Student research: Better design for the neurodiverse

PSU architecture students meet with employees at Relay Resources.

When PSU graduate architecture students Eric Giovannetti, Kaleb Huerta and Brianna Montes were assigned to work with SRG Partnership in their Advanced Architectural Technology course, they expected to be doing architectural research for the Seattle-based firm, which would be implemented in real-world building projects. As it turned out, SRG needed in-depth information about a specific topic that they wanted to be able to incorporate into their practice: architectural design of spaces for neurodiverse individuals.

In order to learn all they could about how neurodiverse people experience the world, the students located a partner to help them do some field research. They didn’t have to go far—all they had to do was look to the folks who provide janitorial services in the buildings on campus.

For day-to-day cleaning across its many buildings, Portland State contracts with Relay Resources, a nonprofit that provides meaningful work for individuals with disabilities — including a number of employees who are neurodiverse.

As part of their research, the students visited the Relay Resources campus in Northeast Portland in December and talked with employees about their experiences in work environments, the obstacles and challenges they face, and what improvements could be made in order to make their experiences better.

PSU architecture students talk with Relay Resources

A relatively new concept that’s still being explored in the design world, neurodiversity refers to the unique ways that individuals experience their environment.

I’m interested in advancing the conversation about neurodiversity. There can be a stigma about being sensitive to things in one’s environment. In the process of designing spaces with neurodiversity in mind, we also get to talk about these issues and hopefully remove some of that stigma.

— Architecture student Eric Giovanetti

“Neurodiversity is the idea that each of us has a unique brain and body with which we experience the world. Each of us is more or less sensitive to different events around us,” said Brianna Montes, articulating the team’s research premise during a final presentation on campus in December.

In their research, the students explored the prevalence of neurodiversity in society, considering the estimated 5% of the population with ADHD, the 2% with autism, and the many others with some form of depression, anxiety, and sensory processing differences. The recommendations they made in their presentation, and the toolkit they prepared for SRG, included considerations like limiting glare, designing a space without excessive noise, providing a variety of spaces and avoiding congestion points within the layout. They made general design recommendations for a whole building, in addition to suggestions for selective spaces like rest areas and private meeting rooms, and for specific rooms that would provide a comprehensive sensory retreat.

“The biggest thing we’ve learned is that our research has affirmed our hypothesis about working with neurodiverse people — that these design elements are good for everyone,” said Eric Giovannetti. “ Neurodiverse people experience the effects of their environment more acutely than those who are neurotypical, but when environments are designed with these sensitivities in mind, everyone benefits.”

Giovannetti said that he plans to continue to work on the topic, exploring different aspects of design for the neurodiverse and for therapeutics spaces, potentially as a graduate thesis topic next year.

“I’m interested in advancing the conversation about neurodiversity,” said Giovannetti. “There can be a stigma about being sensitive to things in one’s environment. In the process of designing spaces with neurodiversity in mind, we also get to talk about these issues and hopefully remove some of that stigma.”

Architecture students visit Relay Resources.

For Relay Resources, the project gave the nonprofit some new insight into how to design spaces for a core part of their workforce.

“We’re always happy to find new ways to partner with Portland State and in this case, we had the benefit of learning how some changes to our space could make life easier for many of our employees,” said Tiffini Mueller, Relay Resources’s vice president of community engagement.



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