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Why Design for the mind heralds a new chapter for inclusive design

Civic Campus demolition of town hall extension

Photo shows the demolition of the town hall extension at Hammersmith & Fulham’s Civic Campus

Last month marked a momentous event – the publication of the first ever BSI advisory publication on neurodiversity and the built environment. 

‘Design for the mind – Neurodiversity and the built environment’ provides information for designers, planners, architects, and facilities managers on particular design features which will help make public spaces more inclusive for people who have neurodivergent, neurodegenerative, and other neurological conditions, which may affect sensory processing and mental well-being. 

Developed with a steering group of experts in the built environment including many with lived experience of one or more aspects of neurodiversity, the guidance addresses sensory design considerations including lighting, acoustics, flooring, and décor and aims to reduce the potential of sensory overload, anxiety or distress. 

As inclusive design consultants we have been anticipating this kind of guidance for years. Here’s why.  

Broadening the concept of inclusive design

Inclusive design is about creating an environment that provides for the needs and desires of everyone. It means working towards a single solution by accommodating fully those whose needs cannot be met in the same way. It’s about addressing physical, visual, auditory, and intellectual accessibility. 

But despite the Equality Act legally protecting people from discrimination in both the workplace and society, and including the ‘alternative thinking styles’ associated with neurodiversity,  until now focus has primarily been on meeting standards for mobility and physical access requirements. And although in 2018, BS8300 was the first standard to recognise the needs of people with neurodiverse conditions, it only includes high-level recommendations and simply doesn’t go far enough.  Design for the mind changes that. 

Finally, we have a set of guidance for the design of the built environment which reflects the needs of people who experience sensory and neurological processing difficulties and/or differences. For the first time, we have a standard that addresses sensory design considerations such as lighting, acoustics, surface finishes and temperature as well as highlighting the importance of wayfinding and access to green spaces. And with studies estimating one in seven people in the UK are neurodivergent, this standard is long overdue. 

As Suzanne Iwai, a person with lived experience and a passionate activist for neurodivergent acceptance, and reviewer of the standard puts it “anything outside your front door can be a problem. From too much glass in buildings to signage at airports, not enough consideration is given to how it can affect people who are neurodivergent. Finally, we have something which will make people sit up and think about what they are doing.” 

This standard will not only reduce discrimination, but also ensure environments are welcoming and make positive contributions to people’s lives. Ultimately, this is what inclusive design is all about. 

Neurodivergent inclusion in practice

“We have managed to put inclusive design at the very top of the design agenda where it belongs.” 
Mark Rintoul, senior associate and project architect at RSHP. 

While the guidance is new it doesn’t mean work hasn’t been done in this area already, as our work with Hammersmith and Fulham alongside RSHP demonstrates. 

Back in 2017, RSHP were commissioned to design the redevelopment of the Hammersmith & Fulham Town Hall site with a new Civic Campus. Consolidating the council departments, services and functions into an accessible community hub, the wider campus features an office building, cinema, retail outlets and housing. 

What makes this project exceptional is it has been co-produced from the outset with the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham’s Disabled Residents Team (DRT) who worked alongside us in the design process to develop inclusive design across the scheme. As well as ensuring the 80-year-old building will be much more accessible, this work will also ensure it reflects neurodiverse requirements. 

Suzanne Iwai is part of that group.

Suzanne Iwai
Suzanne Iwai, Member of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham’s Disabled Residents Team (DRT)

Diagnosed with autism at the age of 62, she has increased her proactivity in the area of neurodivergent acceptance to cover inclusive environments work with Autistica

“I get lost inside new spaces and I’m always uncomfortable with the unexpected if I’m not in control.”

Her lived experience has played an integral part in ensuring the new space reflects neurodivergent requirements. From the speed of the glass lifts to the lighting, from not having mirrors in the rest rooms for those with body issues to wayfinding guidance, Suzanne has made a number of recommendations on how the Civic Campus could be more inclusively designed. 

One of the big wins for Suzanne was pushing for a quiet room: 

“If people are struggling with the building or are at an event and finding it a bit difficult, then they need a calm space to go to. It should have comfy chairs and if they want to lie on the floor and be still, they should be able to. People were suggesting we should make it into a multi-purpose room with screens, but that’s exactly what a quiet room shouldn’t be!” 

This highlights why co-production is so important. As well as recognising everyone has different skills and experience, it stops assumptions being made by ensuring any questions and answers are evaluated fully and then incorporated into any decisions.  

In fact, Suzanne mentioned how useful it was to have contractors on their many calls. Not only did it allow the group to show them first hand potential issues, but it also enabled the contractors to fully understand why they were issues in the first place. 

For Suzanne, she’s hoping the official launch event for the new building, planned for next year, will also consider neurodivergent requirements.

“I’m really hoping they will stagger the event so there is a quiet hour for people who struggle with crowds. For me that would be the icing on the cake and a great testament to everything that’s been achieved on this project.” 

Members of Hammersmith and Fulham DRT giving feedback on flooring
Members of Hammersmith and Fulham DRT giving feedback on flooring

The potential impact of the new guidance

But does this new standard go far enough? Suzanne (and Proudlock Associates) don’t think so. While it does provide guidance on a great many areas, including thermal comfort, odour and layout, others are hardly touched on. For example, in discussing road crossings, it talks about how colourful crossing surfaces should be avoided as this affects people with sensory impairments and people with sensory processing conditions but fails to address the issue of countdown timers. These tend to reflect the size of the road and not the people using the crossing which can give rise to anxiety and stress.  

The same goes with digital wayfinding solutions. It talks about how useful these can be but fails to mention that combining useful information with lots of adverts can cause unnecessary confusion and stress. 

But maybe the biggest issue is this is a Publicly Available Specification (PAS), which provides guidance on good practice but doesn’t legally need to be implemented, meaning doing nothing is a very real option.   

Of course, that may be unnecessarily pessimistic, as some companies such as the BBC and Google are already making changes which factor in neurodiverse requirements. We can only hope that architects, designers, and planners will take on board the recommendations as ultimately making these changes isn’t, and shouldn’t be, about a box ticking exercise. It should be about making the built environment a better, more functional and user-friendly place for everyone. 

PSA 6435 – Design for the mind – Neurodiversity and the built environment is available from BSI Group.

Tracey Proudlock 
Company Director 
Proudlock Associates