How Designing A Neurodiverse Workplace May Affect Building Product Manufacturers

Posted On: 
Jan 1, 2020
Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity is a concept where neurological differences are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation. For many people on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD), neurodiversity is a concept and social movement that advocates for viewing autism as a variation of human wiring, rather than a disease. Neurodiversity is an umbrella term for people who aren’t neurotypical and includes not only autism but also attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia and Tourette syndrome, among others.

Approximately 15-20 percent of people are “neurodivergent.” Neurodiversity also includes neurological challenges resulting from brain injuries or environmental causes. Because of widespread under- diagnosis, perhaps more than half of those on what are considered neurodiverse areas of the continuum don’t even know it.

HOK has released a comprehensive report entitled Designing a Neurodiverse Workplace. The theme of the report is that instead of designing buildings with a one size fits all approach, AEC firms should use inclusive design to create a more welcoming space for those who are neurodiverse. According to the University of Cambridge, inclusive design focuses on the diversity of people and the impact of this on design decisions.

The HOK report states that Neurodiverse thinkers often possess exceptional talents when it comes to innovation, creative storytelling, empathy, design thinking, pattern recognition, coding and problem solving. Companies like Google, IBM, Microsoft, and others try to recruit neurodiverse talent for their offices. In fact, several prominent companies conduct annual summits to discuss the importance of an inclusive office culture.

Challenges Of Traditional Workplaces

Traditional workplaces may present obstacles for neurodiverse employees such as concentration issues, distractions, regulating emotions, recalling information, communicating effectively. Solutions for workplaces may include noise cancelling headphones, reducing lights or screen brightness, providing access to supportive software, and allowing breaks for a change of pace.

HOK’s workplace teams have been researching how design can help generate and sustain a culture of diversity and inclusivity. What they learned is that design can help remove barriers, improve access to opportunities, and promote success. In addition, to well thought out design, building materials also play a crucial role in creating a neurodiverse workspace.

One of the biggest workplace obstacles for neurodiverse employees is sensitivity to lighting, sound, texture, smells, hot, cold, and sense of personal space. Researchers discovered that these sensitivities impact: spatial character, acoustic quality, thermal comfort, lighting and degree of stimulation.

Spatial Organization

Through in-depth research, HOK and its partners found that the workplace should be easy to navigate, predictable, and have clear boundaries. Focal points and variations in lighting levels should be considered as well as the type of building materials, lighting and signage. Some areas should be open for socialization while others should provide a buffer from noise and distractions. Designers should ask themselves what would it be like if they were designing a space if they had difficulty with too much light, loud noises, sensitivity to touch, and challenges reading.

Acoustic Quality

The everyday sounds of most offices can have a negative effect on a neurodiverse employee. Phone calls, computers, printers, loud conversations, and other distractions can make it difficult for team members to concentrate. Effective acoustic design that may include sound masking or white noise system can be critical for some spaces. Product manufacturers of acoustical treatment products should research neurodiversity in greater detail to see how their products may integrate more effectively into a project.

Thermal Comfort

Thermal Comfort is a critical aspect of LEED v4 in addition to creating a positive workspace for neurodiverse staff. Researchers have found that thermal comfort has a significant impact on productivity. Solutions for offices include individual temperature controls, such as an operable window or air diffuser, so that tam members can control their thermal environment. Additional strategies include improving the performance of the building envelope and designing thermally varied places.

Lighting

Lighting can have a major effect on a neurodiverse employee. Fluorescent fixtures which can have a distracting flicker and buzz may affect some neurodiverse team members. Studies have shown that dimming lights, changing the light colors, and allowing access to daylight can improve worker productivity. Both LEED and WELL have requirements that promote effective lighting design. Lighting manufacturers would be wise to be well versed in LEED and WELL credits related to their products and be informed of the latest research.

Degree of Stimulation

Visual clutter, overwhelming colors, extreme patterns, and natural elements can all have an effect on neurodiverse employees. Designing options for employees to control the degree of sensory stimulation in their surroundings is an important aspect of inclusive design. Organic patterns, blue and green colors, and natural elements such as tricking water or vegetation can provide relief to people. Building products based on biophilic design are more likely to be specified for these projects.

Sensitivity to smells, chemicals, and VOCs can affect neurodiverse team members. A well- ventilated workspace is crucial. In addition, specifying building materials that have zero or low VOCs is important. Products that have Health Product Declarations (HPDs) have a better chance of getting specified since design professionals can evaluate potential hazards, VOC emissions testing, and the ingredient inventory.

Design Strategies

HOK’s team has outlined several design strategies for neurodiverse workplaces. Project teams should design a multitude of spaces that are for socializing and others that are semi-private. Quiet rooms should be included in the design. Teams should specify acoustic dampening materials around loud equipment or noisy areas to alleviate crossover sounds. There should be easy access to daylight and natural elements. Designers should avoid chaotic color combinations and patterns. Also, there should be wayfinding cues used throughout the office.

Building product manufacturers who want to participate in these projects should actively be engaged in this field. If your company has a sustainability champion or “LEED expert”, they should integrate neurodiversity into their continuing education. LEED v4 and WELL already include many strategies to address some of these design issues, but definitely not all of them. It is important to note that there is no single solution for designing a space that will please everyone.

Design professionals, manufacturers, and consultants are encouraged to read HOK’s report and dig into this important topic further. Design for neurodiversity offices andthe growing movement toward design for healthy buildings suggests that the benefits of a more inclusive workplace apply to the entire population. Has your company worked on a neurodiverse workplace? What were the challenges you faced?

For more information or to discuss the topic of this blog, please call Brad Blank at 360-727-3528.