TG Escapes Blog

Could Biophilic Modular Buildings Benefit Autistic People?

by Mark Brown | Jun 7, 2024 | Education

TG Escapes is proud to be exhibiting at the 2024 Autism Show in London from the 14th to the 15th of June. We’ll be able to talk you through the many amazing projects we’ve worked on for autistic pupils and broader SEND needs. We’re also thrilled to see several schools we’ve worked with are also exhibiting, like St Joseph’s Specialist Trust and Swalcliffe Park School.

In educational buildings, biophilic design principles can create a soothing backdrop that enhances well-being and engagement. TG Escapes has championed the integration of biophilic design across all environments, creating spaces that mirror the calming effects of the natural world, which is especially beneficial for those with sensory challenges. 

We have long sought to incorporate biophilic designs within our Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) projects, designing spaces that foster comfort and connectivity to nature. A growing body of research supports this approach, showing that elements of nature can significantly alleviate stress and enhance focus for the neurodivergent, making them invaluable across various settings.

Photo of St Josephs interior SEND classroom

How traditional spaces fail the neurodivergent

Conventional architectural design often overlooks the unique sensory needs of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), inadvertently creating environments that can intensify distress and hinder day-to-day life. Traditional room setups can fail to accommodate the heightened sensory sensitivities many with ASD experience, which include hyper or hypo-reactivity to sensory inputs such as touch, sound, and sight. This can make common environments overwhelming and uncomfortable for those with ASD, leading to increased anxiety and decreased ability to focus or function effectively.

The distress caused by minor alterations in their environment or deviations from expected patterns can be profound, affecting their ability to adapt to or feel comfortable in these spaces. Standard designs rarely consider the need for such consistency, nor do they typically feature the kind of controlled, adaptable settings that could support better executive functioning - crucial for managing unexpected changes.

This oversight extends into educational spaces, where the standard classroom can become a particularly challenging environment for autistic students. The often busy, unpredictable nature of traditional school settings can make learning exceptionally difficult for these students, showing the importance of a shift towards more autism-friendly architectural practices.

What is biophilic design?

Biophilic design looks to integrate nature into buildings, reconnecting humans to their original habitat and making them more comfortable and engaged. This concept, popularised by biologist E.O. Wilson in the 1980s, suggests an innate human affinity towards nature that has been dulled by the rise of industrial and urban settings. 

Biophilic architecture seeks to restore this connection by incorporating elements such as natural materials, expansive windows for sunlight, and direct access to outdoor environments. This approach not only enhances the aesthetics of a space but is proven to improve mental health and increase productivity, fostering a serene atmosphere for users.

Biophilic modular timber frame building

How is biophilic design implemented?

There are many different approaches to biophilic design, from the beautiful gardens of the Barbican Centre to the ringed design of Apple Park overlooking a huge woodland. 

At TG Escapes, we produce a range of bespoke biophilic buildings, primarily for education, and our team looks to incorporate direct and indirect connections to nature at every opportunity. Here are some of the design considerations and structural additions we make:

  • Prioritising natural light: We use expansive windows, skylights, and sun pipes to maximise natural light in each modular classroom, allowing interiors to be illuminated with natural light.
  • Access to the outdoors: Our team prioritise easy access to outdoor spaces, with features like direct access to decking from classrooms and outdoor walkways. Within schools, outdoor classrooms can also be a fantastic addition.
  • Views of nature: Whenever possible we orient our buildings to offer views of gardens, trees, and landscapes. Interestingly, even photos of nature have been shown to offer benefits. Murals are another alternative that can be incorporated into buildings.
  • Ventilation: We use advanced MVHR (Mechanical Ventilation and Heat Recovery) systems to ensure a flow of clean, fresh air.
  • Natural building materials: Our modular classrooms and commercial buildings are built around timber frames, with all wood coming from sustainably managed forests.
  • Living roofs: Green roofs provide additional nature views and contribute to sustainability.
  • Wildlife habitats: We integrate biodiversity features like bird and bat boxes, alongside insect hotels to help enrich the local ecosystem and provide educational opportunities.

Alongside our commitments to biophilic design, we also prioritise sustainability, specifying every building we produce to meet net zero in operation as standard.

How can biophilic design benefit those with autism?

Biophilic design can be used to help create supportive environments for neurodivergent individuals, particularly those with autism. Integrating natural elements into architectural designs can help to reduce sensory overload, with natural lighting, airflow variability, and access to green spaces helping to mitigate the overwhelming impacts of traditional settings.

For neurodivergent individuals, the consistent and calming presence of nature within their daily environments can significantly enhance social interactions and emotional well-being. Natural light reduces reliance on harsh artificial lighting which can be distressing for those with autism.

Similarly, materials with natural textures and patterns mimic the calming effect of the natural world, avoiding repetitive disruptive patterns that can cause discomfort or confusion. These design strategies not only make spaces more accessible for those with autism but also enhance the overall aesthetic and functionality, creating environments where neurodivergent individuals can thrive.

A biophilic building for St Joseph's school

Research on the relationship between biophilia and autism

There are a range of studies looking at how nature affects children and young people with autism. While more research into specific biophilic spaces is needed, there is already a compelling case to be made for utilising these techniques within SEND schools. Our team has seen firsthand the subconscious impact of biophilic spaces in terms of mood and behaviour. 

An exciting research project is also underway titled “Autism and Biophilia: The impact of natural scenes on anxiety”, a collaboration between the University of East Anglia, Asperger’s East Anglia, and SyncVR. This study will look at the effects of biophilia on autistic individuals and explore the efficacy of biophilic therapy on anxiety and overall well-being.

A biophilic performing arts studio for autistic people

Our performing arts space for autistic students at Swalcliffe Park School

Biophilia within schools

TG Escapes offers a turnkey design and build service to schools across the UK, with an increasing focus on SEND provisions, including those specifically tailored to autistic pupils. We believe that our attractive, natural, and healthy buildings provide a range of benefits to both students and staff.

Here are a few of our favourite SEND projects from recent years:

  • Performing Arts Studio at Swalcliffe Park School: We worked with Swalcliffe Park, a day and residential school for boys with autism, on a bespoke performing arts space. Staff praised the building for complementing their existing spaces and giving pupils a space to make as much noise as they wanted.
  • Enterprise Centre at St Joseph’s: We designed and built a workshop catering to young adults with complex and severe learning difficulties. It was net zero in operation, and staff told us that the biggest benefits were the “natural light and energy features, adaptable spaces and easy access to the outside”.
  • Post 16 SEND Provision at Sir Charles Parsons: This net zero modular project contained 4 classrooms, each designed for young people with a range of SEND needs. Pete Trumper from Newcastle City Council said “Staff, parents and students love the two buildings. They love the space and the crisp freshness of their appearance. They are very highly regarded. The more organic materials, particularly the timber, does link in with the biophilic agenda that we want to embrace.”

If you’d like to know more about our work with SEND schools or the range of biophilic modular buildings we can produce, speak to a member of our team today.

Tags: ASD | SEMH | SEN | SEND

About the author

Mark Brown
Consultant at TG Escapes - Mark has spent time growing up with the army, studying computing before the internet existed, and founding The London Classic Theatre Company, self sustaining for over 25 years. He trained in marketing with Unilever before moving into advertising as a strategist with Leo Burnett, Creative Director at Starcom and founder of award winning creative agency Weapon7. He has a passion for eco buildings and helps run the social enterprise Street Wisdom, providing free creative walkshops around the world.

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