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Sensory Designs: Towards a health-based haptic approach for wellness

An inclusive and multisensory design for ASD living environments



Individuals with intellectual disabilities (IDs) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experience a broad spectrum of sensitivity in completely different ways, altering their perception and interpretation of the world and making them hyper- or hypo-responsive to their environment.

With sensory design, we reach beyond the visual domain and build upon perception of space through all senses, activating and triggering and amplifying the inter-sensory relationships of touch, smell, sound, sight, and the wisdom of the body.

Working with the Fondation Yvon Lamarre, a pioneer in the deinstitutionalization of and housing for people with IDs and ASD, FLDWRK developed the design research tool Sensory Fragments: A convergence of academic research, design research, and applied research for the development of deeply inclusive space to give individuals—regardless of their sensory abilities—the opportunity to assimilate information from their environment, meaningfully engage with the world, and participate in the social connections that take place in it.

“What we’re trying to do with this project is to say that while there are pragmatic and prosaic needs around housing, site issues and approval issues, there’s a much deeper understanding of space, materiality and the haptic to be had.” — Andrew King

Deepening understanding for crucial needs

While autism prevalence is increasing, available services aren’t keeping up. According to the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, autism diagnoses have risen by 241% since 2000; in Quebec alone, where Fondation Yvon Lamarre operates, incidence rates have gone from two the three per 10,000 people to 22 to 25 per 10,000 as services remain rare and families end up providing round-the-clock care to their autistic children.

Facing residential service scarcity, Sensory Fragments directly addresses these housing challenges with architectural frameworks based in health and well-being, healthcare and cognitive research: To create space in urban environments for adults living with ID and ASD which calm hyperactivity and anxiety with therapeutic design.

“If you were in the head of an autistic person, you would have difficulty communicating and expressing your needs, feelings and pains, and face many difficulties in social situations,” explains Catherine Lamarre, Vice President of Fondation Yvon Lamarre. “They experience great stress and anxiety whenever they face unexpected situations, but they have a great capacity to focus. Without many interests but great passions for the ones they have, they prefer routine.”

“To increase their skills with communication and socialization, and to learn and cope with their behavioral problems, they need to be in activity centers with professionals… and spaces which reduce the exacerbation of their senses—brightness, temperature, noise, smell—with predictability.”

Designing to ease the sensory experience


“What’s of absolute importance for the driving of the project is the idea of a sensory spectrum and how it applies to fostering creativity, comfort, and community.” – Andrew King

In using Steele and Ahrentzen’s goals for designing housing for the autism spectrum with Magda Mostafa’s design principles for autism design—acoustics, spatial sequencing, escape space, compartmentalization, transition zones, sensory zoning and safety—FLDWRK’s designs create accessible, safe, supportive and secure spaces grounded in health and wellness that maximize familiarity, stability and clarity while minimizing sensory overloads.

These are spaces that can control social interaction and privacy with elements of choice and independence, are both durable and affordable from a practical point of view, and—above all—enhance the user’s dignity.

Each residence takes on a form that is radically different from normative housing, from living rooms and bedrooms to exercise rooms, pools, cinemas or withdrawal rooms. Materiality—textures such as dark felts, cork and alternating smooth or striped concrete—also helps to define haptic and acoustic interactions within.

When designing for residents with ASD, the sensory spectrum shapes spaces and the links in between each of them, separating them into fragments:

Houses — This is where design balances stability and flexibility, promoting routine domesticity for a sense of familiarity and independence for residents. Roof apertures offer diffused and neutral light conditions throughout the day for more comfortable social interactions; warm and neutral color palettes and natural materials such as wood and light concrete ease the spatial sequence between private and public spaces.

Common spaces — As high stimulus spaces are best experienced within simple architecture, this is where key withdrawal spaces are located in both public spaces and corridors while remaining slightly hidden from sight lines. Their proportions and surface treatments would allow residents to better identify them, with framed views for sensory control. This is also where intimacy is almost always malleable, with heavy curtains and movable panels for the temporarily closing and opening of spaces.

Transition spaces — Far from accidental, these become highly considered spaces where architectural design is as simple as possible. Corridors to quieter areas are subtle while active spaces are more dynamic, speaking a visual language that clearly identifies transitions to domesticity with materials and lighting that emphasize a spatial logic. They act as buffer zones that ease sensorial transitions, whether it is from exterior to interior temperatures, from the intensity of climbing stairs to sitting down, or moving from intimate living rooms to lively dining rooms.

Exterior spaces — With their high degree of stimuli, softer landscape design approaches are best, with details such as rounded path shapes and subtle tree species alongside access to calming water. These spaces can also control social interactions between public and private spheres, with bushes and larger trees in between neighbors and parking lots forming deliberate separations between exterior noise and liveliness while still promoting proximity to the neighborhood for pleasant and social lifestyles.

Redefining space through inclusivity

Our research looks at a new paradigm for the design of living environments, where the senses are brought forward in adaptive and inclusive spaces that support physical independence, providing a framework for the design of different typologies of residential living environments.

This is where architecture becomes a sensory parkour, helping users respond to their physical environment in clear sensory ways where applied research becomes design principles to quickly create residences through reused structures or the creation of new ones. These principles in turn become fundamental ideas that inform how architecture can respond to issues in cognition with haptically-based design approaches and methods.

This is where design can be a form of greater wellness, an opportunity to communicate broader issues surrounding inclusionary design and its overarching impact on both private and public spaces—where transdisciplinary methodologies can redefine the pre-programmatic design processes that came before it.

See the design aims, strategies and goals of Sensory Fragments’ spatial and sequential spaces. 

If you wish to donate to the Fondation Yvon Lamarre, volunteer your time, or seek further education on persons living with ID and ASD, visit the Fondation’s website.