designing for neurodiversity is an act of empathy and understanding, acknowledging the individuality of each person’s brain and accommodating it in the places where people live and work. Creating more accessible environments is not just about “doing the right thing.” It is also good for business. When environments are more accessible to a broader range of people, we create a more diverse and equitable society where everyone can thrive.

Note: Neurodiversity is a term used to describe a broad range of conditions, some of which likely will be unresponsive to design solutions. HOK’s approach to inclusive design is based on our experience as designers and architects with the objective of providing a wide range of options for users with different needs. Any attempt to address the needs of neurodiverse individuals should also include review of human resources policies, implementation of technology solutions and building operations among other considerations. HOK does not represent that any design solution discussed in this article is capable of achieving any specific outcome for an individual user.

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