multisensory architecture accessible design

Multisensory Architecture in Accessible Design

Selis Manor is an apartment block for the blind. The residents can negotiate the corridors to find the lift. It is indicated by a bumpy stretch of small, glass tiles. When in the building’s patio garden just past the lobby in spring, the fragrances of Himalayan Sweet Box flowers planted along the perimeter will pull them from one part of the space to another.

“Finding a point of interest is important for us”, says one resident. “Sighted people still don’t get that if you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.”

multisensory architecture accessible design brailleIn 1991, Al Pacino spent 3 days at the Selis Manor learning how to be blind for his role in the film “Scent of a Woman“. If Mr Pacino were to visit now, he would leave with a profoundly different impression of how tenants interact with the building.

In 2016, a team of designers renovated the complex with structural, textural, and olfactory updates – not just visual ones.


The update is part of a broader trend towards multisensory architecture.

It means work which considers a building’s acoustics, lighting, tactility and smell.

A number of firms, including SpaceShapers Architects, have started to prioritise the needs of people with a wide range of sensory abilities. In doing so, they embrace the vision’s neglected sibling senses.

Increasingly, people need more from the spaces they occupy. According to an American study from 2016, 94% of those between the ages of 57-85 had some kind of sensory disability. Furthermore, most suffered from impairments to at least 2 of the 5 senses. As people now live much longer lives, the numbers will climb: the World Health Organisation predicts that the number of people with hearing disabilities will double by 2050.

We, as a practice, see the demand for disabled and accessible building design rising.

Clients themselves have sensory difficulties and disabilities of varying degrees. It is our job to meet the needs of the overall community in particular for public buildings.

Designers are now trying to catch up. Chris Downey, a blind architect who contributed to the Selis Manor renovation, was invited in 2015 to consult for a project to design a sustainability pavilion, which is currently under construction for the World Expo 2020 in Dubai. Mr Downey had to imagine how sensory impaired visitors might walk through the pavilion to challenge their preconceptions. To keep people protected while crossing the pavilion’s bridges, for example, railings were added in. Also, guests could lean into softer, bigger barriers in order to pause and absorb the space around them. The idea converted what was going to be a begrudged concession to safety, into “an enhancement to the whole design”.

multisensory architecture accessible design sound

Another example is in the Wyoming School for the Deaf, where featured classrooms are shaped like pentagons and octagons instead of rectangles. In fact, more sides allowed students to better form a circle around the teacher as he signed lessons to them.

In the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind, administrators worked with local architects to improve its rebuilt form. They created

  • wider hallways to help sign-language users communicate while walking,
  • carpeted the floors and walls to soften distracting noises for the blind,
  • and attached shades to the windows to reduce glare.

These two schools were revolutionary in their attention to sensory detail.

The biggest leap in the accessible and sensory design development only happened relatively recently, in 2006.

That year, Mr Bauman established the DeafSpace Project at Gallaudet to work out over 150 guidelines on how to design with the deaf in mind. DeafSpace started to make an impact in 2015. That year, Gallaudet launched an international competition that challenged architects including SpaceShapers to grapple with the concept behind the project. The result was a way of observing the world through a different lens. People must think not just about how a building looks. They also have to consider how it feels, and how its spaces accommodate deaf users.

That perspective became critical to the careers of hundreds of disabled and sensory impaired people. However, we still await its implementation into our UK Building Regulations for accessible and disabled design (Part M).

The beauty that you can stroke or sniff will be a positive influence not just on the blind and deaf.

Here at SpaceShapers Architects, we are taking this development in design very seriously.

In particular, our community, sports and commercial building sectors must be fully accessible to a wide variety of users through to retirement ages. As accessible designers, our clients are actively encouraging accessible design in order to meet the overall community requirements for their buildings.

Our role as Architects is to facilitate good accessible design to meet the client’s requirements.

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