The designed environment

This article was first published in Facility Perspectives Vol. 16 No. 4, 2022.

Sensory engagement with our world informs how comfortable we feel within our built environment. In the workplace we are constantly receptive and interacting, either positively or negatively, with sensory (i.e., visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile) information – including conversations with co-workers; the background noise of overheard phone calls, the clacking of keyboards, and the noise and vibrations of large printers; the brightness of a computer screen or sunlight coming through a nearby window; people walking past desks and visitors popping in and out of the office; smells from the communal kitchen and coffee pots; and the texture and comfort of desk chairs.

Our wellbeing in the workplace is impacted by whether the built environment anticipates and meets our sensory needs.

Built environments have historically been, and still typically are, designed to meet the needs of neurotypical employees (and other neurotypical users), thus failing to meet the needs of a neurodiverse person.

‘Neurodiversity’ was coined as a term by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in her 1998 sociology honours thesis to promote equality and inclusion of people with neurological conditions, who process information in different ways to neurotypical individuals. It is estimated that around 18 per cent of the population in Australia is neurodivergent.¹ Dr Nicole Baumer and Dr Julia Frueh describe neurodiversity as the diversity of people, and the diverse ways people interact and experience the world - with no ‘right’ way of experience, and for differences to be embraced and not classified as deficits.²

Neurodiversity covers a range of neurological or developmental conditions such as (but not limited to) anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, epilepsy, obsessive compulsive disorder, and sensory processing disorder (SPD). Neurological conditions can have a significant impact on people’s lives, including their language, emotion, attention, memory, organisation and planning skills, sensation, perception, and coordination.³ In the 2021 Australian census, 1.46 million people (or 5.8% of the population) identified as requiring assistance with core activities, including self-care, communication, and/or mobility.⁴ Meanwhile, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates that one in six Australians, or 4.4 million people, are living with disability.⁵ While this data doesn’t include a breakdown of physical, intellectual, or neurological conditions, the numbers speak to the significant percentage of our population whose interaction and engagement with their environment may be affected by their disability.

Neurodiversity research and education are important for guiding built environment designers in designing workplaces, alongside other built environments, to be inclusive to both neurotypical and neurodiverse populations. By ignoring the needs of neurodiverse individuals, workplaces set themselves up to be avoided by prospective neurodiverse employees who would otherwise benefit companies with their skills, intelligence, and productivity.

This is an important social issue, as neurodiverse individuals tend to fall into the same category of people with disability who are over-represented in unemployment figures. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 10 per cent of employed working-aged people with disability, such as neurodiverse individuals, are underemployed, compared to 6.9 per cent of people without disability. Working-aged people with disability are also twice as likely to be unemployed (10 per cent) than those without disability (4.6 per cent), with teenagers and young adults (15-24 years) more than twice as likely to be unemployed (25 per cent) than older people (25-64 years: 7.9 per cent).⁶

How we design built environments to be more inclusive and responsive to sensory comfort may have a positive social impact on greater comfort in workplaces, as well as increased employment participation, which then leads to improved mental health.

By designing a workplace that meets the needs of neurodiverse employees and visitors, companies can attract a larger, more diverse employee pool - especially individuals over-represented in underemployment and unemployment statistics - by offering them a comfortable work environment that anticipates their physical and mental needs.

As architects and designers, we should be concerned with how senses are engaged in the built environment. By understanding how people engage and process their senses to environmental stimulation, designers can incorporate sensory design into workplaces to facilitate inclusivity and comfort for all users. Therefore, built environment design that is comfortable and inclusive, and enables users to regulate their environment stimulation, will benefit both neurodiverse and neurotypical individuals.

For instance, consider people with SPD. SPD can affect one or more senses: sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch, vestibular, and proprioception. According to Winnie Dunn, author of Living Sensationally: Understanding Your Senses, people with SPD experience their world as either hypersensitive or hyposensitive.⁷ These two categories each have two sub-categories that describe how people regulate their responses to environmental stimulation - hypersensitive individuals may be ‘avoiders’ or ‘sensors’, while hyposensitive individuals may be ‘seekers’ or ‘bystanders’. Avoiders and sensors actively regulate their environment, while bystanders and seekers passively regulate.

It is important to note that individuals may fluctuate between being over-reactive and under-reactive, which can impact the optimal level of attention, focus, and concentration.⁸ Design that considers individuals with SPD should encourage choice; a one-size-fits-all approach for built environment design is not appropriate, as individual people will respond to sensory stimuli in different ways. Therefore, workplaces should be multimodal to facilitate comfort-based working - whereby an individual can voluntarily move between high-intensity sensory environments and low-intensity sensory environments, as determined by their level of sensory comfort.

Designers should consider the impact of built environment design choices that may affect one’s tolerance to sensory experiences. These choices can include the brightness and placement of lights and windows; application of colour, patterns, textures, materials and artwork; layout, navigation, and pathways; the intersection of communal and work areas; devices that emit odours and noise; indoor air quality; temperature; open, collaborative zones; and areas for enclosed, quiet zones. Sensory design interventions can take various forms and be informed by the needs of the individuals within the workplace. Co-design is a good way to know what interventions can be considered. Active collaboration with neurodiverse individuals throughout the design process will allow designers to make informed sensory design decisions. Examples of sensory design interventions include focus rooms to give people control over their exposure to acoustic and visual stimulation, and visual landmarks to help people navigate space, especially in high-traffic zones.

By involving architects and designers in researching neurodiversity and collaborating with neurodiverse individuals, designers have the potential to develop an approach to built environment design through a sensory lens. This creates built environments, including workplaces, that facilitate the inclusion and comfort of all people, both neurotypical and neurodiverse. Co-design should be prioritised to include neurodiverse individuals and other stakeholders in the design process, so that built environment designers can include sensory design components/interventions that meet the needs of the end users. The key to providing accessible and inclusive design is providing the user with choice and control over their environment. This can be achieved through a diversity of settings (collaborative or individual) with a minimum of two sensory modes (high-intensity and low-intensity). Ultimately, the aim of raising awareness about neurodiversity through research is to create a physical and social environment in which neurodiverse people are accepted for who they are, and for individuals to feel comfortable and safe to ‘come out’ as neurodiverse.

1 Beetham, Janette and Leyla Okhai. 2017. ‘Workplace Dyslexia & Specific Learning Difficulties - Productivity, Engagement and Well-being.’ Open Journal of Social Sciences. 05. 56-78. 10.4236/JSS.2017.56007

2 Baumer (MD Med), Nicole, and Julia Frueh (MD) 2021. ‘What is Neurodiversity?’ Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. November 23, 2021.

3 Australian Psychological Society. 2020. ‘Neurological Disorders | APS.’ 2020.

4 Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2022. ‘Profile of People with a Core Need for Assistance in Australia | Australian Bureau of Statistics.’ July 29, 2022.

5 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 2022. “People with Disability in Australian 2022.” Australian Government.

6 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare et al.

7 Winnie Dunn. 2009. Living Sensationally, Understanding Your Senses. 1st ed. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

8 Winnie Dunn et al.

Sonja Duric, Director | Interiors Portfolio Leader

Sonja Duric, Director | Interiors Portfolio Leader

Sonja is Director at Hames Sharley. Her 20+ years of experience has focused on the psychology of space through creative design outcomes within the built environment. Sonja brings a recognized capability for facilitating galvanized consensus amongst diverse stakeholders. She has a passion for research and evidence-based design.

Sonja is leading the research team investigating neurodiversity and mental health and how, as designers, we can adapt our built environments through sensory design interventions to enable success and inclusion.

Talia Uylaki, Archivist & Researcher

Talia Uylaki, Archivist & Researcher

Talia is a Researcher and Archivist at Hames Sharley. She has a passion for research and writing, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English, Bachelor of Arts Honours in Creative Writing from Flinders University, and a Graduate Degree in Information Management (Library and Information Management) from the University of South Australia. At Hames Sharley, she has contributed to numerous articles and research papers as author, co-author, and editor.

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